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.


Beth Loughner said...


I'm like you; history was the most boring subject in school and now (ever since my Barbie lunch box became known as vintage) it's absolutely wonderful.

About the cousins/marriage deal: In nursing school, we were taught that genetics was behind the thou-shalt-not-marry-your-first-cousin laws. As time progresses, genetic defects become more and more prominent in individuals. Since these genetic defects (which we might never see except with a genetic DNA test)obviously run in the family genes, there is a high probability of physical defects in the children they might have.

Dominant and recessive defects might never be seen unless both parents carry the defective gene. Once both parents have the defective gene, there are varying degrees of chance (depending on the dominant or recessive)as to whether the child will manifest this defect. So......genetic defects that run in the family have a greater chance of both parents carrying the same defects, and thus, having children born with genetic defects.

I know this is a long explanation, but thought it might be interesting.


Rhonda said...

I found your research interesting, Becky. Like you, I've read many books where the widower marries his wife's sister.

Kristy Dykes said...

Sounds like a very interesting setup for a novel--the woman coming and nursing her sister but she dies; later, she and the man fall in love but the law keeps them apart. It's the forbidden aspect to it that would make for great conflict and a new twist to this scenario.

Great post!

Mary Connealy said...

I loved the part you wrote about what Leviticus 'meant' to say. How funny that they'd rewrite the Bible, then claim it should have been in there. It reminds me a bit of all the new rights judges keep finding in the Constitution. If we look hard enough we can...make up anything.

carolyn slaughter said...

My grandparents had 3 children. My grandmother died when my mother was 2 years old. Years later my grandfather married my grandmother's sister--his sister-in-law. They had 2 boys. So my mother's brothers were actually her half brothers and first cousins. They considered themselves fullblooded brothers and sisters and they all resembled each other. I had 2 grandmothers on my maternal side of the family.

Becky said...

I've seen the widower marry sister-in-law scenario in stories, but I had never thought about any legal problems with it before now. So I had to wonder if even the authors had found the rather obsure law once banning the relationship.

Tracing some family trees can get really confusing because of where family lines can cross and such. FUN

Thanks for reading.