Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Historical Marriage Tidbits
History can be a fascinating thing. Who would have thought I'd say so as a bored high school student?
We go along in our daily lives thinking that the way things are are the way things always have been, until something stops us in our tracks and makes us say "really?"
That happened to me last week when I came across an historical tidbit that talked about how it was once considered incestuous and illegal for a widower to marry his wife's sister. (Didn't I just see that type of union in a historical romance?) It appears that the Puritans were diligent with their moral codes to the point of being impractical.
On the frontier a sister would often come to the home to help in times of illness or death. It would be a practical union for a man to marry his late wife's sister who was already familiar with the family routine and children. And many settlers did go against the law to marry, until the law was finally dropped in all states around the mid-1800s. I couldn't find where any couple was really punished for marrying, but there was certainly debate occurring regularly on the subject.
Leviticus 18 is very detailed in defining what is a close relationship that should be avoided in marriage. The law against marrying a wife's sister seems clearly related to the Old Testament tradition of polygamy. The story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel backs up the wisdom of avoiding such family strife.
I really wouldn't have given it much thought in today's culture to read a wedding announcement between a widower and his wife's sister (or vice versa).
The scripture also curiously does not name cousins as a relation too close for marriage. In fact, other areas of the OT seem to encourage the practice. As a Jane Austen fan, I found this point interesting because most all of her books mention a cousin marriage. (It appears still legal in England to marry first cousins.)
It seems many US states didn't have issue with cousin marriage until late in the 1800s. Those that did before then seemed based on Puritan rules that assumed Leviticus "meant" to say cousins. Laws banning first cousin marriages that came into being after the Victorian era seem based on science/evolution/survival of the fittest mindsets that assume the 2% added risk for defect in resulting children is too great. (Some states like Colorado still don't ban first cousin marriage.)
I don't hear of first cousins marrying these days, but I'm sure you can find such a couple in most of our family lineages.
Isn't history and the fashioning of our cultural standards fascinating?
I haven't studied these in depth. Just scratched the surface. I just thought you might be interested in these tidbits the next time you sit down to plot and think about how your romantic couple might know each other or even be related – and their resulting conflicts.
Editor Du Jour Becky