Please read THE FIRST PART of this continuing series.
Please read THE THIRD PART of this continuing series.
The Influence of The Church
I’m going to begin my survey more or less at the same time that the first Christian cults appeared, or around 55 CE. However, we need to make some observations about the state of the Mediterranean world before the coming of Christianity, for the sake of comparison, and also so that we can recognize the remnants of previous mythologies in those we still carry with us.
It is often said that we don’t know much about the personal habits of ancient civilizations. This is actually not true. In addition to fictional letters by rhetoricists, personal journals, and random correspondence, we also have a plethora of official records. What all pre-Christian Mediterranean cultures had in common was an almost fetishist obsession with marital and family records. In addition to the relatively reliable personal accounts, we can learn a great deal from studying official records and extrapolating what kinds of behaviors and practices must have been common. Consequently, much of what we know is derived directly from our knowledge of inheritance.
At the risk of over-generalizing, I’m going to point out a few relevant characteristics of the pre-Christian Orient, and contrast them against pre-Christian Europe. In North Africa and the Mediterranean, most areas were predominately patrilineal. That is to say, inheritance was passed down based on the father’s bloodline. However, there was little of what we would recognize as a “traditional family unit.” Though there were husbands, wives, and children, there was also polygamy, and what we would consider adoption was regarded casually in many places. Children belonged not to individual parents, but to the family, or tribe. Our modern sense of parental ownership and obligation to children would have been quite hard for most early Middle-Easterners to understand. Due to a higher rate of mortality, widowhood was not uncommon. In keeping with the tradition of family lands being passed on exclusively within the male lines, it was quite common for widows to marry the brothers or cousins of their dead husbands. The most common, and most culturally favored marriage was with the father’s brother’s daughter. To give a wife to another family bloodline was considered dishonorable. In short, the primary goal of a familial group was the continuance of tribal or family land within the family. Widows, orphans, and the unmarried were not thought of as outcasts, rather they were entitled to the fruits of the tribal land in the same way as those who were married and had children. Widows and the elderly were often guardians – what we might consider surrogates today.*
Lest you think I am painting a rosy picture of pre-Christian western Asia, it should be noted that the strongly patrilineal tradition meant the strict separation of the sexes and the exclusion of women from the public sphere. We can see the same tradition being carried on today in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern theocracies.
In pre-Christian Europe, inheritance was clearly more bilineal, with great importance given to the maternal family and to alliances (arranged marriages). In the Germanic tradition, women clearly played a part in public life, and had limited political authority. Societal honor was tied to the ownership of a title. Whereas Oriental structure was closely linked to familial land and wealth, European structure was derived much more from the concept of rank and honor. Inheritance was still immensely important, but because of the less unilateral approach, there were not the same kinds of strict social rules for in-marriage or against out-marriage. Though we in the Christianized west would feel slightly more comfortable in Europe, we would still not recognize or empathize with many of the concepts of parental obligation or marital bonds.
As we move on to the coming of Christianity, we must recognize two distinct periods. First, Christianity between 55CE and 313CE, when the Edict of Milan was issued. During this time, there are two very important things to remember: Christianity was not a unified religion – it was more properly described as an unrelated group of mystery cults, each having their own savior myth, and each subscribing loosely to a doctrine involving liberation from the Romans. Also, Christianity, regardless of which particular version, was persecuted (sometimes very severely) by the Romans – hence the desire to be liberated.**
During this first period, we don’t see much in the way of Christian influenced legislation regarding sexual or marital practice. How could we? With no governmental authority, and nothing approaching a unified council of leaders, the individual sects were left to eek out their own existence. Apart from the books that would become the bible, and those that were left out but detailed currently defunct cults’ history or beliefs, there is little recorded material. All indications are that marriage and sexuality were largely unaffected by the budding religion. It is interesting to note that what records we do have seem to indicate a penchant for celibacy, but without any way to enforce such a doctrine, it is unlikely that the sects had much luck changing the behavior of those outside their own order.
