In recent years we’ve been witnesses of several discussions about gender fluidity and human rights. One of the main debates has delved into same-sex marriages, which continues to be a fundamental subject in many countries since Netherlands became the first country to approve it and constitutionalize it in 2000. Nowadays, more countries have followed those steps and much more are fighting to achieve it in all their states. But what is keeping us from making that kind of progressive and inclusive step? Naturally, the answer lies in homophobia and the outdated idea stating that marriage as an institution is only possible between a man and a woman. However, as it tends to happen with close-mindedness and stubbornness, established beliefs haven't always been an established reality.
Marriage has been used for centuries and even millenniums as contracts to get some benefit. Historically, it has been the perfect arrangement to unite two countries (in the case of monarchies), to preserve the status of a family (and, clearly, to amass greater fortunes), and to follow religious precepts. However, that idea of marrying out of love, although there were cases when it happened, wasn’t really a norm. For instance, during the early Middle Ages, most people who were not part of the noble classes didn’t marry their partners, they just moved in together and started a family. Marriage was seen more like a financial contract or arrangement. If you think about it, the poor didn’t have anything to arrange, and therefore they just started a new life. Naturally, it’s not as liberal as we could think or even in the same ways we do it nowadays. It was just a matter of practicality.
Unlike what many conservatives might tell you, same-sex unions have always existed. Whether it was in the form of self-marriages, legal contracts, or traditional marriages, they have always been a constant reality in history. It’s well known that in ancient times, homosexuality was allowed under certain circumstances. Legal unions were a reality in Rome until Christianity became the official religion. The Bible contains numerous passages condemning sodomy, a term that later on passed to be used as a synonym of homosexuality, although it referred to anal sex. Naturally, for Christian countries, sodomy became taboo and a sinful act that could be punished even with death.
Of course, this isn’t really something unknown or new. What has been recently known, however, is the fact that during the Middle Ages –a time of repressive attitudes towards sexuality– there were cases of homosexual marriages. One of the first known cases in Spain happened in April, 1061 in Galicia, when Pedro Díaz and Muño Vandilaz got married by a priest in a traditional ceremony. Now, there have been many studies and analysis dealing with homosexuality in that time’s literature and art, like the many reinterpretations of classic myths and stories, or even within the Arthurian cycle and the relationship between men. However, it’s very hard to picture stories like Díaz and Vandilaz’s as truthful, but they are.
During the late Middle Ages there was a form of a same-sex union called affèrement, (or translated into English, ‘brotherment’) that was born in France and later was practiced in other Mediterranean countries. According to Allan A. Tulchin (Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania), these were originally legal contracts made between siblings in order to inherit their parents' fortune. These meant that all the properties or assets belonged to both of them and, moreover, they had to live together to make use of them. However, soon these contracts were made between non-relatives.
Now, as professor Tulchin explains, these documents had clauses that are very similar to the vows and foundations of marriage (both at the time and in some ways to our own understanding of it). These contracts or unions were celebrated before a notary and witnesses, that in many cases were friends and family of the applicants. Moreover, even the vows had that “all mine is yours and all yours is mine” idea: they promised to share “one bread, one wine, and one purse.” So, while the main purpose of the contract was to secure a given joint property, there’s proof that many couples actually used it to be together without being judged by the strict laws of the church.
How have historians come to this conclusion? Many of the documents reporting this phenomenon include pledges of affection between the two parties. Also the fact that, in some cases, it was a matter of celebration, makes evident that it was an accepted form of the nuclear family at the time. Naturally, as history has proven, this didn’t last for long. It seems that, at least in this matter, with the passing of time we’ve become more close-minded regarding inclusiveness, when it should be the other way around.