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Marriage, a History:

From Obedience to Intimacy,

or How Love Conquered Marriage

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By Stephanie Coontz

Viking, 432 pages, $36

Stephanie Coontz assures us that every sexual arrangement regarded as unprecedented is old hat. Extramarital leg-overs and illegitimate births? Once far more common than they are today. Stepfamilies? Historically, the commonplace result of high death rates and remarriages. In certain periods, divorce rates have outstripped our own. Even same-sex marriages have been sanctioned in some cultures. Nothing new under the sun.

For the last few years, Coontz, a U.S. journalist and historian, has served the Council on Contemporary Families, a collective of scholars and practitioners who compare research. Her fifth volume of social history, Marriage, a History, exposes the origins of an institution misunderstood as a kind of genetic holding pen. "The story that marriage was invented for the protection of women is still the most widespread myth about the origins of marriage," she writes. "According to the protective or provider theory of marriage, women and infants in early human societies could not survive without men to bring them the meat of woolly mammoths and protect them from marauding sabre-toothed tigers and from other men seeking to abduct them."

While regularly recycled to justify the sexual choices of alpha males such as Donald Trump, the "protective" theory of marriage fails to conform to prehistoric reality. It is, Coontz explains in her plain, unhurried prose, "simply a projection of 1950s marital norms onto the past. The male/female pair was a good way to organize sexual companionship, share child rearing, and divide daily work . . . marrying a good hunter was not the main way that a woman and her children got access to food and protection."

The origins of marriage were, in fact, pragmatic. From the earliest civilizations, the economic functions of marriage -- and not the romantic -- were most important to the middle and lower classes; the upper classes were interested primarily in its political potential. Coontz reports: "One of its crucial functions in the Paleolithic era was its ability to forge networks of co-operation beyond the immediate family group or local band. Bands needed to establish friendly relations with others so they could travel more freely and safely in pursuit of game, fish, plants, and water holes, or move as the seasons changed."

For thousands of years, marriage performed the functions of today's markets and governments, organizing the production and distribution of goods, creating political, economic and military alliances, and co-ordinating the division of labour, as well as orchestrating rights and duties concerning everything from sexual relations to inheritance. Passion was seen as improper within marriage, a kind of perversion or aberration.

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As civilizations evolved, marriage became more complex and stratified, a means for the elite to hoard or accumulate resources. Coontz elaborates: "Propertied families consolidated wealth, merged resources, forged political alliances, and concluded peace treaties by strategically marrying off their sons and daughters . . . making the match a major economic investment by the couple's parents and other kin."

Amor vincit omnia? Defying stupid, callow or opportunistic parents in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries carried severe social consequences: estrangements, the disowning and disinheriting of children; even the neighbours were encouraged to join in. "Villagers might also engage in ritual harassment of the offending couple. These rituals, called charivaris, or 'rough music,' were boisterous, obscene, humiliating and sometimes painful ways to punish people who violated community norms."

Such norms have always been a movable feast. In the Middle Ages, women were considered little more than fatty vats of concupiscence (Gregorian reformers defamed them as "harlots"), but in 1698, British philosopher John Locke presented a radical argument: Marriage should be a contract between equals.

Idealization of female chastity promptly followed. By the 19th century, wives and mothers had been effectively desexed by a coy and vicious sentimentality. Historians argue that such ideals were a front, a justification for male dominance at a time when overt patriarchy and absolutism were unacceptable.

Plus ça change. Two Canadian researchers recently posited that in societies with high degrees of gender equality, birthrates fall until the culture collapses and is replaced by a society that restricts women's options in order to encourage higher fertility. Nice try, guys. Studies show that the more traditional the marital roles, the greater the sense of entrapment. Gender scripts create discord. Coontz notes: "The definition of men as providers and women as dependents [lays]the groundwork for outright resentment on both sides."

The definition of marriage is expanding to include the transcendence and self-fulfillment previous generations sought in religious revivals. Asserting the worth of the individual (as opposed to the inherited wealth or political advantage), love-based marriage celebrates both tenderness and freedom of choice. The evidence? As of 2002, "more than two million working fathers were providing the primary child care in their families while their wives were at work."

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Marriage, a History is not the product of a sensibility as succulent as that of another social historian, Simon Schama, but it is a reliquary of critically important facts. Read it.

Antonella Gambotto is the author most recently of Eclipse: A Memoir of Suicide.

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