Faculty of Social and Human Sciences (UNL) Conference System, 1st Non-Monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies Conference

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Historical European Non-Monogamies
Artyom Anikin

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Date: 2015-09-26 02:30 PM – 04:00 PM
Last modified: 2015-08-08


The analyses of contemporary relationships can benefit from an examination of the past. Uncovering and categorizing specific examples of past non-monogamies can contextualize those seen today, as well as other relationship forms such as asexual partnerships, relationships based in asymmetrical power structures, and even "traditional marriage". In studying past non-monogamous relationships I have distinguished three categories; autocratic, institutional and laic non-monogamy. I will present my framework for categorizing historical non-monogamous relationships using examples from European history.

The following is a short overview of each of the categories:
The first, autocratic non-monogamy is likely the most familiar historical form of non-monogamy, defined as non-monogamous relationships that existed as the privilege of a powerful sovereign, and can be seen in the polygamous practices of the pre-Christian nobility of the Merovingians and the Franks, the routine practice of powerful men to keep concubines, and the forced non-monogamy of jus primae noctis. The second category, institutional non-monogamy, describes situations in which (usually religious) organizations attempted to convert large groups of people to non-monogamous lifestyles, and can be seen in the polygamy of the Anabaptists, the declaration for the support of polygamy by Martin Luther, and the rejection of the institution of marriage by the Cathars and the Shakers. Finally, laic non-monogamy, the practice most familiar today and that is defined as developing without sanction from religious or political organs, is seen most frequently in reported cases of bohemian ménages à trois involving various notable figures.

Non-monogamy in Western society is often presented as defying tradition, however by studying examples from the past it is possible to identify and place these within alternative traditions which have been sidelined in historiography.