New Worlds: More Types of Marriage

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

As the title of this essay suggests, it’s a bit of a grab bag. In previous essays when we discussed types of marriage, I focused on the basic structures: monogamy and polygamy, the differentiation of polygyny and polyandry, and group marriages of various sorts. But there are other aspects and varieties of marriage we didn’t touch on then, so I’d like to loop back and catch them now.

Starting with the distinction of endogamy vs. exogamy — inward marriage vs. outward marriage. The former means that you’re choosing your spouse from within your own group, however that may be defined, and the latter means you’re looking outside those boundaries. The group in question is often one of kinship, whether that’s closely defined (e.g. a first cousin as an endogamous match, especially if it’s a paternal cousin in a patriline), more broadly as a clan or such, or even on the scale of a moiety. But it can also be a caste, a religious sect, an ethnic group, or any other community seen as distinct from outsiders.

We have all kinds of theories for the origins of exogamy, ranging from the biological (it helps ensure genetic diversity) to the political (it’s better for building alliances with other groups) to the economic (treating women as a scarce resource that had to be captured from other communities). In a way, endogamy is easier to explain; it takes less effort to seek a spouse within your own community. And if you go back a thousand years or so, for most small communities, odds were good that everyone around you belonged to the same ethnic group and religion, and wasn’t that distantly related.

You see endogamy a lot nowadays with groups that feel under pressure from their surroundings. An immigrant community, for example, may push for endogamous marriage within their ethnicity as a way of defending their identity against assimilation. Religious groups may forbid exogamy as a way of protecting spiritual purity — why would you want to welcome someone you see as a heretic or a sinner into your ranks? But sometimes that’s asymmetric: strictly speaking, a Muslim man is permitted to wed a Christian or Jewish woman, but a Muslim woman is not permitted to do the same with a Christian or Jewish man. And sometimes there are workarounds, with a future spouse converting to make the marriage possible; this happened all over Europe during the conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. That approach straddles the line between the two forms.

Conversely, sometimes the local customs may mandate exogamy. You see this with moieties, where all of society is divided into two groups; I believe those always require a person of one moiety to marry someone from the other side of the divide. A complex form of this shows up in Ursula Le Guin’s sedoretu, four-person marriages involving two people of opposite sexes from each moiety. Sexual relations there are required with the opposite-sex spouse of the opposite moiety, and permitted with the same-sex spouse of the opposite moiety, but forbidden with the spouse of the same moiety — that endogamous relationship is considered incest.

And, of course, sometimes the law intervenes. Legal prohibitions against incest restrict how far endogamy can go, with the placement of that border varying between cultures. This became a serious problem in medieval Europe, where for a time the Church tried to prohibit marriage within seven degrees of kinship — good luck finding someone in your rural village who isn’t within that range! (They later scaled it back to four.) On the flip side, anti-miscegenation laws are a restriction on exogamy: in the United States it used to be illegal for people to marry across racial lines, requiring them to stay within their own ethnic groups.

Moving on to other aspects of marriage . . . in the previous essays I talked as if all marriages have to be performed by an authorized religious or secular figure. But that isn’t actually true; I only left out common-law marriage because there wasn’t really room for it in those discussions. The requirements for this vary between jurisdictions, but it isn’t quite the same thing as simple cohabitation; where it’s recognized, it usually requires a certain duration of cohabitation and the spouses publicly presenting themselves in daily life as husband and wife for them to claim the legal rights that go with the wedded state. While common-law marriages used to be fairly widespread, the trend over the last thousand years has been for societies to set stricter limits on what’s necessary to call a marriage valid, and its prevalence in the United States has been declining.

Temporary marriage is another interesting borderline case. Handfasting is sometimes described in these terms, but historically it was mostly a form of engagement — a promise to get married later on. There is some evidence, though, that for a while in Scotland it could indeed be a “trial marriage,” lasting for a year or so, and not permanent if it wasn’t working out. That notion definitely exists in Islam, as nikah mut’ah. It’s a contentious topic there: some condemn it as a fig leaf for prostitution, while an article I read some time ago had an imam advocating it for young people in cities, on the grounds that they’re going to be having sex anyway, and temporary marriage is better than none at all. I also just learned about the “walking marriages” of the matrilineal Mosuo people (an ethnic minority in China), where men remain with their mother’s household for life, taking care of their sisters’ children during the day and visiting their wives only at night, and the women are free to change husbands at will — marriage being more about following one’s passion than forming a long-term alliance of property or bloodlines.

Then you have the custom of “ghost marriage.” This term can be used to mean a couple of things; in the case of levirate marriage, where a man weds his deceased brother’s widow, it’s a way of carrying on the otherwise broken family line, as the ensuing child is considered the offspring of the dead man. More rarely, there is also sororate marriage, where a man has sexual relations with his deceased wife’s sister. But the term can also mean posthumous marriage — aka necrogamy — where one of the spouses is dead at the time of the ceremony. (Don’t worry; no necrophilia is involved.)

Probably the most well-known form of this is Chinese ghost marriage, used as a workaround for various social requirements, especially those arising from Confucianism. For example, if it’s inappropriate for a younger son to marry before his elder brother but the elder brother is dead, the only way around that problem is for a woman to marry his ghost — and then to remain celibate for the rest of her life, with an heir being adopted if one is required. Alternatively, a daughter who died unmarried might be wed to a living man so that she could receive a proper spirit tablet and the associated rites, which otherwise would be denied to her. (He isn’t required to be celibate.) Sometimes sickness in the family may indicate that a deceased son is unhappy in the afterlife without a wife; marrying someone to him is a way of placating his spirit.

Finally, I want to mention morganatic marriage. Fantasy stories often assume that someone marrying a person of lower status automatically elevates that person to their own rank — especially if it’s a man marrying a lower-class woman — but that isn’t necessarily true. When Edward VIII of England wanted to marry Wallis Simpson, his proposed solution was for their marriage to be morganatic, so that British subjects would not have to accept a divorced woman as their queen. This was ultimately rejected, leading to Edward’s abdication of the throne. (But Camilla Parker-Bowles is legally the Princess of Wales; she chooses to style herself the Duchess of Cornwall instead to avoid the former title’s associations with Princess Diana.) Sometimes the morganatic spouse is given a lower-ranking title, as a kind of compromise.

It’s a dizzying array of possibilities — as befits something which has historically been so central to how we organize our families and our society.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: More Types of Marriage — 15 Comments

  1. When my now husband and I applied for a marriage license, we made the government clerk spectacularly uncomfortable by taking the time to read all the ways we couldn’t be related. I remember siblings, parent-child, aunt/uncle-niece/nephew and grandparent-grandchild as being prohibited. After doing that, we had to reassure her repeatedly we weren’t related in any forbidden way.

    • Hah! I can imagine that clerk sitting there thinking, “uhhhhh, why are they paying such close attention to this . . . ?”

      I find it really interesting that many of us would now consider marrying our first cousin to be wrong, whereas in many places and times that’s been the ideal match.

      • Yep, that was exactly the clerk’s response. Even after we reassured her, she seemed more than a bit reluctant. She couldn’t believe our interest was solely curiosity.

        One of the longest, happiest and most live filled marriages I know was between first cousins. Only after I had known them for years and years was I told that they were cousins. Their families were *scandalized* that they went through with the marriage. From the extremely cautious way they told me, I think they had met much opprobrium over the years.

  2. Another great article; kudos!

    One example of a levirate marriage in film is _Loving Leah_ a Hallmark Channel movie (based on a play, i believe it was)

    The Mosou sound like the Na people, also of China: matrilinear, husbands only permitted to visit their wife at night.

