The Historic Institution of Marriage and its Origins
By Ismail Veli…….
The relationship of humans is the most natural of things. We love, we hate, fight and make up but regardless of who and where we are from every human has a desire to love and be loved in return. Without this basic need most of us would be lost, miserable and tragically the loss of a loved one can even lead to suicide. But why do we need to sign a paper, take an oath and declare our love when it should be taken for granted that wanting to share our lives should for all intents and purposes be accepted. I for one have been married for almost 40 years.
I have no regrets and at this stage in my life I cannot even imagine sharing it with anyone else other than the woman who has stood by me for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. I was curious enough to try and explore the origins of this very important institution called ”Marriage’ or as many in the English language say ‘Tying the knot.
In order to protect lines of descent and ensure children ‘were safely brought up’, the Sumerians established laws concerning marriage well before 2000 BC. Marriage in those days was not as we know it today. love and individual choice was not generally the reason for a unity of two people. Family ties, status and money were very important. The continuity of the blood line was of paramount importance.
The Romans were the first people to introduce a law where the male and female gave consent to a union. This was not always practiced however. The ruling Patrician class (reputed to be the fathers and founders of Rome, hence the word Patrician/father) often arranged marriages for their children in order to advance their political influence. The making or breaking of marriages often led to shifting alliances and sometimes even war.
Early Britons often used the tradition of capturing their wives. When the Anglo Saxons settled in Britain the population and customs were transformed by these powerful and populous people. They considered women as a valuable part and asset of the household, their skill in spinning flax for wool and cloths were much appreciated. In fact the word ‘Spinster’ originates from spinning. Consequently a prospective husband had to pay a lot of money in order to buy what they began to call the term as ‘Wed’. The word literally meant ‘Pledge.’ We still use these phrases after fifteen hundred years……
Weddings in Cyprus in times gone by
The Anglo Saxons finally converted to Christianity but often only visited the church to have their weddings ‘blessed.’ By the time of the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 the custom of a virtual ‘business alliance’ changed to a religious one. In the 16th century this was further consolidated by a Church decree that every impending marriage be announced by a public announcement called ”Bann’ and the final wedding day should be celebrated in church. The alternative to this decree was a private ‘won’ paid special licence which was very expensive. In 1754 the public calling of Banns became a legal requirement, but in practice a ‘Civil law’ still kept the option open to wed by special licence.
Rings have been an enduring practice since time immemorial. The earliest known practice possibly began with the Sumerians around 7-8000 BC. These were shackles that were used to subdue women. The Ancient Greeks may have been the first to actually use rings with inscriptions of love. The Romans used alternatives like two hearts joined by a key. From the 11th century, priests often placed the ring over the tip of the index finger and proclaimed this to be ‘In the name of the father’, then on the second finger ‘In the name of the son’, and finally on the third finger ‘in the name of the Holy Ghost”. In practice wedding rings have been worn on different fingers and as recent as the 18th century some were worn on the thumb.
The tradition of a white wedding dress was not something that was ancient. The first known pure white wedding dress was worn by Anne of Brittany who married the French King Louis XXII in 1499. Strangely Brittany a region of France also gave Great Britain its name. The British Isles being somewhat larger than Brittany was simply called ”Grand Bretagna” (Greater Brittany). The white wedding became very popular during Victorian rule and it became part of British culture which spread like wildfire across the world. As for couples taking their ‘honeymoon’ this seems to have originated in the 1500’s due to the large consumption of ‘honeyed wine’ at weddings. With the progress of time and affordability this was transferred to the custom of taking a holiday called ‘honeymoon’.
A well known term we use in English is ‘Sweetheart’. The origins of this word may have started with a wealthy John Balliol of Barnard Castle. J.Balliol was a very wealthy landowner in the 13th century and he founded Balliol College in Oxford. On his death his wife Devorgilla carried a casket of silver and ivory which contained her husbands embalmed heart. She requested her ‘sweetheart’ be buried beside her at the Cistercian Abbey in Dumfries which came to be called ‘Sweetheart Abbey”.
For some that had difficulty in getting married, the first official marriage bureau was established in London in 1650. Its founder Henry Robinson set into motion a custom that has endured in the form of what we call ‘dating agencies’ and so forth. The first advertisement appearing in a British publication was on 19 July 1693 under the heading of ‘Collection for the improvement of husbandry and trade”. This was for ‘A gentleman about 30 years of age that says he has a very good estate would willingly match himself to some young gentlewoman that has a fortune of £3.000 or thereabouts, and he would make settlement to content.’ The gentleman was clearly wealthy but was not prepared to share with what he considered a poor lady of much less than £3.000 which was an astronomical amount of money in 1693.
In the final analysis the principle of marriage though having seemingly changed dramatically, has in many ways still retained some characteristics of ancient times. Most modern couples often seek someone with whom they have much in common, but when push comes to shove many marriages or couples’ relationships can be made or broken due to financial stress of modern life. As for the many corners of the world, it’s clear that arranging marriages is as old as when the old Sumerians used to shackle their wives. As a result, millions of women are forced into marriages due to their family’s decision of what they consider a ‘good husband’. The untold misery caused in the process is simply too sad to contemplate. Not much honey in that I’m afraid.
A Cypriot wedding in Lurucina in the 1960’s