By Laura Betzig
Journal of Family History, Vol.20:2 (1995)
Abstract: Was polygyny stopped by the Christian Church? Probably not. In the Middle Ages, as in other ages, powerful men married monogamously, but mated polygynously. Both laymen and church men tend to have sexual access to as many women as they could afford. But first-born sons were allowed a legitimate wife , on whom they got legitimate heirs. And latter-born sons were often celibate – that is, ineligible to sire heirs, though not chaste – that is, ineligible to sire bastards. Church men, like laymen, sought wealth to provide for their women and children. To get it, church men used canon law. Authorities like Gratian and Lombard insisted that “mutual consent” made a marriage. That undercuts parents’ ability to impose celibacy. And church bans against incest, divorce and remarriage, concubinage, wet nursing, and maybe even incontinence kept laymen from rearing heirs. That let the men who filled the monasteries come into their fathers’ estates by default. In short, both men and laymen practiced polygynous mating. At the same time, both approved of monogamous marriage. There was no conflict in either case. The conflict came when they tried to sow their seeds on the same finite plot. Neither wanted to get cut out of an inheritance.
Introduction: The Old Testament is full of many men with more than one woman. Take the patriarchs – like Abraham, who got sons by Sarah, his half-sister by a twice-mated father, and by Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maid. Or take the kings – like Solomon, who kept a thousand women in his harem. Throughout the Old Testament, powerful men are polygynous men.
In the New Testament seeds of discontent with polygyny are sown. The Gospels themselves have little to say about sex: Christ seems to have been fairly indifferent to the subject. He disapproved of adultery; and he disapproved of divorce – except in the case of an adulterous wife. More admonitions against polygamy are in Paul’s epistles. Christians should not divorce; those who did should not remarry; and sex outside of marriage was not thought well of. Early church fathers disassociated themselves from Jews who continued the long polygynous tradition; eventually, after the conversion of Constantine early in the fourth century, Christian Rome outlawed bigamy, restricted the legal grounds for divorce, and made it legally impossible to keep a wife and a concubine at once.