Tag Archives: Polygyny

A Brief Guide to Marriage Around the World

It seems every six months or so someone’s questions lead me to write a long involved post on social media about the history of marriage, the variety of forms marriage takes around the world, and how monogamy as practiced in the US and Europe today has not actually been the “one true” marriage for the past thousand years. In fact, as practiced in the US and Europe today hasn’t even been around for a hundred years.

The topic came up again recently. I decided this time instead of posting on social media, I’ll write a blog post so I don’t need to keep rewriting the same info. So this week we’re taking a break from the current running blog series. Today’s post is a brief review of marriage practices around the world. Thursday will be a review of the history of Christian European marriage–which is what most people I know are talking about when they go on about “traditional marriage.”

A Glossary of Marriage

Anthropologists have spent over fifty years arguing about how to define of marriage. As far as I can tell, they still haven’t come to a consensus. Think about that a moment. Marriage varies so widely across cultures that we can’t even define it properly. Most attempted definitions include one or more of:

1) restricted sexual access (ie, sex only with marital partners)

2) economic responsibility for marital partners

3) recognition of paternity and/or responsibility for raising children together

There seems to be a general consensus among anthropoligists that marriage is universal. I find this a questionable conclusion, especially in light of the sonhun (“walking marriage”) of the Mosuo. (My usual reference for the Mosuo practices is http://www.mosuoproject.org/mosuo.htm — a site which I recall as being maintained by members of the Mosuo. Unfortunately that site is down as of this writing. For an academic source check here: https://imaginarsocial.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/stacey_marriage1.pdf) It seems (especially in light of the argument about defining marriage) that anthropologists have sometimes looked for a practice which might resemble marriage as they understood it and then adjusted the definition to fit.

While you are thinking about that, here are some terms related to marriage I’ll be using in this post:

  1. Monogamy: marriage involving two people
  2. Polygamy: marriage involving more than two people
  3. Polygyny: marriage involving one man and several women
  4. Polyandry: marriage involving one woman and several men
  5. Group marriage: marriage between multiple men and multiple women, sometimes called polygynandry
  6. Term marriage: marriage which lasts only for a set time
  7. Arranged marriage: marriage which is arranged by a third party with the consent of the spouses-to-be
  8. Forced marriage: marriage with is arranged by a third party without the consent of one or more spouses-to-be
  9. Social polygamy: arrangement where marriage is legally only recognized between two people, but sexual/romantic/intimate relationships outside of marriage are socially recognized
  10. Social monogamy: only marriage between two people is legally and socially recognized, but other relationships are expected as long as they are hidden

Marriage Around the World

Marriage both now and throughout history has taken a variety of forms.
The Ethnogrphic Atlas found that of ~1300 cultures, most practiced a mix of polygyny and monogamy, some practiced monogamy, and a very few (four) practiced polyandry. Anthropologists have since found an additional 53 cultures which practice polyandry and (according to wiki) 4 which have group marriages. Unfortunately I don’t have access to the citation for group marriages.

Many of the cultures which practice exclusive monogamy allow for social monogamy or serial monogamy. I don’t know of any cultures which practice social polygamy today. Several countries in Europe used to practice it, including France where the king’s mistress had a recognized position in the court. (For a layperson’s introduction: Kathleen Wellman, Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013.) Concubinage was a common practice in some socially polygamous cultures. Concubines had a socially (and sometimes legally) recognized position, but did not have the status of wives. (As practiced in Greece and Rome: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah22061/abstract)

Some cultures allow for term marriages. In the US, the best known of these may be the Celtic tradition of handfasting* (marriage for a year and a day). Some neo-pagan groups have revived this tradition. Term marriages were also practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia and Persia. The custom, most often called mut’ah, survives to this day in the Shi’ite sect of Islam. There are accusations that in some cases mut’ah is practiced today as a religiously legitimate cover for sex work and sexual trafficking.

Arranged marriage has been the norm for much of recorded history and remains common in some parts of the world. Forced marriage has often, though not always, existed side by side with arranged marriage. In some places forced marriages have been technically illegal but still practiced. For instance, in Christian Europe a marriage could only happen with the consent of both the bride and groom. However, women and men were both often pressured or coerced into a marriage against their will. Women seem to be the victims of forced marriage more often, as many cultures that have arranged marriage allow the man to arrange his own marriage. However in cases of child engagements or where a large inheritance or political alliance was in the balance, both sons and daughters might be bartered off. (And yes, I am deliberately referring to people as property in this case, because often that is exactly what they were treated as.)

Arranged marriages continue in many parts of the world today. I have known or known of people in the US, Israel, India, and several Islamic countries who have been in arranged marriages or had an arranged engagement that was later broken off. Some have sought out arranged marriages through the services of a matchmaker. Others have had their marriages arranged by families. All the people I have personally known have been pleased with their arrangements and had the right to break off the engagement if they changed their minds.

Forced marriage, either legal or illegal, continues to be reported in many parts of the world today.

I apologize for not citing my information on arranged and forced marriages. I do not currently have any saved citations, and searching for citation is likely to be triggering for me. However information on these marriage forms is relatively easy to find. Adding “pdf” to your search terms is quick way to filter for academic papers.

Wrap Up

Obviously this is a very general overview. The full details on the variety of marriage practices around the world could fill a library. I am a some-what read layperson and not any kind of expert. Please use my citations as a jumping off point for your own research, don’t take them as the end-all be-all on marriage. And if you have additional information or citations, please share in the comments.

*Many sources will cite the work of A.E. Anton in the 1950s who said that handfasting only meant betrothal and the idea of it being a “year and a day” marriage could not be found prior to mythic histories from the 1800s. However other sources cite the Gaelic scholar Martin Martin’s book “A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland” published in 1639: “It was an ancient custom in the Isles that a man take a maid as his wife and keep her for the space of a year without marrying her; and if she pleased him all the while, he married her at the end of the year and legitimatised her children; but if he did not love her, he returned her to her parents.” The Statues of Iona (1609) are also cited as banning marriage contracts for a set term of years, suggesting that such marriages were allowed prior to 1609. I haven’t been able to find a non-pay walled text of the Statutes and don’t have access to a copy of Martin Martin.


(All citations accessed on 4/16/2016 unless otherwise noted)