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The Meaning And Origin Of Marriage

( Originally Published 1936 )



IN the earlier editions of my History of Human Marriage I defined marriage as " a more or less durable connection between male and female, lasting beyond the mere act of propagation till after the birth of the offspring ". This definition has been much criticised, and not without reason. We do not say that a man and a woman are married simply because they live together, have a child together, and remain together after its birth; and on the other hand, there are married couples who get no children at all.

In the ordinary sense of the term, marriage is a social institution which may be defined as a relation of one or more men to one or more women that is recognised by custom or law, and involves certain rights and duties both in the case of the parties entering the union and in the case of the children born of it. These rights and duties vary among different peoples and cannot, therefore, all be included in a general definition; but there must, of course, be something that they have in common. Marriage always implies the right of sexual intercourse: society holds such intercourse allowable in the case of husband and wife, and, generally speaking, regards it as their duty to gratify in some measure the other partner's desire. But the right to sexual inter-course is not necessarily exclusive: there are polyandrous, polygynous, and group-marriages, and even where monogamy is the only legal form of marriage, adultery committed by the husband is not always recognised as a ground for dissolving the union.

The sexual side of marriage is nearly always combined with the living together of husband and wife; a mediaeval adage says, " Boire, manger, coucher ensemble est mariage, ce me semble ". Marriage is also an economic institution, which may in various ways affect the proprietary rights of the parties. Since ancient times it has been the husband's duty, so far as it is possible and necessary, to support his wife and children; but it may also be their duty to work for him. Even the Russian Soviet law, which does not compel either spouse to follow the other if the latter changes residence, recognises the economic aspect of marriage by prescribing that the husband shall support his wife and the wife her husband in case the other party is necessitous and unable to work.

As a rule, the husband has some power over his wife and children, although his power over the children is in most cases of limited duration. Very often marriage determines the place that a newly born individual is to take in the social structure of the community to which he or she belongs; but this can scarcely, as has sometimes been alleged, be regarded as the chief and primary function of marriage, considering how frequently illegitimate children are treated exactly like legitimate ones with regard to descent, inheritance, and succession. It is, finally, necessary that the union, to be recognised as a marriage, should be concluded in accordance with the rules laid down by custom or law, whatever these rules may be. They may require the consent of the parties themselves or of their parents, or of both the parties and their parents. They may compel the man to give some consideration for his bride, or the parents of the latter to provide her with a dowry. They may prescribe the performance of a particular marriage ceremony of one kind or other. And no man and woman are regarded as husband and wife unless the conditions stipulated by custom or law are complied with.

In the present treatise I shall throughout use the term " marriage " in its conventional sense, as the name for a social institution sanctioned by custom or law. At the same time I maintain that my earlier definition had a deep biological foundation, as applying to a relation which exists among many species of animals as well as in mankind. I am of opinion that the institution of marriage has most probably developed out of a primeval habit: that even in primitive times it was the habit for a man and a woman, or several women, to live together, to have sexual relations with each other, and to rear their offspring in common, the man being the guardian of the family and the woman his helpmate and the nurse of their children. This habit was sanctioned by custom, and afterwards by law, and was thus trans-formed into a social institution.

Similar habits are found among many species of the animal kingdom, in which male and female remain together not only during the pairing season but till after the birth of the offspring. We may assume that the male is induced to stay with the female so long, even after the sexual relations have ceased, by an instinct which has been acquired through the process of natural selection, because it has a tendency to preserve the next generation and thereby the species. This is indicated by the fact that in such cases he not only stays with the female and young, but also takes care of them. Marital and paternal instincts, like maternal affection, seem to be necessary for the existence of certain species. This is the case with birds; among the large majority of them male and female keep together after the breeding season, and in very many species the parental instinct has reached a high degree of intensity on the father's side as well as on the mother's. Among mammals the young cannot do without their mother, who is consequently ardently concerned for their welfare, but in most of them the relations between the sexes are restricted to the pairing season. Yet there are also various species in which they are of a more durable character, and the male acts as a guardian of the family; indeed I have found that those species are considerably more numerous than I was aware of at the time when I first set forth my theory. To them belong the apes. According to most earlier accounts of the orang-utan only solitary old males, or females with young, or sometimes females and at other times males accompanied by half-grown young, had been met with; but more recently Volz and Munnecke have definitely proved the existence of family associations with that ape, whereas it apparently never, or scarcely ever, congregates in larger groups. The social unit of the chimpanzee 4 and gorilla is the family; but several families may associate and then constitute a band or herd, in which a mature male acts as leader. The family is asserted to be the nucleus of the society also among the smaller gregarious monkeys, never losing its identity within the herd; even the enormous herds of a species like the baboon consist of numerous families banded together.

In the case of the apes there are some obvious facts that may account for the need of marital and paternal protection. One is the small number of young: the female brings forth but one at a time. Another is the long period of infancy: the gibbon is said to achieve sexual maturity at five to eight years of age, the orang-utan and chimpanzee at eight to twelve, the gorilla at ten to fourteen. Finally, none of these apes is permanently gregarious; even in the Cameroons, where the gorilla is particularly sociable, the herd scatters over a fairly wide district in search of food. These considerations are of importance for a discussion of the origin of the family in mankind. The family consisting of parents and children prevails among the lowest savages as well as among the most civilised races of men; and we may suppose that the factors which made marital and paternal relations indispensable for the apes also made them so for our earliest human or half-human ancestors. If, as most authorities maintain, on the basis of morphological resemblances, man and apes have evolved from a common type, there is no doubt that in mankind, too, the number of children has always been comparatively very small, and that the period of infancy has always been comparatively very long; and it seems to me highly probable that with primitive man, as with the anthropoids, the large quantities of food which he required on account of his size were a hindrance to a permanently gregarious mode of life and therefore made family relations more useful for the preservation of the offspring. There are even now savages among whom the separate families often are compelled to give up the protection afforded them by living together, in order to find the food necessary for their subsistence, and may remain separated from the common group even for a considerable time; and this is the case not only in desolate regions where the supply of food is unusually scarce, but even in countries much more favoured by nature.'

I have so far spoken of habits, not of institutions. But there is an intimate connection between them. Social habits have a strong tendency to become true customs, that is, rules of conduct in addition to their being habits. A habit may develop into a genuine custom simply because people are inclined to disapprove of anything which is unusual. But in the present case the transition from habit to custom has undoubtedly a deeper foundation. If, as I maintain, men are induced by instincts to remain with a woman with whom they have had sexual relations and to take care of her and of their common offspring, other members of the group, endowed with similar instincts, would feel moral resentment against a man who forsook his mate and children. And, as I have pointed out in another work, public or moral resentment or disapproval is at the bottom of the rules of custom and of all duties and rights. That the functions of the husband and father are not merely of the sexual and procreative kind, but involve the duties of supporting and protecting the wife and children, is testified by an array of facts relating to peoples in all quarters of the world and in all stages of civilisation.' Many savages do not allow a man to marry until he has given some proof of his ability to fulfil those duties.' Marriage and the family are thus most intimately connected with one another. Indeed, quite frequently true married life does not begin for persons who are formally married or betrothed, or a marriage does not become definite, until a child is born or there are signs of pregnancy; whilst in other cases sexual relations that happen to lead to pregnancy or the birth of a child are, as a rule, followed by marriage or make marriage compulsory. We may truly say that marriage is rooted in the family rather than the family in marriage.

A different explanation of the origin of the family among the primates has recently been. given by Dr. Zuckerman. Whilst I have attributed it to instincts, added to the sexual instinct, which are of vital importance to the species, he, on the other hand, maintains that the factor underlying the permanent association of the sexes among apes and monkeys is their uninterrupted reproductive life: " the male primate ", he says, " is always sexually potent, while the female is also to some extent receptive ". In my History of Human Marriage I considered the possibility of the family having such an origin as has been suggested by Dr. Zuckerman; but I found reasons to believe that the anthropoid apes have a definite sexual season, and that the pairing of our earliest human or half-human ancestors also was restricted to a certain season of the year. In support of the former opinion I quoted some statements then known to me—including one communicated to me by Alfred Russel Wallace, which was based on his personal experience of the orang-utan in Borneo—and in a more recent work I have added other statements of a similar character. Dr. Zuckerman, who mentions most of these statements, speaks of them disparagingly as being based mainly upon the narratives of travellers, and asserts that, so far as it is possible to make generalisations, " all" Old World monkeys about which accurate information is available breed at any time ". As regards the anthropoid apes this in-formation consists almost exclusively of records concerning animals kept in confinement. Now it is a common opinion that such animals do not afford a reliable source of information about the breeding activity of wild ones, because the generative system may be affected by conditions attending captivity; and Dr. Zuckerman himself seems to have shared this opinion till quite recently. He says that definite knowledge about the breeding of wild Old World primates exists, so far as he is aware, only in the case of the Chacma baboon, an animal that is widely scattered over South Africa; and by examining several adult females of this monkey, collected on a farm in the Eastern Province of South Africa, he found that they had become pregnant at different times of the year, which proved the absence of a demarcated breeding season.

