A Venerable Tradition: The History of Marriage


CC Image courtesy of Robert Cheaib on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of Robert Cheaib on Flickr

The history of marriage has its origins as least as far back as antiquity and evidence of marriage traditions and ceremonies have existed among people of almost all cultures. While today when we think of marriage our thoughts turn to notions of love and romance, this has not always been the case.

The marriage in the earliest times had little to do with notions of romantic love and more to do with survival. It is believed that the earliest weddings were group events, designed to join together different tribes into a larger family to support and protect each other. The practice of paying a dowry to the family of the bride or the groom, which could include land as well as other types of property, has served throughout the history of marriage to ensure property rights among kinship groups.

Rules governing whom one could marry have existed throughout the history of marriage, and religious and civil law have contained restrictions that have limited marriage options, and intermarriage within a kinship group has often been forbidden. Many countries today continue to enforce laws that prohibit marriage between certain relatives.

Throughout the history of marriage, the majority of unions have been arranged, where the parents have selected whom their children will marry. While the tradition continues in some cultures today, most modern marriages are based on romantic love, with couples deciding freely to marry.

Many of the traditions surrounding contemporary weddings can be traced throughout the history of marriage. Wedding rings date as far back as Egyptian society, where the circle symbolized eternity. The Egyptians’ belief that the fourth finger of the left hand was connected to the heart established the tradition of wedding rings being worn on that finger.

The multi-layered, highly decorated cakes that are common today are a recent addition to the wedding ceremony, first becoming popular around the late nineteenth century. They replaced the loaves of bread that were historically broken during the wedding ceremony.

The tradition of bridegrooms in the wedding party is said to have its roots in the era of very early history when a man would rely on his friends to abduct a woman from her family for his bride. The practice of bridegrooms and bridesmaids dressing alike is a long-standing one in the history of marriage, based on the superstition, which holds that evil spirits might wish harm on the couple and the similarity in dress would confuse them.

While we think that white wedding dresses have always been popular, the tradition is a recent one in the history of marriage, with its origins in 1840, when Queen Victoria wore a white gown at her wedding to Prince Albert of Saxe. By the turn of the twentieth century, most brides in western cultures embraced the white wedding dress. Many people of many cultures have embraced ceremonial symbols practiced in ancient wedding ceremonies today. The marriage ceremony in Bali includes the couple eating a dish of yellow rice, a symbol of fertility, and in the West rice is thrown at weddings to wish the couple fertility, prosperity and luck.

Common law marriages, defined as when a couple lives together without obtaining a marriage certificate, have been recognized throughout the history of marriage. Some governments continue to recognize common law marriages after the couple has lived together for a certain amount of time. Most governments today, however, require that couples register their union and obtain some type of marriage certificate as legal proof of their relationship.

So while we can see, while much has changed throughout the history of marriage since ancient times, many of our contemporary traditions have deep historical roots.