An Older View of Marriage

I was just reading Ragnhild Johnrud Zorgati's Pluralism in the Middle Ages:  Hybrid Identities, Conversion, and Mixed Marriages in Medieval Iberia.  There's an interesting passage I wanted to quote to you as it pertains to our occasional discussion of the nature of marriage.  We're familiar with Aquinas' natural law view of matrimony, i.e., that view of marriage that takes its form from the nature of humankind.

Aquinas lived in the 13th century, though, and his formulation out of the natural law didn't occur until the writings of Aristotle were restored to the West.  It is Aristotle, after all, who puts such an emphasis on "the nature of the thing" in determining questions about ethics and justice (and indeed even physics).  Those writings came to the Church out of Spain, especially following the conquest of Toledo in 1085.  When the Christians found themselves in possession of the great libraries of Toledo, rather than burn them (as the Mongols did to the libraries in Baghdad and Persia) they set up teams of translators.  Many Christians who spoke and read Arabic lived in the city, as well as Jewish scholars who could read multiple languages.  Translation from Arabic into Latin and other languages accessible in Europe became a focus of the Crown of Castille, which provided the funding for the efforts led by the Church.

Before that, marriage did not have the natural law reading in the West.  It still had a unique character in Christian civilization, though, opposed to the contractual reading.  Marriage was a contract in Islam.  Dr. Zorgati explains (p. 102):
According to Charles Donahue, “the most frequently made comparative statement about the Christian law of marriage, on the one hand, and the Islamic [ . . . ] or the Jewish [ . . . ], on the other, is that marriage is a sacrament in Christianity but it is not in Islam or Judaism” (Donahue, 2008, 46). In studies dedicated to Muslim marriages, it is often its contractual nature which is at the forefront. 6 However, the opposition between marriage as contract and marriage as sacrament has to be nuanced. First, there is not one Islamic marriage contract, but many, since different legal schools developed different requirements for the marriage contract, and because people could add individual stipulations to their contracts. Second, although the idea of marriage as a sacrament has roots back to Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, it was first translated into legal doctrine in the twelfth century (Donahue, 2008, 47). According to Islamic law, “marriage is a contract (ʿaqd), established by bilateral agreement” (Ali, 2008, 11). It is a mundane transaction (muʿāmala) which some jurists also saw as an act of worship (ʿibāda) since according to one ḥadīth a married person has fulfilled half of his or her religion (Ali, 2008, 11). Moreover, one of the essential features of the contract is the offer (ījāb) made by the bride’s family and the acceptance (qabūl) of the groom’s family (Ali, 2008, 11– 13). Other important elements are the dower (ṣadāq) and the role played by the guardian and the witnesses, as well as the consent of the contracting parties.
The Church's idea ran in contrast to the actual practice of the Christian people:  before the 12th century, Christians tended to prefer arranged marriages based on social class and the preservation of the stability of the family.  As the Church developed the idea of marriage as a sacrament, though, the sacred character of the bond tended to undermine family authority (Zorgati p. 104):

The insistence of the free consent of the parties must be understood in relation to the developing view that marriage constituted a sacrament. Canonists writing in the decades before Alexander III insisted on the sacramental character of marriage. For example, Peter Lombard established that marriage was one of the seven sacraments of the Church, whereas Hugh of Saint Victor explored the etymology of ‘sacrament’ that he thought corresponded to ‘holy sign’ (sacrum signum). 10 Hence, in addition to the received idea that the relationship between husband and wife was analogous to the relationship between Christ and the Church— a mystery, or sacrament, according to Saint Paul— he saw marriage as a sign of the mutual love between the soul and God. This new idea had, according to Donahue, an impact on the doctrine of free consent in marriage which developed at the same time: “A theology that sees in marriage a sign of the mutual yearning of the soul for God and of God for the soul would tend to emphasize, as Hugh does, the element of choice in marriage, and would tend to exclude the choice of anyone else as being relevant to the question of the formation of marriage” (Donahue, 2008, 54). 
That's an interesting view, and one that is in contrast with the view that Aquinas came to in the next century.  The principal end of matrimony in that view, derived from "the nature of the thing," is filling the need for humanity to reproduce itself across generations:  not only to procreate, but to educate and develop children so they are able to sustain themselves and support the greater society of which they are part.

