In ancient times, marriage was an institution among the wealthy, arranged entirely by parents as part of their political and economic strategy. Many cultures saw love as an impediment to marriage, best practiced outside of it. When did the modern idea of love-based marriage become common?

I'm looking at two key time periods: the Renaissance, with the end of feudalism and the rise of the middle class, and the Enlightenment, with the rise of individualism and the end of arranged marriage. The Renaissance seems to be when the idea reached cultural popularity, with The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare, but the precise time at which it became actual practice and the cause remain elusive. I have heard it attributed to the new middle class wanting upward mobility, to the end of feudalism reducing the need for intranational political alliances, and much earlier to the church wanting to control the masses. What factors were most important to the development of modern marriage, and when?

Between these periods, there was a time when marriage was still arranged, but it was often said that couples would "grow into love." At this point, was marriage still serving primarily to further family interests, or was it now serving the happiness of the couple, with the assumptions that money was an important contribution to the marriage and that parents were better at making this decision than their children? Was the arrangement of marriage still done for familial strategy that was not eliminated until the Enlightenment, or was it a vestige of the past that people simply continued until Enlightenment individualism found that people were better at finding happiness on their own?

I'm interested primarily in the history of Western marriage culture, but shifts in other cultures would provide interesting context.

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    Marriage has always had both the elements of love and the elements of settling the wife's economic position intertwined. Sometimes love was expected to develop later rather than before marriage. But a black/white all love or all position view is untenable. – Oldcat Mar 25 '15 at 0:30
  • I remember reading somewhere about the "Romeo and Juliet Revolution" (I can't remember where), basically that from about 1600-1900 in Europe and America there was a general shift away from arranged marriages to marriages chosen by the two partners. Sorry I can't be more specific as to what historians wrote about this social shift. – Mike Mar 25 '15 at 2:04
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    -1. "Love was also seen as an impediment to marriage"? Someone must have forgotten to tell the biblical writers, who speak of love in connection with Isaac's marriage to Rebecca (Gen. 24:67), Jacob's to Rachel (29:18 passim) - and Leah expecting that as well (29:32), a slave's to his wife (Ex. 21:5), Elkanah's to Hannah (I Sam. 1:5), Michal's to David (18:20 passim), Solomon's to his wives (I Kings 11:1-2), the ideal husband to his wife (Prov. 5:19)... – user438 Mar 25 '15 at 2:37
  • @user438 I didn't say "everywhere". Multiple cultures however came to this conclusion; stephaniecoontz.com/books/marriage/chapter1.htm has some examples. – Vitruvie Mar 25 '15 at 3:51
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    Poor people married too, and they tend not to share the political and financial baggage of elites. Of course, even among the wealthy or noble, some people married for love too. Others married for a mix of personal feelings and an eye on potential gains. Love is not a factor in every marriage, but we have ample examples of people marrying for love. – Semaphore Mar 25 '15 at 5:14

The idea of romantic love has a long history, but whether or not actual family formation is affected by that idea is a different question. A historiographical tradition in the 1970s tied the rise of romantic love in practice to the rise of modern capitalism and individualism. However, historians now largely believe that romantic love influenced many medieval marriages:

Christopher Brooke shows how important consent and affection was in medieval marriage, Martin Ingram shows the presence of love in ecclesiastical court litigation from the sixteenth century and Kathleen Davies shows that the ideals of family life changed very little as between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries (Outhwaite 1981:chaps. 1,2,3). In one of the first syntheses of the new historical research on early modern England, Keith Wrightson devotes two chapters to the family, drawing on a very wide range of published and unpublished sources. He concludes that below the level of aristocracy, gentry and urban elite "there is no doubt whatever that...the initiative in selecting a spouse already lay with the young people concerned" in the period between 1580 and 1680. In the motivation of those getting married, he can discern no significant shift in this period (Wrightson 1982:74,79).