The " accurate information " we possess about the breeding activities of Old World monkeys is thus infinitesimal, and hardly justifies any far-reaching conclusions. Apart from the extremely hypothetical character of the assumption that the times when a monkey breeds in captivity are also the times when it would breed in its natural habitat, it should be remembered that the very limited amount of information available about the breeding in captivity refers to certain species only; and Dr. Zuckerman himself has, in another connection, pointed out the danger of arguing from the behaviour of one animal to that of another. Curiously enough, he has illustrated this by the statement that the spotted deer of India breeds at all times of the year, whereas the red deer of Western Asia, which belongs to the same zoological family, has a short mating season, the only time when the sexes meet. Another similar fact, recorded by Baker, is that the white-footed mouse of North America breeds all the year round in the wild, although allied genera have a definite breeding season. But even the breeding records of captive monkeys are not unanimous. With reference to the anthropoids, R. M. and Ada W. Yerkes, who are very cautious in their estimation of evidence and perfectly unbiassed by any particular theories, write in their exhaustive work on the Great Apes: " The facts available suggest that there is a definite breeding season, or possibly seasons, for each of the five types " (the gibbon, siamang, orang-utan, chimpanzee, and gorilla).

The occurrence of a definite breeding season does not ipso facto imply that sexual activity also takes place only at a certain time of the year: it may possibly depend merely upon the fact that the female's capacity for becoming pregnant is restricted to a certain period and not upon absence of coition. It has been proved that monkeys kept in confinement may be sexually active at any time; but it has not been proved that the same is generally the case with monkeys in a state of nature. If this could be proved we might no doubt say that the more or less permanent sexual stimulus would help to hold male and female together. But even then I venture to suggest that such uninterrupted sexual capacity might itself be the result of natural selection owing to its tendency to preserve the offspring. It would thus have the same effect as the breeding season, which I have taken to be fundamentally governed by the law that the young shall be born at the time which is most favourable for their survival.

In no case, however, could uninterrupted sexual stimulus, which Dr. Zuckerman regards as the sole source of the family with monkey and man, explain the male's relation to the offspring and the paternal instinct underlying it, which has been noticed both in the anthropoids and in other sub-human primates. Diard was told by the Malays, and found it afterwards to be true, that the young siamangs, when in their help-less state, are carried about by their parents, the males by the father and the females by the mother. Von Oertzen states that among chimpanzees the father, as well as the mother, defends the young in case of danger. The Duke of Mecklenburg tells us that one morning when he had shot down a young chimpanzee from a tree, an old male appeared with his mouth wide open, evidently inclined to attack him; he adds that old males " often accompany the families at a distance, but keep to themselves ". Livingstone says of the " sokos " in the Manuyema country, which would seem to be the common chimpanzee, that " a male often carries a child, especially if they are passing from one patch of forest to another over a grassy space; he then gives it to the mother ".3 Forbes writes, perhaps on the authority of Von Koppenfels, that chimpanzees build resting-places, not far from the ground, " in which the female and her young take refuge for the night, the male placing himself on guard beneath ". Von Koppenfels also says that the male gorilla in a similar manner protects the female and their young from the nocturnal attacks of leopards.° Burbridge mentions a case in which a great gorilla met death in a headlong charge to rescue his young. Speaking of the gorilla of the Cameroons, Guthrie relates on native authority that in one instance, when a band was attacked by two men, " the old gorilla of the band first got his family out of danger, and then returned to the encounter ''. Brehm mentions instances of the paternal instinct among some other monkeys.° It should finally be noticed, with reference to Dr. Zuckerman's hypothesis, that the lasting association of the sexes among the primates by no means presupposes an uninterrupted sexual capacity, since similar associations are found in many species whose sexual life is restricted to a certain season.

