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  • Jon Knowles

4. SamE-Sex Marriage—not a new thing

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

This is from a seventh-century icon of Serge and Bacchus. Christ is the “best man”.

Two fourth-century soldiers, martyrs, and saints, Serge and Bacchus, were married. Catholic liturgies invoked them for same-sex marriages until the 16th century. Their feast day is October 7. But they were not the first.

Among the Hittites, one same-sex partner paid a bride price for the other. Men who married men in ancient Crete earned more social privileges than those who took women. Romans, including some emperors, married men, too. Same-sex marriage — parigraha — was also common in India and in the Muslim world of the first millennium.

Until the 13th century, marriage was a private oath. The church took it over to stop the marriage of priests. It outlawed private, “common-law” marriages. It imposed three-month banns, church services, and witnesses. Even as 17th-century cities such as Venice burned men alive for same-sex marriage, Michel de Montaigne attended a same-sex marriage in Rome. In Dalmatia, they called women who married women prosestrime. Men were probatimi. Same-sex marriage was so common in Fujian that the Chinese called it nanfeng — “southern custom”.

Caribbean pirates of the 18th century had same-sex marriages — matelots. They pledged their property and lives to one another. Some of these buccaneers took oaths to die together and some did. At the same time, scores of men in London’s molly houses married — many by the Reverend John Church. Celebrities such as Charles Darwin and Queen Charlotte thronged to Wales to visit the “Ladies of Liangollen”, two married women. (London’s “mollies” — married or not — went to the stocks, the gallows, or were driven to suicide.)

Most Americans had common-law marriages without public ritual. This led some communities to accept same-sex marriage. Lincoln knew about them. He wrote this little ditty in the 1830s:

Rueben and Charles have married two girls

But Billy has married a boy.

The girls he had tried on every side

But none could he get to agree.

All was in vain he went home again

And since he is married to Natty.

This was the time, for example, when Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake’s neighbors knew them as “husband” and “wife” in Weybridge, Vermont. They belonged to the Trinitarian Congregational Church.

But after the first national law about marriage, the anti-polygamy Morrill Act of 1890, common-law marriage began to become illegal across the country — in all but eight states and the District of Columbia.

Most of us have lived through the rest of this history: In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act to allow states to specifically outlaw same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court overthrew the Act in 2013. And in 2015, the Court decided to protect same-sex marriage. So, the whole history is much longer than any of us have lived through.


Book One: 74, 91, 114, 176–7, 204, 265, 276, 290, 296, 340–2, 396, 430, 526, 657, 724, 726–8, 742, 800–1, Wiki

Book Two: 208–10, 609 Wiki

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