After the Roman Empire officially converted to Chrisianity, we see an almost immediate flurry of legislation dealing with marriage, inheritance, and sexual practice. In fact, much of what we know of pre-Christian Europe is largely extrapolated from the writings of church officials after Rome’s conversion. As Bede and many other monks complained to Rome of the obstacles they were encountering in their attempts to convert Pagans, we discover much about the way life was before Christianity. Clearly, the most stubborn resistance was offered in defense of that which the pagans held most sacred.
One of the earliest existing replies to such complaints is reputedly from Pope Gregory. In it, he denounces marriage to kin inside the 4th degree of separation. Beyond that, marriage to the stepmother and sister-in-law are also condemned. He encourages marriage between church members, and highly discourages divorce. In the Synod of Hertford in 673 CE, these attitudes become law: “That wedlock alone is permissible; incest is forbidden; and no man may leave his lawful wife except, as the gospel provides, for fornication. And if a man puts away his own wife who is joined to him in lawful marriage, he may not take another if he wishes to be a good Christian. He must either remain as he is, or else be reconciled to his wife.” In addition to prohibitions on divorce and inmarriage, Gregory also condemns wet-nursing.***
The prohibition on inmarriage is curious. Most modern day apologists seem to be of the opinion that the ban on inmarriage stemmed from the growing realization that close biological mating tended to produce sickly or mentally weak offspring. While it is true that this phenomenon was known, it does not explain the extent of the prohibitions. Later laws prohibited marriage as far as the seventh cousin. For perspective, without consulting a family tree, see how many of your seventh cousins you can name. More than that, though, the prohibitions included both sides of the family. In other words, once you were tied by marriage, your in-laws were also prohibited to the fourth, and later the seventh cousin. Though there is some validity to the biological argument, there is obviously another dynamic at work.
To those of us who were raised as Christians, there should already be a certain cognitive dissonance becoming apparent. In the Old Testament, these practices are mentioned numerous times, and often condoned or even commanded by God. Moses, Abraham, David, Solomon, and many other figures engaged in marital and sexual practices that the Church now condemned. The prohibitions on marriage are original features of the Roman Christian church, and indeed run contrary to the Occidental tradition on which Christianity was ostensibly based.
In addition to prohibitions on wet-nursing, in-marriage and divorce, there was another interesting set of legal precedents which at first seem rather progressive. Rome officially sanctioned, and later enforced consent between both marital parties. While this sounds perfectly normal to us today, we must remember that the concept of marriage for love and happiness that we hold so dear did not exist at this time. The requirement of consent had very little to do with romantic love, and virtually everything to do with confining marriages to church members. Over the centuries, many legal precedents were set defining who could and could not give consent. If non-Christians couldn’t consent to a “mixed marriage,” then such marriages would be greatly reduced. It should also be noted that consent was only required in the marriage itself – once a couple was married, affection became completely extraneous, (if indeed it was ever important) as it was impossible to divorce except in very rare circumstances.
Adoption was also banned. Though this may come as quite a surprise, adoption was rarely practiced in Europe during the Middle Ages, and only became relatively common in the 19th and 20th centuries. Again, there are many examples in the bible of adoption, including the story of Moses, one of the most central figures in Jewish lore.
Continuing in its break from tradition, the church also strictly outlawed polygamy, both in marriage and in the practice of concubinage. Only one wife was permitted. If you recall your bible school lessons, you will note that there are quite a few figures, including Solomon, reputedly the wisest man in all of Israel, who had numerous wives, and many concubines. This is representative of the culture, for wealth entitled a man to as many wives as he could afford. In this way, a man’s legacy was ensured, and nothing short of total annihilation would prevent his land and wealth from remaining in the family.
In summary, the most notable, and most influential legislative actions taken by the Roman Church in the first few centuries after its rise to power were:
- Requirement of consent; prohibition of divorce
- Outlawed concubinage
- Outlawed polygamy
- Outlawed wet-nursing
- Outlawed marriage inside of the 4th degree of separation
- Outlawed non-related inmarriage to the same degree
There is one last piece of the puzzle that will bring all of these laws into focus, but I must digress briefly before revealing it. As we look at this list of laws, we must ask ourselves why such drastic changes were made. In order to answer this question correctly, we must remember where Christians had been. For two hundred odd years, they had been persecuted, disenfranchised, and even killed for their beliefs. Before that, the Jews had been captive for many years, and before that, they had been enslaved by the Babylonians and the Egyptians. If we put ourselves in the shoes of the early clergy, it is easy to recognize the fervor with which they exercised their newfound legislative authority. One could hardly blame them for doing everything in their power to make sure that Christians never again would have to suffer the same kinds of indignation. Keep this in the front of your mind as I reveal the last piece of the puzzle – the piece that will explain why the church was so intensely interested in the laity’s marriage and personal habits.
