Better to marry than burn?

Malcolm wishes to be honest: he doesn’t give a fig (there’s significant metaphor in this context!) whether a formalised same-sex partnership is called a ‘marriage’ or not.

He feels ‘Dot Wordsworth’, who does the etymology and exegesis bit for The Spectator (and very well: Malcolm doesn’t miss a single ex-cathedra utterance) was particularly political and subtle in her post on ‘marriage’. For once she totally ignored the whole etymology of the word. Let Malcolm help her to find her place in the OED (which she cites so frequently elsewhere, when it suits):

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French, French marier (c1145; used in lit. and extended senses) < classical Latin marītāre (used of people and animals and in viticulture) < marītus husband (compare marīta wife) < marītus , marīta ‘married’, of uncertain origin. The first element is probably not, as proposed by Priscian and many subsequent etymologists, mari- , mās ‘man, male’; it may be cognate with a number of words for young men and women, e.g. Welsh merch girl (see merchet n.), Lithuanian merga young girl, ancient Greek μεῖραξ young girl (or, in Hellenistic Greek, boy), Sanskrit marya- young man; compare also Crimean Gothic marzus wedding.

In other words, the original usage implied no more than mating. It even extends to grafting vines, which is about as asexual as can be managed.

As for the present little furore over ‘marriage’, Malcolm wonders if we’ve been here previously. Even if a long while ago. Over the summer Malcolm was reading R.I.Moore’s The War of Heresy: Faith and power in medieval EuropeThat received a mention here.

The whole argument is too complex to rehearse her; but the essential point in this context is that, at the first millennium and for the couple of centuries that followed, the Catholic Church was taking control of the institution — was institutionalising — the concept of marriage:

The church was increasingly treating marriage as a sacrament, which meant that it should be performed before the altar and not, as was commonly the case, outside in the churchyard, customarily the forum of the community rather than the domain of the priest. This brought marriage, the most fundamental of social institutions, and therefore the conditions under which it could take place, under the control of the church itself rather than the community. [page 116]

That might remind us of the Wife of Bath:

… lordynges, sith I twelf yeer was of age,
Thonked be God, that is eterne on live,
Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve —
For I so ofte have ywedded bee —
And alle were worthy men in hir degree.

If the tradition of marrying “at the church door” had persisted until the late fourteenth century, when Chaucer was writing and expecting his audience to recognise a country tradition, then the “sacralising of marriage” still had a way to go in the West Country.

Questioning the sacrament of marriage, as Moore insistently illustrates, was a frequent heretic’s route to the pyre.

Let us also remember: when the Church controlled the institution of marriage, it also determined rightful inheritance. Which, in the feudal period, meant deciding social class and the definition of ‘nobility’.

When Wolsey fell, the Chancellorship of England came to Thomas More: that marked the moment when the higher clergy lost their established right to the highest ranks of the royal service — what we might now term the “civil service”. Until 1529, therefore, the Church in England ran the royal courts of Equity. That was the origin of the binary legal system — the common-law and equity courts — which existed down to 1875 (and still has fossilised remains in the law of the land). For the failures of the Court of Chancery see the saga of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which (as Dickens hastens to remind us in the preface to Bleak House) was no gross literary exaggeration:

I mention here that everything set forth in these pages concerning the Court of Chancery is substantially true, and within the truth. The case of Gridley is in no essential altered from one of actual occurrence, made public by a disinterested person who was professionally acquainted with the whole of the monstrous wrong from beginning to end. At the present moment (August, 1853) there is a suit before the court which was commenced nearly twenty years ago, in which from thirty to forty counsel have been known to appear at one time, in which costs have been incurred to the amount of seventy thousand pounds, which is A FRIENDLY SUIT, and which is (I am assured) no nearer to its termination now than when it was begun. There is another well-known suit in Chancery, not yet decided, which was commenced before the close of the last century and in which more than double the amount of seventy thousand pounds has been swallowed up in costs. If I wanted other authorities for Jarndyce and Jarndyce, I could rain them on these pages, to the shame of — a parsimonious public.

Malcolm, then, feels we are entitled to question whether the clerics have an absolute lien on ‘marriage’. Over his lifetime, we have ceased to distinguish between ‘married’ couples and ‘living in sin’. Gradually, legal rights that belonged only to the one institution have been extended to all comers. The ‘civil partnership’ was, and is, at best a convenient fudge.

Time to move on again.

Quite how all that fits with 1 Corinthians, chapter 7, is open to theologians as they count angels on pins.



Filed under bigotry, Charles Dickens, prejudice, Quotations, reading, Religious division

2 responses to “Better to marry than burn?

  1. Doubting Thomas

    I have no dog in this fight since I cannot pretend to Christianity any longer nor am I now or have ever been married but, since the Christian faith is based on the impregnation of a married woman (Mrs Joseph I suppose) by either the Lord himself of the Archangel Gabriel, the loud defence of the integrity of marriage by various sects seems strangely hypocritical. Indeed as I recall (and I’m too idle to check the reference), the Roman Catholics refer to their nuns as the brides of Christ do they not? Might this be seen as polygamy if I’m right in my recall? Indeed, further, is not the concept of unconsummateable marriage to what the Church sees as the son of man and God not in itself a very peculiar idea and indeed inimical tothe concept of marriage as loudly proclaimed by the said Roman Catholic Church as the union of a man and a woman for the procreation of children?

  2. Malcolm Redfellow

    I have to admit my last vestige of adolescent religious angst went permanently AWOL when I found myself laughing aloud at Steinbeck’s (very) short story of St Katy the Virgin.

    Lest we forget:
    St Katy was the reformed sow capable of performing miracles. It was pointed out that a sow that had farrowed hardly qualified as a virgin. The defence was, in the matter of virginity, there was little physical difference between the violence of man/boar from without and of the goodness of God from within.

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