On monogamy

Posted in economics, history by jrahman on November 23, 2005

I’ve often wondered why the Europeans adopted monogamy.  Some might say this is just another example of the Enlightenment values.  But that to me is ducking the question.  The Enlightenment values, something about individual freedom, are not guaranteed by monogamy — patriarchy dominated in the West until very recently, and Pakistan allowed its women to vote before Switzerland did.  If you’re happy to lord it over one wife, why should you shrink from lording it over a harem?  So it’s not the Enlightenment that caused the West to adopt monogamy.  In fact, it’s not even clear that the Enlightenment values even necessarily endorse monogamy: if a bunch of individuals want to live in a hippy commune then surely that’s their business.

I’ve also wondered why the Europeans, or Christians to be more precise, scorned consanguineous marriage (as in marrying your cousin).  Christians are unique among the Semitic faiths in this regard.  Jews and Muslims are generally, although by no means always, endogamous.  It’s not only the Semitic-inspired societies where consanguineous marriage is practised: in South India, among some castes, marrying one’s maternal aunt/uncle is quite common. 

Angus Maddison has an interesting perspective.  According to him, the Church actively encouraged monogamy and non-consanguineous marriage.  In a world of high infant mortality, monogamous non-consanguineous marriages would have meant fewer heirs when one died.  In such situations, the Church would have stepped in and acquired the property.  If you married within your clan, or had a number of wives so that the chance of a son surviving to adulthood was higher (women typically didn’t own property — yet another proof that the Enlightenment didn’t cause monogamy), the Church lost out on your property.  So it was the Church acting as a despotic government that led to the Europeans adopting monogamy and rejecting consanguineous marriage.  In the Muslim world, inheritance laws were clearly established early on (they are written in the Quran), so the Islamic state had little room to grab your property.

But this despotic action by the Church had interesting unintended consequences — there always are unintended consequences.  Monogamy and non-consanguineous marriage led to a weakening of clan ties, leading to individualism on the one hand and loyalty to the nation state on the other.  These of course shaped the rise of the West.

Originally posted at A-A-A.


3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. paulneedzafriend said, on December 25, 2008 at 1:50 am

    I understand where people are coming from on this issue.
    I can’t but wonder why so many people ignore THE SCIENTIFIC FACT that humans were meant to life in harems and that the denial of this arouses most all of our modern day problems.
    If lived in our natural state none of the aforementioned phenomena would exist or precipitate problems amongst us humans.
    take a look at THIS ARTICLE.

  2. Bonbibi said, on June 24, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Hi Jyoti, as usual interesting – but i doubt inheritance laws allowed the Church to annex property that easily.. I know for a fact that France had 3 different types of inheritance laws and that it was only Napoleon that codified it and forced ppl to have the same inheritance laws (where women were given equal inheritance laws to men) and as far as I know the property of an issueless couple went to the relatives of the couple (or their god-children). In Britanny cousin marriage was quite common and so was the equal redistribution of land amongst both girls and boys when the parents died. This was not the case in the South of France for example and the ‘eldest’ usually got the booty (usually a boy) and the other boys were left to either join the army, become a shepherd (and sometimes have access to the elder’s wife) and seek fortune elsewhere. The girls were disposed of with a dowry. But this was only in the S of France.
    I always thought the injunction had to do with biology – the closer the consanguinous relations and the more the risks of diseases in the offsprings. At least that’s what the Hindus usually say. How do you explain most of Hindu India where marriages might be endogamous in that it has to be within the same caste but not consanguinous at all. The injunction for a Bengali Hindu marriage, for example, is that the spouse has to be at least more than 8 times removed. If any potential spouse shares a relation closer than that it is considered incest and the marriage, traditionally, cannot go through.
    The Inuits practice ‘sexual communism’ in winter.. and of course many north-east indian peoples have polyandrous relationships..
    But a very thought-provoking idea – need to read the book (re church, inheritance and marriage patterns) – I’m sure there is something in there.. though I do think monogamy might have to do with starting to see women as ‘equals’.

    • jrahman said, on June 25, 2011 at 7:15 pm

      Firstly, hurrah for Napoleon, at least on this count!

      You’d notice, this is a six-year old post… The topic has been on my mind lately for a number of reasons. All this stuff about Rumana Monzur should make anyone contemplate on the institution of marriage. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Obed Galor on demographic transition. That reminded me about the Maddison thesis, and I linked it in Facebook.

      On consanguinous marriage and patriarchy, here is a pretty cool interview of Emmanuel Todd:,1518,763537,00.html

      Fascinating stuff, marriage. About time people did serious quantitative work on it. 🙂

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: