Where Did “One Man/One Woman” Come From?

In pre-Christian Europe, marriage and inheritance was basically 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.  Though we in the Christianized west would feel comfortable in Europe, we would not recognize or empathize with many of the concepts of parental obligation or marital bonds.

With 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 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.

Roman Emperor Constantine Fights in the Battle of Milvian Bridge

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 4thdegree 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:

  1. Requirement of consent; prohibition of divorce
  2. Outlawed concubinage
  3. Outlawed polygamy
  4. Outlawed wet-nursing
  5. Outlawed marriage inside of the 4th degree of separation
  6. 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.
A Short History of Marriage, Westermarck, The Macmillan Company, 1930
The Rise of Christianity, Stark, Harper Collins, 1997
Myth and Sexuality, Highwater, Meridian, 1990
The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe, Goody, Cambridge, 1983


10 thoughts on “Where Did “One Man/One Woman” Come From?

  1. Given that all this was put in place after ROme ‘adopted’ Christianity, perhaps the Romans did win and wiped it out, perhaps what we call christianity is really roman imperialism under the guise of something else?

    Posted by Tami Wheatley | November 20, 2011, 4:46 pm
  2. This is a very biased and anachronistic article. You just want to hit “the church” with your assumptions about its intentions of grabbing people’s land 1000 years ago, but you are using the present days’ concepts of inheritance and property. The order of the world was so different 1000 years ago and we have so little information about it that we cannot possibly comprehend it even superficially. You don’t even mention simple facts such as that in those times a king of a land owned all that land, and he was granting the use of the land to his vassals, so it’s no wonder you can’t see the feudal system through your socialist lenses. Also take a look into the mythologies of various nations and you’ll see a lot of stories about “one man and one woman” which by the way, it’s called monogamy.
    It’s arrogant and narrow minded to place yourselves as moral judges on history and those who made the history. Clearly that indicates your thirst for power, but you’ll never have it. The void within yourselves is too big.

    Posted by Hybridium | December 10, 2011, 1:38 am
  3. Well… every historical interpretation is biased. That’s the nature of the business. Even choosing which events to mention and which to leave out is a function of bias, so it’s pretty much impossible to compose any historical narrative that is unbiased. So… yeah. My piece is biased. What of it?

    Anachronistic? What makes you say that? Three of my four sources are from 1983 forward, and the one from 1930 was mainly used to fill in a gap or two that was not addressed in the more modern books — each of which agrees with the 1930 book on the facts of history mentioned in this article. If you’d like a more recent treatise on the history of Western marriage, I recommend Marriage: A History, by Stephanie Coontz, published in 2005.

    Your grasp of history seems… lacking. We know quite a lot about inheritance and property transfer going back much farther than the early church. In fact, if historians were to pick one thing we know the *MOST* about, it might be inheritance and property transfer, because we have so much direct documentation of it.

    What are you suggesting I am leaving out by not mentioning the structure of feudalism? What does that have to do with my position? Just throwing out some random fact isn’t an argument, hybridium. It’s just throwing out a random fact. Connect the dots. Make your point, if you have one.

    Yes… monogamy is part of the mythology of many societies. What, exactly does this have to do with anything? It is NOT the entirety of any significant culture. That is, in virtually every society, the mythology and culture have elements of monogamy and non-monogamy. So what?

    And what could you possibly be getting at by calling me a socialist?

    It’s arrogant and narrow minded of you to gripe at me without making an argument, and somehow expect me to drop everything and genuflect before your superior moral judgment of history.

    But… thanks for the comment, anyway.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | December 11, 2011, 7:26 pm
  4. Wow the understanding of the fudal system is very very poor. The ‘king’ did not own all the land. Perhaps in a country like England but most of Europe has not had Monachistic rule for a very very long time… If ever. Italy. The seat of the Roman Empire and later Catholicism has for as long as history has been recorded been a Federal Country, divided into States (The Vatican still being a separate state) Ruled by many governers (Caesar and the Senate!) These governers in the early days of the Church were opften Cardinals. With Cardinals in these positions one can see how logically history progressed and certain things in the Bible, in the later gospels, could well be rules for the benefit of the ruling elite. PLUS even in a monarchistic society you had lords and ladies, often tied closely to a church governing smaller areas of the sovereign state. Eg England has Counties, each with their own Duke/Dutchess/Lord or Lady. The Church of England was created because Henry the Eighth didn’t agree with all of those rules in the later gospels. And this is all aside form the very important fact that those later Gospels had nothing to do with Jesus. Who’s to say that those additions to the Bible, written hundreds of years after his death, are not the false prophets spoken of in the end of days? After all they clearly preach a message of hate and judgementalism that does not tie well with the core philospohies withing Christianity – Love thy Neighbour anyone?

    Posted by Tami Wheatley | December 12, 2011, 3:52 am
  5. @Living Life Without a Net – The problem is that you’re using your present mentality to judge the mentalities of ancient times or medieval times. That’s anachronistic. You have a clear agenda to prove that the Church was wrong back then, and that it took the land of the good ol’ working people. That’s socialistic thinking done in the same manner of Marx’ blames on religion. How do you know what was good and wrong back then? I can say on the contrary, that religion and the church was actually what forced people to become more and more civilized. It had its “human rights” price, but if it wasn’t for it you and I would’ve been herding sheep now instead of writing our priceless opinions on the Internet. And also, you’re asking what does monogamy have to do with what you said?? Basically you said that the Church invented or enforced monogamy in order to grab people’s land.
    Seriously, what do you think people were able to do with their land back then?? Sell it on the real estate market??
    To you and to Tami Wheatly: just imagine that the monarch (call him/her king or whatever it was then) had the full command of his/her army. Can you comprehend what that meant for those times? It meant full authority on anything. Oh yes, there was also the church which had a say, sometimes as strong or even stronger than the monarch. But it wasn’t a general rule. What mattered then was brute force and those in command of that force had everything and did anything they wanted with *their* lands.
    Get real.