When I first set forth my theory of the origin of marriage I had to oppose a view which was then held by many eminent sociologists, namely, that the human race must originally have lived in a state of promiscuity, where individual marriage did not exist, where all the men in a horde or tribe had, indiscriminately, access to all the women, and where the children born of these unions belonged to the community at large. I do not know that this view nowadays is supported by any English writer, but it has, to some extent, survived in Germany. Iwan Bloch says that recent ethnological research has proved the untenability of my criticism, that there can be no doubt whatever that in the beginnings of human development a state of promiscuity actually prevailed, that it even seems incomprehensible how a dispute could ever have arisen in the matter; and he quotes with approval P. Nacke's dictum that an original state resembling promiscuity can, in fact, be assumed a priori. He argues that since even in our time, after the development of a sexual morality penetrating and influencing our entire social life, the human need for sexual variety continues to manifest itself in almost undiminished strength, " we can hardly regard it as necessary to prove that in primitive conditions sexual promiscuity was a more original, and, indeed, a more natural, state than marriage ". Now it is certainly true that the sexual instinct is stimulated by a change of its object, and that this taste for variety is a cause of much extra-matrimonial intercourse of a more or less promiscuous character. But the assumption that it dominated primitive man to such an extent as to exclude all unions of greater durability is warranted by nothing that is known either about anthropoid apes or savage men. When Dr. Bloch and some other authors speak of early marriage, they are too apt to over-look the fact that a wife is not only a cause of sexual pleasure but a helpmate, a food-provider, a cook, and a mother of children.

The main evidence adduced in support of the hypo-thesis of primitive promiscuity flows from two different sources. First, there are in books of ancient and modern writers notices of peoples who are alleged to live or to have lived promiscuously. Secondly, there are certain customs which have been interpreted as survivals of such a state in the past. As to the evidence of the former kind, I think it would be difficult to find a more untrustworthy collection of statements. Some of them are simply misrepresentations of theorists in which sexual laxity, frequency of separation, polyandry, group-marriage or something like it, or the absence of a marriage ceremony or of a word for " to marry " or of a marriage union similar to our own, is confounded with promiscuity. Others are based upon indefinite evidence which may be interpreted in one way or other, or on information proved to be inaccurate. And not a single statement can be said to be authoritative or even to make the existence of promiscuity as the regular form of the relations between the sexes at all probable in any case. That no known savage people nowadays is, or recently was, living in such a state is quite obvious; and this greatly discredits the supposition that promiscuity prevailed among any of the peoples mentioned by classical or mediaeval writers in their summary and vague accounts. Considering how uncertain the information is which people give about the sexual relations of their own neighbours, we must be careful not to accept as trustworthy evidence the statements made by Greek and Roman authors with reference to more or less distant tribes in Africa or Asia of whom they manifestly possessed very little knowledge.' Nor can I ascribe any evidentiary value at all to the supposed survivals of earlier promiscuity. After a detailed examination of them I arrived at the conclusion that none of them justifies the assumption that promiscuity has ever been the prevailing form of sexual relations among a single people, and far less that it has constituted a general stage in the social development of man. But the hypothesis of promiscuity not only lacks all foundation in fact: it is positively opposed to the most probable inference we are able to make as regards the early condition of mankind. Darwin remarked that from what we know of the jealousy of all male quadrupeds promiscuous intercourse is utterly unlikely to prevail in a state of nature.

