The social institution of marriage has roots that reach back thousands of years. Written history shows that Greeks recognized marriage though they usual didn’t use a formal, public ceremony. At the time, men were several years older than the bride, who was often a teenager.
Roman society conducted marriages in much the same way, with no specific civil or religious ceremony to mark the occasion. There were a few exceptions, when the couple had witnesses and made a public confession of their marriage. In some situations, wives in Rome recognized the marriage to her husband but remained under the authority of her father.
Even in the time of the early Christians, marriage was essentially a private arrangement. For members of this growing group, it wasn’t necessary to have a “religious” ceremony to be considered marriage. For the next few centuries, couples in Europe declared intent to marry but did not conduct a public or church-based ceremony. Sometimes marriages were recorded in church records but that was the extent of religious involvement.
In Israel centuries ago, marriage was seen as a way to continue the man’s family name through procreation – having sons, especially. The father of the man who was to be married most often chose the bride for his son. In Germany, things were a bit different. Marriage was seen as a commercial agreement, almost a sale of the bride to the man’s family. Over the course of years, this changed considerably. Beginning in the 12th century and for several centuries afterward, priests were gradually introduced into the marriage ceremony.
In the 16th century, marriages were only “official” if there were witnesses and a priest involved. Further involvement by the government came a few years later. Legal guidelines for marriage began to appear in the late 1700s and the 1800s, with marriage laws becoming common in the 1830s and beyond.
Marriage in Asian countries, such as China, is based partly on myth and partly on the few records available. For many couples, the man and woman remained very much part of their original families or clans. The two were buried in their family/clan burial plots, maintaining the separation that always existed during their marriage.
There have always been arranged marriages, with some countries and cultures using this method of finding a mate more than others. In some places on the globe, young brides are actually kidnapped. They are taken forcibly and sexual violence is part of the act.
Marriage ceremonies – religious, civil or a combination of the two – vary greatly depending on the location. In fact, some countries recognize a marriage only after both a religious ceremony and a civil ceremony (some European countries, some South American countries). For the past few centuries, marriages in England and Wales have been conducted in public ceremonies. It is not always necessary to hold a wedding ceremony in a church or other religious building.
Marriages between one man and one woman still account for most marriages, though multiple wives have been the practice in some religions in the 19th and 20th centuries.