Joseph B asked in Arts & HumanitiesHistory · 4 years ago

To What Extent Has Polygamy Been Practiced in Western Civilization?

In the case of Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878), the United States Supreme Court held that laws prohibiting bigamy did not violate the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment. In that case, the Court wrote as follows:

“Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people.”

Id. at 164.

I am intrigued by the phrase, “almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people.”

Other than Mormons, has any group of white people practiced polygamy?

3 Answers

  • 4 years ago
    Favorite Answer

    Leave "white" aside, as racial categories aren't really relevant. Let's talk "European," a word that actually means something.

    Greek and Roman law did not permit polygamous marriage, so it hasn't predominated in European culture. However, Roman law (and I believe Greek as well, but haven't checked) did permit concubinage, which is taking a sexual partner without the permanent obligations of marriage. Concubines are normally of lower social status than their male partner, who is obliged to provide for them economically, but their children have no claim on the inheritance of the father. The relationship can be dissolved at will. Typically in the Roman Empire a person might have a concubine when they were younger and then dismiss her when he married, but it was also possible to have a concubine alongside a wife.

    In the "barbarian" kingdoms that succeeded the Roman Empire in Western Europe, royalty sometimes practiced polygamy. There are some kings of the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks who are reported as having two wives simultaneously in the 6th and maybe 7th centuries, much to the church's objection. There's no evidence of non-royal persons practicing it, however, it may have been an unusual privilege of kings. The growing Christian influence in marriage law discouraged this and discouraged concubinage as well, but concubinage was slow to fade out. Charlemagne went through five wives in sequence (never married to two at a time, though) but also had a string of concubines. His biographer, Einhard, claims that he only took concubines after his last wife died, but if you look at the ages of the concubines' children, that clearly is not true. Recognition of legitimate concubinage died out by the 11th century after which such women were treated merely as illegitimate lovers.

  • 4 years ago

    The Celts practiced polygamy and other forms of marriage. I think as their lands became part of the Roman empire, they conformed to Roman culture. It's probably the same for other European cultures.

    Apparently Martin Luther accepted it as a Biblical practice and said it is permissible, but it was rarely practiced during the reformation.

    I think the statement is correct though, because it's speaking of a long standing cultural tradition of monogamy in Western culture. These days, it probably wouldn't be accepted as valid reasoning. Considering marriage between a man and a woman has also been the cultural tradition in Western culture, and now the current supreme court says that doesn't matter.

  • 4 years ago

    Jews practiced polygamy until 1100 AD, and were sorely persecuted because of it by the pagan nations of Rome and Greece. The Muslims still practice it. The Chinese practiced it as well, and arguably more often than the Mormons in 1878. I believe there were some Native American tribes that practiced it.

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