    Years ago, when I was learning about Darwin, one thing I learned was that he tried to get a law passed: to determine how related everyone {couples, anyway} in Britain was…the law was never passed, and he got sick, so he never suggested it again.

    • The Mosuo are the Na; two names for the same group. I will probably change the reference to Na, since that’s apparently their name for themselves (the article I read right before this posted called them the Mosuo).

      Years ago, when I was learning about Darwin, one thing I learned was that he tried to get a law passed: to determine how related everyone {couples, anyway} in Britain was

      For research purposes, I’m guessing? Unless he really thought incest was a rampant problem that needed to be stopped.

      • Partly for research purposes (sort of a “this way everyone will know”), and at the time, he was about to marry his (?) cousin Emma Wedgewood – of the dynasty that was getting rich making finery for Queen Victoria and – i assume – everyone else of means.

        • Emma wedgewood was Darwin’s first cousin. Although not common in the UK, except among some immigrant communities, first cousin marriage is not viewed with the distaste that Americans I have discussed the subject with appear to feel.

          • I really don’t know why it’s become so verboten here, when it was perfectly acceptable practice in the past. But yeah, for many of us I think there’s a reflexive cringe at the idea. (And in my case, not only because my sole male cousin is old enough to be my father, and even my youngest female cousin is something like ten years older than I am.)

  3. Don’t know if this is true, but in a Midsommer Murders episode the men of 2 tiny villages wanted to restart Stag Night, a 1000+ year old custom at Beltane, the men of each village disguise themselves and march over the hill to the other village to claim the women for 1 night. Spreading the gene pool they said.

    On the Morganic marriage theme, William IV (uncle and predecessor of Victoria) married a common woman as a young man and had many, MANY, children with her. But as his older brothers started dying off and he got closer and closer to the throne, Parliament dissolved the marriage, declared the children illegitimate, and forced a Danish princess on him. No children there, as they were both too old but records suggest they were amiable and friendly. This goes back to Elizabeth I where it became illegal for members of the royal family to marry without Parliamentary permission. They were willing to overlook that law when there were 6 heirs between William and the throne but when it became obvious he would be king they hauled out the ancient texts and forced matters.

    • Hmmm — it surprised me I hadn’t heard that about William IV, and as I look it up, that doesn’t seem to be true? He cohabited with his commoner mistress for twenty years, but it doesn’t sound like they were actually married, and William ran around for quite some time trying to find a rich (and titled) wife so he could pay off his debts. There was definitely pressure from his family involved, but I can’t find any sign of an official marriage or intervention from Parliament, and his mistress died two years before he got married.

      • Half remembering a text book and early biography of Victoria. No one wanted to admit that such a long term relationship might be without benefit of marriage, historians rewriting history to fit the morals of the time. It was my understanding that at times–especially early days of the relationship–William referred to her as his wife, or possibly sailor’s wife. He was a Navy man and some of them had a “wife” in every port.

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  5. A lot of ghost marriages in China are between two dead people.

    There are quite a number of stories of ghosts coming to the living for help with arranging a marriage because they met in the afterlife but have to do it properly.

  6. Common-law marriages in the US are still possible, but essentially only west of the Mississippi (and not everywhere there) — but must be recognized across state lines. For example, if one meets the Colorado requirements for a common-law marriage as Colorado residents (basically, a year and a day cohabitation holding out as spouses “openly and notoriously”), and then the couple moves to California, California has to recognize the marriage. And the fun really begins when one of the couple dies…

    It gets much more interesting internationally, as Steely Dan fans may remember (“Haitian Divorce” — Haiti granted no-fault divorces looooooooooong before most of the US did).

    Although that leads to a question: Would marriages among not-too-closely-related royalty of different nationalities in pre-Industrial Europe be “exogamous” or “endogamous”? Or both?

    • Those terms are usually used on the level of a community, so it can be read either way depending on how you define the community in question: if it’s “the royal class,” such marriages are endogamous, while if it’s “the X nation,” they’re exogamous.