Unlike the Islamic and Jewish contractual view, the Christian view permitted the two parties who loved each other to come together regardless of their rank in society, but only by their own free choice.  Also unlike the contractual views, however, divorce was forbidden.  The Love that could unify a man and a woman of different ranks into one flesh was a miracle.  None should dare to live in defiance of such a miracle.


douglas said...

"That's an interesting view, and one that is in contrast with the view that Aquinas came to in the next century. The principal end of matrimony in that view, derived from "the nature of the thing," is filling the need for humanity to reproduce itself across generations: not only to procreate, but to educate and develop children so they are able to sustain themselves and support the greater society of which they are part.

I suppose you could make those two views consistent by claiming that the sacramental view is the best way to move toward the form defined by Aquinas. It would then seem to maintain a consistency and adherence to internal logic of both parts.

Grim said...

I'm sure that an argument of that sort was made: that a sacramental marriage was also the best way of achieving the perfection of the upbringing of the children. Why not? A sacramental marriage ensures an environment of love -- between the partners, and between the partners and God. Naturally this should help perfect the upbringing of the children, who benefit from the love of their parents and (especially from the Church's perspective) an upbringing that will include love of God.

That said, there's a fundamental difference in what is taken to be the principle end of the marriage. The 12th-century sacramental view is based on the notion that the end of marriage is a spiritual relationship between the two partners and God. The procreation and raising of children aren't relevant to that question: it's all about the current generation. This makes sense if you believed (as the early Christian writers that the 12th-century thinkers were relying upon appeared to believe) that the end may come in this generation.

The 13th-century view is that it is based on an end that pertains to our nature as human beings; and that the children, not the partners, are where we look for the principle end. It's a view based on natural philosophy, the precursor to science, rather than on religion as such. Aquinas made it compatible with religion, but the basis is not in religious doctrine. It's in the nature of the thing -- our nature, that is, as human beings.

douglas said...

Are those two view in conflict? I understand that since both descriptions are identified as ends, there would seem to be a conflict, but I'm not sure they are the same end- There are multiple ends to consider. A marriage has to serve multiple interests and needs, and perhaps this two-pronged approach is best, as it accommodates and puts in synch the needs of the individuals and the needs of the collective society, in the persons of the offspring.

Now, I suspect you'll get at me about the form of a thing, and if marriage is a thing, it ought to have one form, but I'm not sure all concepts (as opposed to a physical thing) can be limited to one form- at least, that's where I'm at right now.

Grim said...

Well, it's usually the other way around. Things participate in many forms. You and I both have the form of man, and the form of animal; if you get sunburned, you may take on the form of red and then progressively lose it.

A concept usually is a form, at least on a Platonic reading: "beauty" is not only a concept, but participation in the form of the beautiful. Thus a concept by its nature is a unity: we find the quality in several apparently different things that proves to be the same thing.

On an Aristotelian reading, a form is an order. A table has a form that arises from having been ordered so that things can be set on top of it. That's its essential nature, because the form was designed in order to give the wood or metal or whatever the capacity to do that.

Marriage isn't just a concept, though; it's also an institution, i.e., a thing. Aquinas would want to know the essential function that the institution was created to serve. Like the table, marriage has a purpose: it was structured in a given way for the purpose of creating a capacity.

Even so, if you read through Aquinas' extensive writings on marriage, you'll find that he thinks it serves several functions and has several ends. One of them is the principle end. That's the big thing. Everything else is secondary; and so we can judge the degree of perfection correctly from the principle end first, and then -- if the principle end is satisfied -- from the satisfaction of the subordinate ends.

douglas said...

Ahh, so I've flipped it on it's head- oops!

I think I see the key here though- here is marriage as the union of man and woman, and marriage as the institution- two different things- and two different, but related ends.