Christianity was born into a greco-roman world, and the first Christians accepted the structure of Roman marriage. Marriage was monogamous and heterosexual, but divorce was possible and the husband might have a concubine before marriage. Marriage and procreation were considered civic requirements, and Augustus found it necessary to legislate marriage for Roman citizens.
By the time of Imperial Rome, marriage was relatively fair to women, who were able to control their property and most aspects of their life. In light of this, it’s probably not surprising that rich wives and widows were able to contribute financially to the early church, and that some women could preach and lead rituals.
After the fall of Rome, the Church spread Roman marriage customs to the Goths, Franks and other European tribes. The tribal practices usually allowed polygamy and treated women as property who could be purchased. By the 6th or 7th century, the Christian Church was able to exert enough cultural pressure to bring the tribes into line.
Pullquote: I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins.
As Christianity grew in influence it made numerous changes to the institution of marriage. However, Christianity had developed two different traditions on marriage. One regarded marriage as an important institution with theological significance, whereas Roman marriage had been entirely a private and civil affair. Divorce was all but abolished, and the church began to assert influence to prevent marriages that were “illegitimate” (between relatives, etc.) The church began to place “banns” (notices), inviting anyone with reasons why the marriage should not be permitted to step forward. Despite all this, it wasn’t until the 12th century that the wedding became a church ritual.
The other tradition emphasized virginity and sexual abstinence. In conflict with the first tradition, marriage was a second-rate institution for those who could not handle celibacy. The seeds of this tradition can be seen in St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Cor. 7:8-9, RSV) Celibacy was the ideal, but marriage was a compromise for those who couldn’t live up to it.
Others went farther that Paul. Many of the Church fathers made it clear that marriage was only acceptable because it created a legitimate way of producing offspring. St. Jerome, author of the first Latin bible, summed it up:
“I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell.” (Letter to Eustochium, 20)
The Fall of Woman
Pullquote: The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree.
All too often this emphasis on celibacy changed into extreme misogyny. Many church fathers blamed women for the feelings they brought about in men, and so women became the enemy. The ranks of these misogynists include the best and brightest, like Origen, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, and of course St. Augustine. Tertullian, never subtle, let women have it with both barrels:
“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die.” (On The Apparel of Women, Book 1, Chpt 1)
These two traditions go back and forth throughout western history. It produced profoundly mixed feelings about marriage, sex and women in general. Sadly, many of the gains of Roman marriage were lost as the misogyny took hold. While women were not to be considered property, they would lose the right to hold property and were barred from inheriting. Their lives came under the control of their fathers and husbands.
The medieval church praised marriage, but placed many restrictions on conjugal sex, as depicted in the famous Medieval Sex Flow-Chart. The celibate life of the monk was exalted, while the life of the married couple was looked at with suspicion. The religious historian Karen Armstrong believes the line of this can be traced through St. Augstine all the way to Mother Ann Lee, founder of the celibate Shakers.
To modern eyes, the influence of Christianity on the institution of marriage has been mixed. The early church adopted and promoted the model of marriage from Imperial Rome, which was certainly preferable to earlier Roman, Greek or Gothic marriage. It slowly and erratically moved marriage from a civil institution to a sacred one. However, at the same time it denigrated women, marriage and sex while elevating celibacy. The misogyny this created lives on.
Armstrong, Karen. The Gospel According to Women: Christianity’s Creation of the Sex War in the West. 1991.
Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. 2006.
Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.