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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 98-116

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"Matrimonial Ceremonies Displayed":
Popular Ethnography and Enlightened Imperialism

Lisa O'Connell
University of Queensland


Spearheaded by Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753, English marriage reform of the mid eighteenth century changed both the concept and practice of marriage. Indeed, it enabled marriage to become a pivot for new relations between government and the lives of citizens. This transformation was achieved not through sweeping legislative reform, nor by a usurpation of the church's traditional role in the formalization of weddings, but by a redefinition of the English marriage rite. The Marriage Act determined rules for the time, place, and registration of legal weddings, decreeing that the only valid form of English marriage was one "performed by an ordained priest according to the Anglican Liturgy in . . . the Established Church after thrice called banns or the purchase of a license from the bishop." In doing so it terminated an older, ecclesiastical marriage code for which marriage had been, in essence, an exchange of vows performed before two witnesses. This shift from marriage loosely defined as a speech act to marriage defined and regulated through strict ceremonial requirements and bureaucratic procedures hardened the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate marriages and narrowed the forms and social meanings of marriage per se. Whereas the nuptial practices of the aristocracy, rural workers, and urban wage earners, for instance, had varied widely [End Page 98] in style, tone, sites and purposes, after 1754, when the Hardwicke reforms took effect, the English marriage ceremony came more and more to represent a practical reiteration of governmental regulations that bound citizens to the nation-state.

That the Marriage Act relied upon strict points of ceremony and procedure to define the new national marriage code was not simply a mark of the expanding reach of the modernizing state. Viewed more broadly, the act was part of a larger interest in the minutiae of matrimonial rites and ceremonies and in the discourse of marriage that was a prominent feature of print culture. These interests were developed in a form of pre-anthropological theorizing (which I shall call "ethno-philosophy") that conceptualized matrimony and coupling as cornerstones for enlightened knowledge about mankind, and in a form of popular, often eroticized, writing appealing to the exotic (which I shall call the "marriage-rites genre"). It presented British readers with lively and detailed descriptions of marriage ceremonies and customs from around the globe.

This essay explores some of the links between the emerging popular interest in global marriage practices and the work of David Hume (and, implicitly, of other philosophers), who used those practices as a basis for conceptualizing the universal category "human nature." The essay thereby provides a fresh framework within which to view the Marriage Act's reforms. That the attempt to regularize English matrimony occurred in the wake of new interests in global marriage practices raises a number of important questions about the relationship between domestic legislative reform and the new global consciousness characteristic of enlightened thought. How does the Marriage Act's tendency to tie marriage and family relations more narrowly to English citizenship relate to the circulation of these cosmopolitan texts? To what extent did the focus on worldly marriage rites further the reform of unruly marriage practices at home, such as those celebrated at London's Fleet and other flourishing urban clandestine marriage markets? I shall argue that the interests and categories within marriage-rites literature helped normalize the Hardwicke Act's regularization of matrimony by setting English marriage within a frame of global difference and by providing the conditions through which the Act's requirements could be formulated as expressions of an enlightened national and imperial culture. [End Page 99]


Perhaps the key eighteenth-century text for global theorizations of marriage is Book 16 of Montesquieu's L'Esprit des lois (1748). It applied a theory of the influence of climate to the "laws of domestic slavery" to help explain the global variation in those laws. Montesquieu's mode of philosophical inquiry—peppered with cross-cultural...


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