February is here, and with it — at least in the U.S. — comes a veritable deluge of chocolate and flowers and other things demanding that you think about romance. Which in some ways makes me almost say this is the wrong time to talk about marriage . . . because for most of history, marriage has not been about love! At least not primarily, not officially, maybe even not ideally. The modern Western approach to the subject is, historically speaking, pretty weird.
Which is something people often lose sight of. The debates in U.S. politics over same-sex marriage have occasioned a lot of sweeping statements about “what marriage is” and “how it’s always been,” often from people with absolutely no sense of history — and often with an implicit assumption that a given approach can only be defended as worthy today if it has historical backing. But the truth is that many of us would not much like living under historical models of marriage, and if your goal is maximizing human happiness or good in the world, looking to the past is not necessarily the best way to do that.
At its core, marriage is a form of alliance. These days it’s first and foremost an alliance between the spouses, and usually for reasons of personal happiness, but that’s a product of the general focus on individualism that dominates our society right now. It used to be an alliance between larger groups than that. Families, or lineages, or businesses, or estates, or even entire kingdoms: the people directly involved were representatives of those groups, rather than acting solely for themselves.
This works because we are, at heart, social primates. Even if you’re not personally fond of a relative, the fact that they are your relative tends to influence your thinking — especially once that relative has a kid, who is also a blood relation of yours. You’re invested in that kid’s future. And even if you’re not, even if you shake off that sense of connection . . . the people around you probably haven’t, and they’re going to judge you if you hang your kin out to dry. There’s a lot of social pressure saying that if your daughter or brother or mother or cousin has ties to another family, you need to respect that.
So when your family member weds someone else, you now have a stake in the joint venture that is their marriage, and you become allied with the other parties with connected stakes. You may use the match as an opportunity to completely merge some of your assets, as when two companies come under one umbrella, or two countries form a single, larger one. Or you may just lean on that connection to get help when you need it: “Dear father-in-law, I’m going to war and could really use some troops. You don’t want your daughter to be sad that I died on the battlefield, do you? Or your grandchildren to lose their father?”
Because kinship ties underpin this process, it isn’t surprising that marriage has most frequently involved at least one fertile producer of sperm and one fertile producer of eggs. (Or hopefully fertile, anyway — sometimes that doesn’t work out as expected.) The counterpart to alliance is inheritance; you often need or at least want offspring who will inherit the business, the land, the connections to the parent families. Adoption is also a possibility, but how much people treat adopted children as truly family vs. only technically family has varied a lot between cultures.
That doesn’t mean marriage is always about reproduction, though. Women past the age of childbearing can and do wed; the same is true for people who are infertile for other reasons. Marriages can be celibate. Sometimes a society has conducted marriages where at least one of the spouses is below the age of puberty (though in those cases there’s usually an assumption that reproduction will happen once everyone is capable of it). Conversely — and contrary to our stereotypes of the past — people don’t necessarily get married as soon as they become fertile. In Elizabethan England, the average first age at marriage was somewhere in the mid-twenties, much like it is today . . . and for much the same reason, which is that people often weren’t financially secure enough to set up their own households until that point. Getting married at thirteen was the province of the rich.
Moving to the sex-and-gender side of the equation: most genderqueer people in other parts of the world have historically not entered into formal matches — they might set up households, but without the ceremonies that link spouses — but there are exceptions; the Ojibwe ikwekaazo and ininiikaazo (who in modern English terms would I think be called transgender) appear to be among them. In the West African kingdom of Dahomey, men could be married to the sovereign, not as a sexual relationship, but as a form of politically-motivated kinship. And nowadays, of course, same-sex marriage is increasingly common in several parts of the world.
“Who gets married” isn’t just a question of age and sex, though. Social class and other such factors also figure into it. Some slave-owning cultures have permitted slaves to marry; others have not, or at the very least have not recognized slave marriages as valid. (This was common in the antebellum American South.) Or maybe marriage could happen, but only with permission; the ladies-in-waiting who attended upon Queen Elizabeth I couldn’t wed without her leave, and got into massive trouble if they did it in secret. As I mentioned above when discussing age, if getting married requires a certain amount of money — we’ll talk about dowries and bride prices and so forth later on — then anybody without that money can’t get hitched, even if they otherwise fill the requirements.
All of these are real-world examples, but let’s not forget that we’re talking primarily about speculative fiction worldbuilding. The barriers to marriage, or conversely the situations where it might be desired or mandated, can be anything that fits your setting. Marriages can happen for purely ceremonial reasons, which opens up a whole slew of possibilities in fantasy especially; the hieros gamos or “sacred wedding” is a term mostly applied to symbolic or sexual rituals rather than ongoing partnerships between mortal humans, but the latter approach offers all kinds of storytelling potential. Or maybe your science-fictional aliens can only trigger their reproductive capacity (and therefore their eligibility for marriage) by killing and eating a certain kind of prey, and that prey has become scarce, or your story is about a particular alien who is an abysmal hunter with no hope of ever making that happen.
Of course, it’s also possible to fall off the ledge of historical accuracy in the other direction, assuming that marriages in the past were nothing like they are today, rather than exactly the same. Just because people didn’t generally get hitched primarily for the purpose of love and personal fulfillment doesn’t mean those things never happened. For every cruel father who forced his daughter into wedlock purely for profit, there was another who realized that the alliance would be a lot more successful if the parties involved didn’t hate each other. People did take personal compatibility into account, and the ideal was often for that to go hand-in-hand with larger considerations. It’s just that, given a choice between a sensible alliance without romance and two lovebirds who would bring no benefit to anybody but themselves, the tendency was to choose the former — as it still is in various parts of the world today.