Many writers believe that the earliest form of marriage was a so-called group-marriage, implying a union between a certain group of men and a certain group of women. The latest exponent of this theory, Dr. Briffault, writes that " the regulation of collective sexual relations between given groups has everywhere preceded any regulation of those relations between individual members of those groups ", and that " in their origin marriage regulations had no reference to such individual relations, but to relations between groups ". Group-marriage has been found among many peoples who practise polyandry: in Tibet, India, and Ceylon. In several statements referring to these cases it is either implied or directly said that it has arisen as a combination of polygyny with polyandry; and in other instances the same may be inferred from the facts, that both in Tibet and India polyandry is much more prevalent than group-marriage, that the latter occurs there only side by side with polyandry, and that the occasional combination of polygyny with polyandry, when the circumstances permit it and make it convenient, is easy to explain, whereas no satisfactory reason has been given for the opinion that polyandry has developed out of an earlier stage of group-marriage. So far as I am aware, the latter has not been proved to occur anywhere except in connection with polyandry. But there are peoples who have some kind of sex communism, in which several men have the right of access to several women, although none of the women is properly married to more than one of them, who lives with her, has economic interests in common with her, and has paternal rights over the children borne by her.' The fact that some of our authorities apply the term " group-marriage " to relations of that sort should not deceive us as regards their true nature. Even Dr. Briffault, who defines marriage, when contracted between individuals, as essentially an economic association, with or without exclusive sexual rights, uses the same term for group-relations which are purely sexual, without any economic aspect at all. It is also the sexual side of the relations that has led him and others to look for evidence of an early stage of group-marriage in various customs which had previously been represented as survivals of promiscuity, such as the classificatory system of relationship, the practice of exchanging wives temporarily, the duty of offering one's wife to a guest, polyandry, the levirate, and the liberty granted to unmarried women. Dr. Briffault even says that " in those societies which have preserved their primitive organisation in clans or intermarrying groups, recognised freedom of access between any male of the one group and any female of the other is, in fact, the rule rather than the exception ".1 I have examined his evidence in detail, and doubt whether such unlimited freedom has been proved to exist even among a single people.

According to Dr. Briffault " the earliest human assemblages must . . . have been derived from animal groups belonging to the type of the animal family ". He alleges that it is among mammals the invariable tendency of the female to segregate herself and to form an isolated group with her offspring. The animal family is the product of the maternal instincts alone; the mother is the sole centre and bond of it. The sexual instincts which bring the male and the female together have no part in the formation of it. The male is not an essential member of it. He may join the maternal group, but commonly does not do so, and when he attaches himself to it his association with it is loose and precarious; in no animal species does it appear to survive the exercise of the sexual functions. These functions are the only ones that the male fulfils in the animal family when he is a member of it; the protective functions are exercised by the female alone. All this is alleged to be true also of the nearest animal relatives of man, the anthropoid apes. This is an amazing statement, utterly incompatible with what we know about the habits of the anthropoids.

Not less extraordinary is Dr. Briffault's assertion that in mankind the family even nowadays is in many instances scarcely found to exist as a solidary and recognised group. It is characteristic of the method with which he handles ethnological evidence that he completely ignores my large collection of facts, covering many pages, which conclusively shows that among modern savages living in the hunting and food-collecting stage, or at most acquainted with some primitive mode of agriculture, the family consisting of parents and children is a very well marked social unit;' and it is so also among peoples who trace descent through the mother. Its world-wide prevalence has more recently been affirmed by Professor Malinowski, who has an intimate personal experience of matrilineal savages. He writes: " The typical family, a group consisting of mother, father, and their progeny, is found in all communities, savage, barbarous, and civilised; everywhere it plays an important role and influences the whole extent of social organisation and culture. . . . In no ethnographic area is the family absent as a domestic institution. . . . It is an undeniable fact that the family is universal and sociologically more important than the clan which, in the evolution of humanity, it preceded and outlasted ". If it exists universally both among monkeys and men, it would be a true marvel if primitive man had been the only primate who had been without it.

Theories concerning the earliest form of sexual relations in mankind have influenced speculations as to the future of marriage and the family. Socialist writers have tried to reinforce their social ideals by references to primeval sexual communism. According to Dr. Briffault, " every inference that can be drawn from the facts of social history shows that the inevitable consequence must be a tendency for marriage to revert from patriarchal to so-called matriarchal forms; that is, to a very loose and unstable association ".1 I myself have been accused of attempting to justify the perpetuity of the family by representing it as the basic unit of primitive society. But it never occurred to me to regard the existence of the family in primitive humanity as a sufficient reason for its preservation ad infinitum. It is, on the contrary, quite obvious that the general cause to which I have traced its origin, the need of the species, no longer operates: mankind would not succumb if women and children now and in the future had no husband or father to look after them. Yet I think that the origin of marriage and the family has had some bearing on their continuance by leaving behind deep-rooted instincts which will help to preserve them, even though no longer necessary for the survival of the race.

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