    Posted by Hybridium | December 14, 2011, 1:48 am
  6. Someone has been watching far too many programmes such a Xena Warrior Princess, Monarch’s did have armies but they did not use them to subjugate the peasents. That was the job of the ruling Lord in whatever region, most often those Lords were closely tied to the Church. What about that do you not understand? But then again your own argument could be used against you.. How the hell do you know what sociological attitudes were in 100’s AD… By the way, the Medieval period was circa 1400AD you are also off by over a thousand years from the time period that is being discussed. Your argument is naive and full of holes from both an anthroplogical point of view and sociological, your understanding of Marx’s theories are also tentative. Marx was not a socialist, he was a social theorist who applied the theory of evolution to Social attitudes and development, he said himself socialism can not successfully be achieved whilst Capitalism is still the main mode of sociological thinking. Research before you comment please.

    Posted by Tami Wheatley | December 14, 2011, 6:25 am
  7. I don’t know what are your sources, Tami Wheatley, but you should consult even a simple dictionary to learn that the Medieval period was “the period of European history from about A.D. 500 to about 1500.” (source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Also I said “of ancient times or medieval times”, as the article rambles through a big period of the history anyway.

    I also believe that you can’t even comprehend the meaning and usage of other words, such as the word “sociological” as you wrote “sociological attitudes”. I’m guessing you meant “social attitudes”? But it’s all good – it rhymes well with “anthroplogical” which, whatever the spelling is, must sound good to impress your snobbish friends. But through all your clouds I see your point, as it’s exactly my point about this article: how the hell do you and I know what was good and wrong in those times. I said it before, as I don’t understand why the author of this article self-appoints himself/herself as a moral judge on history and the Church (whatever church means) and tries to find some faults of the Medieval Church just because it looks good on his atheistic – socialistic resume.

    I’m glad you know more about Xena Warrior Princess and Marx than I know. But you really made me laugh by writing “Marx was not a socialist, he was a social theorist who applied the theory of evolution to Social attitudes and development”. Dude, Marx was the father of communism. He was a **revolutionary socialist**, you got that? And mind that I don’t care here if communism or socialism are bad things, (history has already proved how “good” they are better than I can prove), I’m just saying the author of this article is using them anachronically.
    And you’re not contradicting me on the monarch stuff. You’re just repeating what I said. I said in my first reply that the monarch “was granting the use of the land to his vassals”. What part of that you didn’t get??

    Posted by Hybridium | December 15, 2011, 6:54 pm
  8. Heh..
    I do so love to hear americans bickering about European history and “socialism”.

    Posted by snowylocks | November 26, 2012, 10:32 am
  9. Wow, every time I think Hybridium is about to make a decent point they go and say something completely idiotic. “Carl Marx! Socialist! You can’t judge the past! Arrrrrg!” At least It was worth a few good laughs.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the article, even if it was obviously a bit biased. This is not the results of a scientific study, it’s supposed to have some commentary and opinion.

    Posted by Thomas Shea | March 19, 2013, 3:19 pm
  10. Shalom
    Well I very much appreciate Europeans when they point out the fact us Americans will ‘bicker’ about just anything. The ‘Church’, as some have called the Holy Roman Catholic Church, has a degree of authority for a reason. If one would only read ‘their’ translation if becomes very clear the purpose of the ‘Church’. The God of heaven gives them authority to rule because we don’t love anything more than ‘bickering’. If someone actually did believe the Bible to be the true word of God they would eventually learn that only one word in the Bible is fully defined, ‘LOVE’. The motive force of the two greatest commands of Scripture is to “LOVE God” and “LOVE you neighbor”. Instead we “love to bicker”. As someone who was a wicked man on a unprecedented level the power of His Love crushed me. I was looking for the origin of ‘Canon’ that established this Babylonian/Catholic Doctrine of ‘One Man One Woman’ (OH, just so you know, in their own Catholic Bible in Revelation 16:19 note they will tell you that ‘Rome and the Empire’ is Babylon, so go read you own bible before you choose to ridicule me about calling the Catholic Church ‘Babylonian’). Nobody, in a good conscience, should ever ridicule the Church, which I am not, nor do I reverence. Babylon is to preserve the vine and keep it from lifting its head (Read Ezekiel 17:14, history dictates this to be a success of the church, job well done). I don’t understand why you just did not quote the ‘Canon’, or my speed read because I just woke up passed it. This article is not biased, take some writing classes people. The author obviously wrote within the confines of the resources at hand. Should of looked up the Canon and quoted other sources on the History of so called “Pagan” (I am hostile to that word for its origin is actually ‘country dweller’, lol) Europe. At least I can use this as one reference to show the origin of this belief as a Babylon Doctrine. Thank you for your effort.

    Posted by Edward Rogers | September 17, 2013, 8:47 am

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