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17 December, 2012  ▪  Volodymyr Masliychuk

To Marry or not to Marry

The evolution of marriage from forced to voluntary, from church to civil, and from convenience to love

The history of marriage is one of the most confusing aspects of private life. On the one hand, it has always been subject to strict regulation by laws, religious dogmas and traditions. On the other, history offers plenty of examples when all these formalities were broken. The change of attitude towards family relations in Europe – and Ukraine – reflects civilizational shifts in societies.


Conventional norms of family life and marriage were extremely sacral in ancient communities. “The Primary Chronicle” offers a vivid description of relations between men and women in Eastern Slavic tribes: “The Polans followed the tradition of their ancestors, quiet and gentle… They also had a wedding ritual: a groom did not go to the bride’s home; instead, she was brought to him in the evening and the next day whatever was paid for her was taken to her family. The Drevlians lived like animals, like cattle: they did not have weddings. They would capture girls when the latter went out to get water. The Radimichs, Severians and Vyatichi had a tradition… Instead of weddings, they had games between villages, dancing and singing demonic songs, and stealing the women they had an arrangement with. They had two or three wives.” The chronicler focused on Christian morals and the crucial role of marriage in the eyes of God, as well as traditional wedding rites. Most importantly, both brides and grooms made a voluntary choice.

Christianity brought a special attitude towards marriage that was interpreted as a sacrament through a church wedding, while monogamy was recognized as the only form of family and spousal relations. Still, the church began to regulate marriage fairly late in history, introducing its control over matrimony gradually, leaving numerous exceptions and pre-Christian rituals intact.

Byzantium did not introduced church weddings as a mandatory ritual until the 10th century. From there, it was adopted in Kyiv Rus. A century later, it was introduced in Western Europe having absorbed strict elements of Germanic laws, which viewed monogamy as a top priority, imposed heavy punishment for cheating and losing virginity before marriage, yet allowed women and children to be sold. All this was also affected by the social order: common people were quite distant from the church at that time, celebrating marriage with weddings and dancing. Church marriage was left to the wealthy.

Traditional marriages included plenty of symbolic acts. The complex marriage ceremony was often preceded by various betrothals, engagements and matchmaking. The bride and groom did not know each other before the matchmaking and betrothal. What people interpreted as love was supposed to come after years of living together, keeping house, raising children and going through bad times together. The groom’s parents took a daughter-in-law into their home as a new pair of working hands, often encouraged by a good dowry. In addition to this, in many cultures, the groom was supposed to buy the bride. Parents and church or secular hierarchies were often the ones choosing spouses for their children.

The religious role of marriage that gradually became essential and widely-accepted also had many interesting aspects to it. The church worked on controlling both family life and divorces. In this case, Orthodoxy went along with folk traditions. This was one of the reasons why the Pope reproached Orthodoxy, since the Orthodox Church allowed its followers to get divorced up to three times, providing they had sufficient grounds, while the Catholic Church forbade it.

Ukrainian history features several important points about marriage. Living on the border facilitated democratic family relations in Ukraine and the spread of voluntary marriages. Unlike the clergy, which viewed matrimony as a mandatory procedure, customary law viewed marriage as an agreement that was voluntary in most cases.

Historian and writer Orest Levytsky describes quite a few episodes from marital and family life in the 16-18th centuries. “a church marriage ceremony in itself, without the traditional wedding ritual, had no significant meaning in matrimony, and was celebrated as a purely religious act,” he writes. It was more important to cut a deal after the matchmaking and betrothal. Wasyl Wygowski, a Greek-Catholic nobleman from Ovruch (now in the Zhytomyr Oblast) complained in 1726 that the Werbytskis, a noble family, had agreed to his marriage with their daughter. After the betrothal, they did not wait for the actual wedding ceremony and married her off to another man, thus disgracing Wygowski. At that time, the act of a church marriage was not viewed as something important.

With time, church practices with their numerous exceptions took over customs. In 1634, the Archbishop of Chernihiv, Isaya Kopynsky ordered priests to excommunicate those who lived together without a church marriage. State authorities that decided on issues of inheritance and the care of the children of a couple that had not married in church, also considered church marriage to be legitimate. On 18 November 1744, the Synod of the Russian Empire instructed its clergy to make newly-weds sign a pledge to start living together as a married couple immediately after the church ceremony, not waiting for the actual wedding. This pressure resulted in a new practice of getting married in church and celebrating the wedding on the same day. This tradition has continued until the present.

