Perhaps it was the cooking pots which were to blame. Lead, you see. Poison. Whatever it was, Roman women tended to have very few children. Well, I say women, but in fact some were little more then children themselves. Today we would look at many marriages from that age, and say ‘child abuse’. A woman passed from her father to her husband in her girlhood.
The Romans had a lot of angst about having enough children – and honoured women who had good fertility. That may in part have fed the suspicion of recreational sex among Roman Christians. Certainly by the late antique period, sex was, for the Christian, to be directed merely at the creation of children, and not to be enjoyed for itself at all.
Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew is without irony. He can imagine that it is perfectly correct for a husband so to break his wife’s spirit that she will simply yield to his mastery. He lives in a world of hierarchy, with the monarch at the top, and then the nobles, the gentry, men, woman and children, all sliding down a pyramid. And marriage shores it up, by making certain that there is a noble self-sacrificing woman under each great man.
It is, of course, very easy to over-emphasise the degree to which women were actually subservient. Lady Macbeth is a monster, and her domination of her husband proves it, but she is very believable monster. Beatrice is a delight, a heroine and anything but subservient. Nobody who listens to Juliet thinks for a moment that the Christians of Shakespeare’s age are avoiding the pleasures of sensual love making.
My point is this – marriage had already changed. Even if the church was still somewhat sniffy about the pleasures of sex, nobody in society was really aiming at joyless sex any longer.
By the time you get to Jane Austen’s writing, women are openly considering the attractions of their potential husbands – whose figures may attract or repel, as well as their characters. Her heroines are seeking what it is posh to call companionate marriage. A marriage based on an equality of regard, if not an equality of power.
Most Victorian women married hoping for children, but plenty of them married past child-bearing age. It is popular to imagine they were too prudish to enjoy the physical aspect of marriage, but private letters, flirtatious, joking, sensual, show that is not so. Nor did they often, or usually, make arranged marriages or merely marry for money. There was a strong romantic attachment to the idea of love and free choice of a partner. In practice, the social circles of many women weer very small, but the ideal was to fall deeply in love, and love excused much.
Marriage changed. There is a huge difference between the Roman girl bride, literally given to a husband, and taught (in Christian circles) that sex should not be enjoyed for itself, and the blushing Victorian bride who has fallen in love with her handsome husband.
Our age has seen other changes. A growth in the belief of the equality of men and women. A much greater emphasis on the free choice of a partner. A strong distaste for particular roles in marriage, at any rate in theory (as usual practice lags behind).
Our society now accepts that some people fall in love with their own gender and make a commitment to go through life with them as a spouse. This arises quite naturally from a belief in the equality of man and women, and of a loving relationship as the basis for marriage. It is the logical conclusion of a path which has stopped seeing marriage as being about gender roles, and accepted that sex is not just about creating children.
Of course not everybody will agree. There are those who still see marriage as being very much about the willingness of a woman to surrender to a particular set of roles. That makes it hard to see that people of the same gender can marry.
Ironically, the emphasis in Christianity on marriage as a symbol of the ‘mystical union between Christ and his church’ really ought to draw Christians to a more modern understanding of marriage as based upon love and not upon role play. For Christians are called to be the body of Christ in the world.We are not called to be something really seriously different to what Christ is, but to be in Him, and to act as he would act. The Christian mystics all speak of the love of Christ, theirs for him, his for them. If we take that seriously, then the gender of a married couple ceases to be relevant.