From Polygamy to Monogamy

For most in the West, the concept of polygamy is a huge enigma. Most who hear the term immediately think of the Mormon or Islamic community, and if the listener happens to be a teenage male, their eyes glaze over at the illicit possibilities. The reason for this lack of understanding is obvious. Almost the entirety of Western society practices monogamous marriage, which is in most cases codified into law. This form of marriage has spread rather quickly to much of East Asia and South and Central America, with the only major holdouts in the world today being in the Muslim world and certain areas of Africa. This leads to the big question that this paper will attempt to answer. Why is monogamy so attractive as a marriage institution? For all of the diversity of the world’s cultures and beliefs, why has this come to dominate? Why are there still holdouts and will there ever be a resurgence? And most importantly, why and how do societies transition from one to the other?

Well, to begin looking at these questions we will establish a basic thesis. For societies and cultures to transition from polygamy to monogamy, there must be a combination of many things. Two of the most important being the accumulation of wealth amongst a broader segment of society and the enactment of monogamy as the norm by the plurality of said society, which comes in the form of a compromise between the ruling elite and the rest of the polity.

Polygyny, which is the proper term for when a man takes multiple wives, and to a much lesser extent polyandry, a woman taking multiple husbands, was overwhelmingly common in our past. Being present in approximately 85% of anthropologically recorded cultures on Earth, polygamy is incredibly common historically. This includes relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, where there was not any great disparity in wealth, as well as agrarian societies where there was a much greater disparity in wealth. Matters were also helped along, so to speak, in situations where there was a low male-to-female sex ratio due to higher mortality rates for one of the sexes, with it usually being the males who had this bad luck. As one can probably infer, this meant that only the high-status males could actually marry multiple wives. This gives this group of males a much higher chance of continuing their lineage, more potential workers in the family. On the flip side, this means that there was a group of inevitably low-status males that did not possess the status or wealth to engage in polygyny and may not even have been able to marry at all.

This is all well and good, but an observant reader might be able to point out that things are not that much different today. There is today a minority of high-status males who have the wealth and status to not only be able to attract multiple women but also be able to afford to care for multiple families. (Here the author will have to be pardoned for sounding so mechanical in this description.) However, officially, this is not the case in most developed cultures. In these places, monogamy or at least serial monogamy, where someone might have multiple partners or marriages in a lifetime, reigns supreme.

So what explains this? To answer this we will go back to our original thesis. For societies and cultures to transition from polygamy to monogamy, there must be a combination of many things. Two of the most important being the accumulation of wealth amongst a broader segment of society and the enactment of monogamy as the norm by the plurality of said society, which comes in the form of a compromise between the ruling elite and the rest of the polity.

Let us examine first the importance of wealth in a society’s move from polygamy to monogamy. Initially, polygamy sprang up from the status disparity of males in society as we have already discussed. What started off the transition away from this was the accumulation of wealth amongst a broader segment of society, with there being more rich males to go around. While one would initially think that this expansion of wealth would just lead to more polygyny, this actually did the opposite. The increased numbers of wealthy men led to greater competition for women, which inevitably led to an acceptance of monogamy to reduce intra-group competition. There are many theories as to at what point in history this transition began, but one of the main theories is that the transition began during the Middle Ages in Europe. Proof of the accumulation of wealth amongst a broader set of society lies in the fact that there was a noticeable increase in urbanization all across Europe.

It should be strenuously stated that this transition was also caused socially, as one of the main drivers of the transition away from polygamy was the Christian Church. This transition was a long and gradual process as it took centuries for the legal and social standards of strict monogamy to be put in place. In fact, the professed Romon Catholic Emperor Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire, who ruled in the early 9th century AD, had a total of 6 wives and 4 concubines. It was not till the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 AD that the Church began to effectively be able to regulate the institution of marriage. This combined with the continuous efforts at barring illegitimate children from inheritance and a general societal taboo helped create a strictly monogamous society.

Socially, monogamy became common out of necessity for elites as they faced the problem of there being a reasonably large group of low-status men, who struggled within a much narrower marriage pool. The problem here lies in the fact that a polygamous society requires males, especially low-status males, to compete rather viciously for partners. This inter-group competition creates the problem of a disaffected class that is left bereft of the resources to advance in society and is, thus, prone to violence. In the end, it was better for the elite of society to compromise by becoming monogamous. This had the added benefit of allowing fathers to be able to invest more heavily in the raising of their progeny. This, of course, fulfills the second part of our thesis.

As was mentioned previously, one of the few areas of the world that still practices polygamy, more specifically polygyny, is the Muslim world. However, a subgroup in the region is the Jews. The Jewish people since Roman times have spread from their home in the Levant over much of the world; creating large and impactful communities everywhere from Yemen to the Baltics. What makes this group so unique when it comes to the conversation about polygamy is that because of their extremely wide diaspora there arose a division in marital practices.

Polygyny in Judaism is a complicated issue, with there being support for both sides of the argument. Dr. Zev Kalifon makes the case that even though it is begrudgingly allowed in the Torah, it is never represented as the ideal. Major Jewish Rabbinical figures such as Maimonides only begrudgingly allowed it. This division comes down to the European and Middle Eastern/North African Jewish communities. European Jews or Ashkenazi Jews have practiced strict monogamy since the 10th century AD, which came as a result of Rabbi Gershom Ben-Yehudah issuing regulations forbidding it. This was done in an attempt to reduce the friction between Jews and their Christian neighbors. However, the Jews that resided in the Near East and North Africa or Sephardic Jews continued to practice polygyny. This was due to them living in areas dominated by Islam, which allows for it.

This difference in practices led to a fascinating dichotomy in the modern nation of Israel. Today there is a movement amongst the Sephardic Jews to legalize bigamy, the marrying of two wives. However, they are advocating this in a country where most other people, with the exception of the Arab Muslim minority, are monogamous. What this represents is a difference of culture in a group that practices, on paper, the same religion. As was previously mentioned, these differences arose not necessarily from doctrinal differences, but more from necessity. This is important. The arguments for the allowance for bigamy come from a cultural/religious perspective. This is not to say the arguments are illegitimate, but that, besides for the few areas that are holdouts, monogamy is continually dominant. The holdouts must rely on arguments of tradition and religion to continue the practice as the world continues to modernize.

Increasingly as developing countries, well, develop any of them that still accept polygamy as a model of marriage will begin to transition more fully to monogamy. As urbanization continues abreast in most countries the cost of having multiple wives and families will become prohibitive. This is simply because cities are far too expensive to allow for a family to survive off of only one income. The cost of urbanization is not reserved for just polygynous families or even large families. It is already prohibitively expensive to have more than one or two kids in many cities. All this combined with the world becoming increasingly wealthy and with women all over the world becoming increasingly educated, which leads to their independent wealth creation, is putting the screws to the practice of polygamy. Simply put, polygyny or polygamy more broadly is no longer a viable economic model. It would seem that the holdouts are attempting to stand athwart history. However, that might not be the case.

According to Professors De La Croix and Mariani, the West is currently in a period of serial monogamy, wherein individuals are allowed to and in certain corners encouraged to have multiple partners in their lifetime. This is to say that one might marry multiple times in a lifetime or more likely to have multiple unattached sexual partners over a lifetime. However, one could speculate that we as a society might at some point return to a form of polygamy. Because as the same paper by De La Croix and Mariani points out, we are in a time of unprecedented inequality. We do have a group of high-status males who could attract the attention of multiple women. Perhaps we as a culture could go full circle to where we were over a millennia ago. However, just looking at today’s culture does not signal to this author that we are at that point yet. Multiple partners in a lifetime are expected, but not multiple partners at the same time.


De La Croix, David, and Fabio Mariani. "From Polygyny to Serial Monogamy: A Unified Theory of Marriage Institutions." The Review of Economic Studies 82.2 (2015): 565-607. Web.

Henrich, Joseph, Robert Boyd, and Peter J. Richerson. "The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 367.1589 (2012): 657-69. Web.

Kalifon, Zev. “Polygamy in the Jewish and Western Tradition: Religion, Culture, and Class” Avotaynu Online, 2015. Web.

“Polygamy: Not as Rare as You May Think,” Beliefnet, 2001. Web.

“Population Facts,” United Nations, December 2011. Web.

Jacobs, Joseph, and Israel Abrahams, “Monogamy,” JewishEncyclopedia, Web.


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