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Polygamy in the West

We deem it necessary to give a brief account of polygamy in Europe during the Middle Ages, as described by an eminent Western historian. This account should convince those who criticise the East for polygamy that in spite of all its defects it is much more dignified than what existed in Europe.

Will Durant in his book, History of Civilization, vol.17, gives an interesting account of the state of morality in Italy during the renaissance. We give below a summary of what he has said under the heading 'Morals in Sexual Relations'.

In the course of his brief introduction he says that before describing the morals of the laity it may be pointed out that by nature man is polygamous. Only strict moral restrictions, an adequate amount of hard work and poverty, and a continuous vigilance of the wife can compel him to maintain monogamy.

Then he says that adultery was not uncommon during the Middle Ages, prior to the Renaissance. As during the Middle Ages the guilt of adultery was extenuated by chivalry, similarly, during the Renaissance period, it was watered down among the educated classes by the craving for the polished manners and the refined spirit of the females. Girls belonging to respectable families were, to a certain extent, kept segregated from the males not connected with their own family and were taught the merits of pre -marital chastity. Sometimes these instructions were exceptionally effective. It is reported that a young woman, after being assaulted, drowned herself. That must have been an exceptional case, because a bishop took the trouble of installing her statue after her death to commemorate her chastity.

The number of pre-marital affairs must have been considerable, because there were innumerable children born of illegitimate relations in every town of Italy. It was a matter of pride not to have an illegitimate child, but to have one was not a matter of shame. Usually a husband persuaded his wife at the time of the marriage to bring her illegitimate child with her, to be brought up along with his children. Illegitimacy was not a slur on the reputation of anyone. Furthermore, a certificate of legitimacy could easily be obtained by bribing a clergyman. In the absence of other lawful or eligible heirs, an illegitimate son could inherit property and even a crown, as Frante-I, succeeded Alfonso-I, King of Naples. When in 1459 Pius-II came to Bavaria, he was received by seven princes, all of whom were illegitimate. Rivalry between the legitimate and illegitimate sons was an important cause of a long series of commotions during the Renaissance period. As far as homosexuality is concerned, it was only a revival of the ancient Greek tradition.

San Bernardino found this sort of perversion so common in Naples that he thought it to be threatened with the fate of Sodom. Artino found the perversion equally prevalent in Rome. The same thing can be said about prostitution. In 1490, out of a total population of 90,000, there were 6,800 registered prostitutes in Rome. Of course, this figure does not include clandestine and unofficial prostitutes. According to the statistics of 1509, out of a population of 300,000 of that city, there were 11,654 prostitutes. In the 15th century, a girl who had reached the age of 15 without having a husband, was regarded as a slur on the fair name of her family. In the 16th century, the 'age of disgrace' was extended up to 17 years, to enable the girls to receive higher education. Men, who enjoyed all the facilities provided by widespread prostitution, were attracted to marriage only if the woman concerned promised to bring a considerable dowry. According to the system of the Middle Ages, husband and wife were expected to love each other and share each other's joy and grief. Apparently in many cases this expectation came true, but still adultery was rampant. Most of the marriages of the upper classes were diplomatic unions contracted for political and economic gains. Many husbands regarded it as their right to have a mistress. The wife might feel dejected, but usually connived at the situation.

Among the middle classes, some people thought that adultery was a lawful pastime. Machiavelli and his friends apparently did not feel uneasy about the stories of their unfaithfulness which they exchanged with each other. When in such cases, the wife followed the example of her husband to wreak vengeance upon him, he usually connived at her behaviour and did not feel jealous or perturbed.

This was a specimen of the life of the people who regard polygamy as an unpardonable crime of the East and have occasionally blamed its climate for this supposedly inhuman custom. As far as their own climate is concerned, it does not allow them to be unfaithful to the wives and to exceed the limits of monogamy!

By the way, it should be remembered that the absence of lawful polygamy among the Europeans, whether good or bad, has nothing to do with the religion of Christ, who never prohibited it. On the other hand, it confirms the rules of the old Testament, which expressly recognise polygamy. Thus we can say that, in fact, the religion of Christ allows polygamy, and the ancient Christians have actually practised it. Hence, the legal abstinence of the Europeans from it must have some other reason or reasons.

Adapted from the book: "Woman and Her Rights" by: "Shahid Murtaza Mutahhari

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