I’ve just finished reading most of Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, by Frances and Joseph Gies; about one-third of the book was devoted to life among the nobility, and so I skipped past those chapters. But the rest is very good, especially because it takes the time to set the stage by describing the marriage and family patterns among the groups that fed into medieval society, mainly Greeks and Romans and Germans and Christians.
It turns out that those pre-medieval patterns of marriage were very much different from what we see as normal today, and that many of the important shifts came during the Middle Ages, usually in response to shifting economic circumstances. For example, the decision to marry became more of a private and individual matter because the parties involved could afford it—as peace and prosperity increased, the need to use marriage as a tool for extending the family decreased. Similarly, family life turned inward because prosperity allowed for more independence from the community.
What disturbs me about the historical understanding of marriage that I’ve gotten from the Gies and from Stephanie Coontz is the same thing that always disturbs me when I study social patterns in history: why has there been so much variation over the years in what were seen as Christian standards? With marriage, for example, the church as an institution only began to intrude toward the end of the first millennium, and it was nearly three hundred years from the time that the church asserted a role in marrying people to the time when that role was accepted among the people.
In this book I found that many things we see today as biblical standards for a marriage were in fact cut from whole cloth one thousand years after the canon of scripture was closed, usually by some church thinker who waited hundreds of years for the church to be able to partially impose only some of his conclusions about what scripture dictated. And each time I have to wonder: if this fellow was right, then why did God see fit to let His people wander for a thousand years in ignorance before finally using this fellow to enlighten them?
Anyway, next time you read or hear some Christian teacher who lays out what he claims is a biblical pattern for marriage or the family, I encourage you to not simply accept the pattern at face value but to spend some time looking at patterns that have actually existed in history. Most Christians in most of history have followed different standards than the ones we are being exhorted to embrace today, and we ought to at least think about why that might be so.