Patriarchy, monogamy and divorce

It’s a feminist commonplace that most societies, past and present, have been patriarchies, in the sense of being systematically controlled by men and run in the interest of preserving their power. For Western Europe in the Middle Ages and classical period, if you change that to ‘powerful men’, it’s also a fairly evident truth, even to non-feminists. What’s more difficult for some feminist thought is why, therefore, restrictions (social and/or legal) develop which restrict the choices of elite men and/or improve the position of women. Why should powerful men adopt behaviour that is apparently less favourable to their interests? Some of the more doctrinaire feminism is therefore prone to convoluted explanations as to why certain developments are really just a more subtle way of oppressing women. But there are also more interesting approaches to such questions. I want in this post to look at two particular issues. Why did Europe become a (theoretically) monogamous society and why did Western Europe develop restrictions on men being able to divorce unilaterally?

On the question of monogamy, I’ve come across a very interesting paper on the net:
‘Monogamy and polygyny in Greece, Rome, and world history’ by a Stanford classicist called Walter Scheidel. He starts by pointing out that ‘Socially Imposed Universal Monogamy’ (SIUM) (social pressures by which only one marriage is allowed for all men, including the powerful), is in global historical terms a fairly unusual phenomenon. It seems to have developed first in classical Greece, and from there spread to Rome and to medieval Europe via Christianity. He then explores possible reasons for its development. He argues that an economics approach that sees polygyny as arising from female choice is insufficient. (This claims that polygyny is beneficial to women, essentially because a marriage where you get a share in a rich/powerful man’s resources is better than one where you get all of a poor/powerless man’s resources, the sort of stupid idea that only economists and evolutionary psychologists could come up with).

He sees as a more significant factor that polygyny tends to increase competition (and decrease co-operation) between men, because they’re competing more fiercely for women to marry, and that this competition is greater the more socially unequal the society is. He suggests that in Early Iron Age Greece (or possibly as late as the sixth century BC), a relative lack of social hierarchy (after the collapse of the palace system) may have led to the development of new egalitarian institutions, including socially imposed universal monogamy (pp. 11-12). What he is less sure about is why polygyny didn’t revive in more prosperous later periods when social inequality increased again.

What I’d argue is that SIUM is a ‘trapdoor’ ideology: once you’ve inculcated it as a universal norm, it’s quite hard to retreat and argue that actually it should no longer apply to certain groups, and that rich men should be allowed to have as many wives as they like. In practice, there were ways that powerful Greco-Roman men could get access to more women than the poor (basically by the sexual exploitation of slaves) (Scheidel pp. 12-13), but the ideology of one wife only (and no resident concubines) remained, and was passed onto the Christian west.

What I have started wondering is whether the same theories of male compromise and a ‘trapdoor’ ideology apply to another distinctive development in the late antique/medieval west: the development of the principle of ‘indissoluble marriage’. Why was this principle adopted by the early church and held onto surprisingly strictly for so long? A traditional feminist view, stressing gendered power relations, would expect instead some form of asymmetric divorce rule, in which men could terminate marriages at will, with women unable to initiate divorce (broadly the pattern in much Muslim law and in early Judaism). Why, instead, did divorces become progressively harder for men to gain in the third to ninth centuries? (It’s not enough to cite New Testament teachings on divorce: early Christians proved themselves able to ignore or explain away a large number of Jesus’ precepts).

A look at the Roman situation is useful here. Roman law allowed divorce at the will of either party to a marriage. Among the elite, marriages were essentially about the alliance of a man with his father-in-law, via the medium of a wife; divorce was common if a better alliance became available. (The extent to which Roman women’s ‘freedom’ to divorce benefited them should not be overestimated: for one thing, they would automatically lose custody of any children, and it is also clear that they were sometimes forced to divorce by their family of birth). Such a pattern of divorce was associated with extreme competition between elite men and social instability. Limitations on divorce were an obvious way of restricting such competition and encouraging stability. The first Christian Roman emperors therefore produced marriage laws which restricted the occasions for divorce, but in a gendered-biased way: men could obtain divorces for serious transgressions by their wives, women for extreme transgressions by their husbands. Carolingian rulers pushed the restrictions even further, making marriage theoretically indissoluble.

Here again, we seem to have a ‘trapdoor’ ideology: once divorce has been restricted to enhance social stability, it’s hard to allow it again, and relatively easy to tighten it. It takes a much more individualistic society (such as Victorian and post-Victorian Britain) to accept as a general argument that individual happiness should be given preference to collective stability in divorce cases. The ideology of indissolubility remained consistent for a millennium and more, even if (as with 2500 years of Western monogamy), there were practical loopholes which some elite men could use to get round the rules.

I want to finish with a feminist question: were these historically specific developments of socially imposed universal monogamy and indissoluble marriage good for women collectively? I think there is a pretty good argument that SIUM was. It might be possible to claim that polygyny economically benefits some individual women, but on the whole, it increases conflict between women within a household. It’s hard to argue that most secondary wives, concubines etc get much benefit from the institution, and modern polygynous societies are certainly not noted for good treatment of women.

It’s harder to argue that indissoluble marriage has on the whole, benefited women: an important part of the feminist movement back to the eighteenth century has argued for liberalisation of the divorce laws. However, the principle of indissoluble marriage did have one advantage for feminists: it made divorce reform in the modern period an issue of personal concern for men, not just women. If restrictions on divorce in the late antique and early medieval West had been applied to women only (as happened in Judaism and Islam), I suspect that modern divorce laws would have taken much longer to lose their gender bias. Social agreements between groups of men in long-ago Western patriarchies have sometimes had the side-effect of long-term benefits for women as a group, even if that was not the aim of the patriarchs concerned.


2 thoughts on “Patriarchy, monogamy and divorce

  1. Sometimes it’s worth thinking about how social change might benefit the much-loved daughters of powerful men. In 19th-20th century Muslim societies the first women educated were rich ones, with the encouragement or acceptance of otherwise conservative fathers.


  2. From the point of view of behavioral biology it’s totally obvious that monogamy is the sex egalitarian system. Check out the fact that the more a species is monogamous (aka pair-bonding species vs tournament species), the less different males and females are.


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