Here it is. The last piece of legislation was this: The church made extensive legal provisions, and then embarked on an intense propaganda campaign encouraging good Christians to leave land to the church in perpetuity. This encouragement took two forms. First, and most important, the Church sanctioned, and later mandated that Christians not leave land to anyone but their blood heirs. If you think about this in context with the other laws, you will see design. Concubinage combined with adoption allows almost certain production of a male heir. With readily available divorce, a man could leave a barren wife to find another. With polygamy and enough wealth, a man could be virtually assured of producing an heir. Taking the high rate of mortality into account, in-marriage provided the same kind of insurance. If a man died before producing an heir, his wife would remain in the family, and the legacy could continue.
Look at this another way. Assuming two births and Medieval mortality rates, an average couple is roughly 20% likely to have two girls, and roughly 20% likely to have no surviving children. With the new Christian emphasis (and later, insistence) on patrilineal descent, this means that many couples would have no heir on which to bestow an inheritance. Combine this with the prohibition on passing land to non-blood heirs, and there’s nobody left. This, of course, is where the church came in. Due primarily to large “donations” and bequests, within four hundred years, the Roman Church owned nearly 40% of all the land in predominately Christian areas of Europe.
As an interesting (and disturbing) side note, this set of legislation was also responsible for the creation of what we know as indigence and poverty in the modern Western world. As family and tribal groups were legally separated by the new laws, family plots grew smaller and smaller. I have not yet mentioned the second way in which the Church encouraged families to donate land to God. Even those families who had heirs were encouraged to donate a tithe, most often ten percent, of their land, in exchange for a special place in heaven when they died. There are many accounts in the contemporary histories of families who left their own children destitute in favor of donating their land to the church. So, the attack on family holdings was two-fold. First, the church systematically created barren families, and then essentially mandated the transfer of their lands into church holdings. Second, the lands of non-barren families were whittled down by tithes and personal bequests as pious church members sought to improve their own standing in the afterlife. The net result was that widows, orphans, and the elderly often found themselves without any family to support themselves.
I find that in discussing the virtue of the church with Christians, an argument is often made that the Church does great good in the world by providing orphanages, monasteries, and charitable organizations for those who cannot fend for themselves. It is sometimes hard for me to contain myself, for I know the ironic circumstances which led to the creation of the very problems the church claims to be solving. In no uncertain terms, the church, though not wholly responsible, was to a large degree the cause of the very problems they were solving.
It is interesting to me just how firmly Americans, and particularly American Christians, believe that “one man, one woman, and their children” is “the God-given, natural, best way to raise a family.” This article is not an attempt to refute the “core family”, but it does seem rather ironic that the early church’s conversion to this system was most certainly not based on the good of the family. It was a land grab, pure and simple. At the very least, this knowledge should make us second guess any appeals to history, and it should dissuade us from suggesting that “this is the way it’s always been done.” Particularly in the current political climate, where pundits are asserting that one man and one woman is essentially the only “normal” way for marriage and family to exist, we need to be careful to avoid the hype. It is most certainly not the only way families have existed historically, and we know for certain that the political changes which made it standard operating procedure were not in any way based on the good of the family.
*It’s important to remember that this paragraph is a broad generalization, and certainly doesn’t speak to the wide variety of practice. It does, however, give the reader a respectable understanding of the predominant trends.
**To be perfectly clear, calling the entire group of mystery cults Christianity is somewhat disingenuous, as there was not such a sense of unity in the minds of the adherents. Indeed, some of the doctrines were quite incompatible.
***The prohibition on wet nursing is not directly relevant to the topic at hand, but I have included it for both completeness, and to provide a sense of how thoroughly the church disrupted common practice.
Please read THE FIRST PART of this continuing series.
Please read THE THIRD PART of this continuing series.