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Wife Auctions? Why Marriage Has Never Had Any "Sanctity"

Historically marriage has varied widely, from polygamy to the wife-auctions of the 17th century, to the monogamy of today. Which type of marriage again is the one with sanctity?

Kim Kardashian threw a lavish multi million dollar wedding, only to divorce two months later. The gossip has prompted a wave of tweets along the lines of... “tell me again why the sanctity of marriage is threatened by gays?” But I ask, has marriage ever had sanctity?

Whether you grew up getting your ideas about marriage from your family or pop culture, there is a lot of social significance in what marriage means and, historically, a lot to unravel. 


It seems hard to argue that there is any “sanctity” to the institution of marriage. Sure, humans have long been marrying, and according to EJ Graff, scholar and author of the book  What is Marriage For, there are five static reasons: 1. property, 2. kin 3. money 4. order 5. heart. Yet, the types of marriages we see vary greatly, from polygamy to the wife-auctions of the 17th century, to the monogamy of today. Which type of marriage again is the one with sanctity? 


Stephanie Coontz, author of  Marriage a History, also points out the New Testament was somewhat “suspicious of marriage.” “It was considered holier to leave your family and spread the word of God”— apparently being single was a more “sanctified” state than marriage. 


“Marriage has not only varied from culture to culture, but changed over time in the same cultures. Even the biblical tradition of marriage has changed,” says Coontz. “The type of family most mentioned in the first five books of the Old Testament was polygynous — one man with several wives.” At some points in history, if a man had more land, he would take more wives to tend to it. “Commoners took multiple wives if they owned enough property or livestock and needed more female labor. Or, as with the Plains Indians, when they were hunting for the fur trade and killing more animals than they needed for household consumption,” says Coontz in a previous interview with Solidarity-US. It wasn’t just commoners taking multiple wives, but often more elite members of society, who took wives to ensure they had enough heirs. 


While the fact that marriage has never meant the same thing throughout time pokes holes in its “sanctity” the phenomenon of matrimony remains. The only culture Coontz found that didn’t marry was the Na or Mosuo, a small matriarchal society near Tibet. Because Na people don’t marry or live with partners, children are raised by their mothers and mother’s family. 


In her studies, Coontz found some form of marriage in almost all societies. How has marriage spread so far? “The one thing marriage does in every single society is create in-laws. Marriage arose as a way of extending social cooperation between groups: acquiring allies, trading partners and making peace. The Anglo-Saxon word for wife is peace maker,” says Coontz. 


Yet, of course, another gap in the holiness of marriage is the coercion involved. Historically, for the peace making wife, there was little choice. “One can say that women were once chattel” says Marilyn Yalom, author of  History of the Wife, “In Ancient Greece they were ‘gifted’ from their fathers to husbands.” 


In England in the 17th century, wife selling became popular. This was during a time when only the very rich could divorce. The wife sale would be announced in a newspaper, and during the event, the woman would be led around by a rope or ribbon, shown off to the crowd and then sold to the highest bidder. According to E.P. Thompson’s study of the sale of wives, the wife might already be living with her new partner, who would surely be her highest bidder — though she might be subject to bids from complete strangers. Thompson tells of one bargaining where the woman didn’t like the highest bidder, so she and the former husband opted for a lesser bidder. 

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