Marriage is a legal, financial, and reproductive arrangement, as well as often times a religious one, so marriage customs and laws can be complicated. Marriage customs around the world are becoming more homogeneous, but historically there has been fascinating, and dreadful, variation. Vice News aired a story just last year about Bulgaria where girls, even teenagers, still get sold at a yearly bride market. In a strangely creepy way I’m reminded of the Disney movie Mulan while researching about marriage customs: one song has women singing “a girl can bring her family great honor in one way…” In many cultures throughout history girls were, and still are, particularly pressured to focus on advantageous marriages and embrace the role of mother as their main occupation.
In many societies marriage customs vary according to which religions are practiced by the couple. Ancient Rome is an example of a society that developed a complex legal system apart from religious practices, so marriage followed a clear legal process with only some religious symbolism. China, vast as it is, continues today to have a less religious and more practical and traditional process towards marriage. Hindu marriage customs are steeped in symbolic actions that trace back to ancient religious practices; the majority of marriages in India follow a Hindu ceremony. Many Southeast Asian countries have complex ceremonies unique to local cultures where combinations of hinduism, buddhism, christianity and animism abound. All Jewish weddings follow a symbolic and traditional ceremony and most couples display their beautiful marriage contract, or ketubah, in their homes. Of the 49 majority muslim countries marriage customs vary by culture but tend to follow Islamic laws.
In ancient Rome citizens followed a detailed set of laws. Marriage was one man and one woman, and monogamy was practiced. Divorce was allowed under the maxim “matrimonia debent esse libera” or “marriages ought to be free.” Roman women kept their birth names into marriage, and remained independent legally of their husbands, but family households were under the man’s control and daughters traditionally followed their father’s choice for their marriage. Legally a Roman marriage couldn’t take place without consent of both parties, and if daughters could prove a betrothed was of bad character she could refuse a match without disapproval. In many ways Roman women had freedoms denied women of other ancient, and even modern, societies. Same-sex marriages were not common in ancient Rome, though there’s evidence of at lease two emperors having marriages with other men. Homosexuality was culturally accepted as long as men practiced the dominant role (acceptable partners included slaves and prostitutes) and it wasn’t until the Christian Emporers of the 4th century that laws were created against same-sex marriages.
In China, matchmakers set up couples of similar family status. The Ancient Chinese custom of a matchmaker is still present in some Chinese communities today. Due to the size and diversity of China marriages can be arranged very differently, but since about 300 B.C there have been some overarching customs for the majority of Chinese couples. Six steps toward marriage take place: proposing, when the boy’s family invite the matchmaker to join them in approaching a girl’s family; birthday matching, making sure the couple’s Zodiac signs are compatible; presenting betrothal gifts; presenting wedding gifts; setting the wedding date; and then the wedding ceremony (before which the girl’s dowry would be given to the boy’s family). For centuries Chinese dynasties allowed no-fault divorce; under modern governments the legalities of divorce fluctuated until settling with no-fault divorce – an important result for women who had less legal means for getting a divorce in most modern societies until recently. (Fun fact about Chinese weddings: the bride wears red – the color for good luck in China.) China considers itself less liberal than Europeans on many social issues and has not allowed same-sex marriage, yet.
Read “The White Princess” to experience some history of European politics of marriage. In medieval Europe many marriages were arranged for political or monetary reasons, and marriages between different classes were scorned. With limited people that were “of equal station” to noble families it’s a little disturbing how cousins married cousins and inbreeding to an extent was quite normal. The pope would provide marriage dispensations for nobility with certain degrees of consanguinity; this is one way the Catholic Church kept a finger on the politics of Europe. Noble women often had less choice and were betrothed and married younger than men (between 12-15, versus early 20’s), and women almost always lost control of any property they inherited to their husbands. Because of the prevalence of the manor system in Europe, lower class peasants and serfs needed approval from the lords and landowners and often had to wait for a small farm to become available before they could marry and produce children. Though most countries in Europe include elements of a Christian wedding, different denominations and local traditions make ceremonies highly varied.
According to Islamic law marriage is following the Prophet’s tradition, and celibacy or monasticism is not encouraged. In Islam boys are acknowledged as reaching past puberty at 15, but physical readiness is not enough for marriage. The concept of Rushd must be fulfilled by both man and woman before they are ready for marriage, which can be translated to mean maturity, implying that sensible conduct is necessary before marriage can take place. Islam forbids marriage between close relatives, but not between cousins. Because the word for marriage, Nikah, literally means “sexual intercourse” Islamic law outlines appropriate behavior for the bedroom as well as the legal contract and ceremony. Some teachings specify good times for sex: Sunday night, Monday night, Wednesday night, Thursday noon, Thursday night, Friday evening, and whenever the wife wants to have sex. Islam’s approach to birth control allows women to prevent pregnancy but forbids them to terminate it, and women may use birth control but not ask their husband to use birth control that interferes with his pleasure (such as a condom.) Islam allows women to choose whether or not to get pregnant, as bearing children is not a requirement of the marriage contract. This is more modern than some Christian denominations that are opposed to all methods of birth control.