The thinking now is that romantic love is most practical in societies with weak kinship systems. This has described England (and likely most of Northern Europe) since Anglo-Saxon times:

Romantic love also fitted with the kinship system ... In closely-knit, interdependent, kinship-based societies "any considerable range of affective spontaneity would tend to impinge on the statuses and interests of too many others, with disequilibriating consequences for the system as a whole" (Parsons 1964:187-8). When wider kinship is strong, marriages are arranged and affection between husband and wife is a secondary force. As Sjoberg has written, "Romantic love is, of all things, an expression of individualism, and as such it is at variance with the maintenance of a well-integrated extended kinship unit" (1960:153). . .

We now know that the cognatic kinship system which isolates out the husband and wife in terminology and residence was present in England from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. There is little evidence that wider kinship groupings were important in everyday life among the mass of the population. Romantic love was an appropriate ideology which could both flourish and hold together this individualistic system.

To the extent that modern capitalism has encouraged an even greater development of the "nuclear family," the tendencies of all cultures toward romantic love have also grown more noticeable.

Again, this isn't to suggest that the idea of romantic love is particularly Western or modern. Rather, the influence of romantic love on actual family formation is determined by economics, politics, and other kinship patterns. Love therefore becomes manifest in unique ways in each culture. As Alan MacFarlane puts it:

The biological urge to mate, based on a deep attraction between males and females is universal. But the way in which cultures encourage, use, or discourage it varies enormously. In the majority of societies, the feelings have not been encouraged, marriage and individual sentiment are not connected, and marriages have been arranged. This has made it possible to maintain the cohesion of wider groups of which the individual is not a separated part. Something about the kinship system in parts of Europe, and the way it interlocked with politics, economics and religion, gave the biological drives a great deal of freedom. Indeed the economy and society seemed positively to stimulate the natural emotions.

Source: Alan MacFarlane, "Love and Capitalism"


There is a book that goes into it: Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Sadly, I haven't had a chance to read it yet. I heard the author interviewed at length about it, but it was years ago when it came out, so bear with me here (hopefully someone who has a copy for reference will answer).

From what I remember of the discussions of it, highlights are:

Marriages being about love is a fairly new thing. Through most of history in most societies marriages were arranged, often with no input from one or both spouses. Their main purpose was to further the social goals of both families involved. Internally, they were about setting up and running a house, producing progeny, etc. In many societies (eg: Ancient Greece) love, if an object at all, was something a man was supposed to seek outside of the home. In the home, it was often even discouraged, as it complicated the man's performance of his responsibilities as head of the household.

The shift (according to the author) started sometime around the Victorian era, and reached fruition in the US at least sometime around the start of the 20th Century, with courts beginning to allow divorces for "loss of affection" (a concept that makes sense only when marriage is believed to be about love).


I think the question is a bit too broad. Mesoamerican cultures may have made this transition at a different time than South Pacific Islanders. Update: although I lack the scholarship to provide evidence, I strongly suspect that marriage among the lower classes was more about love and less about political advantage. Political advantage wouldn't have been absent, but I suspect that love/lust played a larger role. Furthermore, I am skeptical of the ability to measure what you describe. Each couple will have a different balance of lust, respect and mutual political advantage, and it may shift over time.

That said, my understanding of European history is that the transition is typically anchored in the Courts of Catherine of Aaragon and the development of Courtly Love.


Have you looked up C.S.Lewis' "Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition"?

I started reading it, and right at the beginning he explains that most of the idea of "love" in medieval times is a result of at least one famous writing being misunderstood: Ovid's 'The Art of Love.'

Instead of being taken satirically, as it should have been, -says Lewis,- Ovid's work was taken seriously by many, which produced much of what later came to be called normal, "romantic" behavior.


At least 3000 years ago, if you want to interpret Greek mythology and the Iliad from a 21st century perspective.

Paris of Troy was given the job to judge which of three goddesses (Aphrodite, Athena, Hera) was the most beautiful. He chose Aphrodite because she bribed him, promising the love of Helen of Sparta. Ultimately this led to Paris kidnapping/marrying Helen and the Trojan War as told in the Iliad.

Traditional dating of the Trojan War recounted by Homer is in the 1100BC ballpark, giving us 3000+ years of "love" being a potential primary motivator of marriage over politics/economics.

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    There are probably a lot of lessons that may be drawn from that part of the story, but I don't think "this is how normal marriages work" is one of them. – T.E.D. Mar 25 '15 at 15:05

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