The church continued to control the marriage issue for a long time after. The divorce procedure was based on old traditions of “divorce letters”. Meanwhile, common people in the Hetmanate and Slobidska Ukraine largely viewed marriage as a voluntary and free agreement in the late 18th century, often living as couples “in faith”.


Marriage in Western Europe began to transform with the Renaissance and Reformation. As culture grew more focused on individuals and many spheres of life were secularized, a different interpretation of marriage evolved. Martin Luther, a leading figure of Reformation, struggled to deny the ecclesiastic sacramental nature of marriage, setting childbirth and life in fidelity as its priorities, which was beyond the competence of religion. Protestant morals interpreted marriage as the spiritual unity of a man and a woman above anything else. Meanwhile, the problem emerged of the voluntary choice of a spouse. The attitude towards love changed, too, as it was no longer viewed as a sickness. From then on, meetings, infatuation and the sentiment of love became an integral prerequisite for marriage.

Enlightenment determined the free choice of a future husband or wife, which often contradicted church and conventional norms. The latter treated a choice not approved by parents as something extremely negative –often for good reason. The French Revolution was the peak of the implementation of Renaissance ideas on marriage. The equality, liberty and struggle against the church brought their fruit, facilitated by one precedent. After the first changes and upheavals brought forth by the revolution, François-Joseph Talma, a well-known French theatre actor and revolutionary activist, decided to marry a rich courtesan, Julie Carreau, in 1790, but the priest refused to bless the marriage of a “clown”. Talma began the struggle for his rights. Eventually, the National Convention recognized civil marriage as the sole mandatory act in 1792, introducing the registration of civil status acts all over France that would only be performed by secular authorities. Napoleon Bonaparte supported the innovation and fixed the replacement of church marriage with civil registration in the 1804 Civil Code. During the Napoleonic Wars, Bonaparte’s legislation became widespread in the parts of Europe occupied by the French army.  

During the Restoration, the accomplishments of the French Revolution in terms of marriage were abolished. Church marriage was once again recognized as the only legitimate one, with the ban on divorces remaining in effect. Yet, it failed to completely wipe out the innovations of revolutionary France. Throughout the 19th century, both church and civil marriages coexisted in Europe.

Another important point was for leaders of national movements to understand the role of marriage. Sharing common wedding rituals often inspired a sense of unity among representatives of one nation that were territorially and administratively divided. One of the first printed ethnographic works on Ukraine by Hryhoriy Kalynovsky, published in 1776, contained stories about wedding traditions in the Hetmanate and Slobidska Ukraine. In both, marriage was supposed to symbolize both spiritual and national unity. That was the reason why Ivan Franko married Olha Khoruzhynska from Kharkiv Gubernia in Eastern Ukraine; and East Ukrainian-born Mykhailo Hrushevsky married teacher Maria Voyakivska from Western Ukraine.  


The process of filling marriage with a civil sense is clearly linked to the separation of church and state. Passed on 9 December 1905, the law on secularization in France served as the basis for similar acts in Soviet Russia, which was passed on 20 January 1918, and the Turkish Republic, passed in 1925. As a result, legislature made the state (or civil) registration of marriage prevail over its sacramental role. By that time, civil marriage had become widespread in European countries, especially Holland (since 1580). England recognized it in 1836, followed by Germany – especially its protestant regions – in the late 19th century. In 1783, the legitimacy of civil marriage was recognized in the USA.

After the Bolsheviks took power in Petrograd, they sped up the legalization of civil marriage in Russia. On 4 December 1917, the Decree on Civil Marriage, Children and the Record of Civil Status Acts, was passed. It stated that the only marriage recognized by the Soviet government was that registered by state authorities, while church marriage was a private matter. On 16 September 1918, the Civil Code was introduced to set the ground in attitudes towards marriage. It determined marriageable age; did not require any consent from parents, caretakers or administration; and abolished punishment for cheating and incest. It was enacted in Soviet Ukraine in 1920.  

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