The word marriage may be taken to denote the action, contract, formality, or ceremony by which the conjugal union is formed or the union itself as an enduring condition. In this article we deal for the most part with marriage as a condition, and with its moral and social aspects. It is usually defined as the legitimate union between husband and wife. "Legitimate" indicates the sanction of some kind of law, natural, evangelical, or civil, while the phrase, "husband and wife", implies mutual rights of sexual intercourse, life in common, and an enduring union. The last two characters distinguish marriage, respectively, from concubinage and fornication. The definition, however, is broad enough to comprehend polygamous and polyandrous unions when they are permitted by the civil law; for in such relationships there are as many marriages as there are individuals of the numerically larger sex. Whether promiscuity, the condition in which all the men of a group maintain relations and live indiscriminately with all the women, can be properly called marriage, may well be doubted. In such a relation cohabitation and domestic life are devoid of that exclusiveness which is commonly associated with the idea of conjugal union.
All authorities agree that during historical times promiscuity has been either non-existent or confined to a few small groups. Did it prevail to any extent during the prehistoric period of the race? Writing between 1860 and 1890, a considerable number of anthropologists, such as Bachofen, Morgan, McLennan, Lubbock, and Giraud-Teulon, maintained that this was the original relationship between the sexes among practically all peoples. So rapidly did the theory win favour that in 1891 it was, according to Westermarck, "treated by many writers as a demonstrated truth" (History of Human Marriage, p. 51). It appealed strongly to those believers in organic evolution who assumed that the social customs of primitive man, including sex relations, must have differed but slightly from the corresponding usages among the brutes. It has been eagerly adopted by the Marxian Socialists, on account of its agreement with their theories of primitive common property and of economic determinism. According to the latter hypothesis, all other social institutions are, and have ever been, determined by the underlying economic institutions; hence in the original condition of common property, wives and husbands must likewise have been held in common (see Engles, "The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State", tr. from German, Chicago, 1902). Indeed, the vogue which the theory of promiscuity for a time enjoyed seems to have been due far more to a priori considerations of the kind just mentioned, and to the wish to believe in it, than to positive evidence.
About the only direct testimony in its favour is found in the fragmentary statements of some ancient writers, such as Herodotus and Strabo, concerning a few unimportant peoples, and in the accounts of some modern travellers regarding some uncivilized tribes of the present day. Neither of these classes of testimony clearly shows that the peoples to which they refer practised promiscuity, and both are entirely too few to justify the generalization that all peoples lived originally in the conditions which they describe. As for the indirect evidence in favour of the theory, consisting of inferences from such social customs as the tracing of kinship through the mother, religious prostitution, unrestrained sexual intercourse previous to marriage among some savage peoples, and primitive community of goods, none of these conditions can be proved to have been universal at any stage of human development, and every one of them can be explained more easily and more naturally on other grounds than on the assumption of promiscuity. We may say that the positive arguments in favour of the theory of primitive promiscuity seem insufficient to give it any degree of probability, while the biological, economic, psychological, and historical arguments brought against it by many recent writers, e.g. Westermarck (op. cit., iv-vi) seem to render it unworthy of serious consideration. The attitude of contemporary scholars is thus described by Howard: "The researches of several recent writers, notably those of Starcke and Westermarck, confirming in part and further developing the earlier conclusions of Darwin and Spencer, have established a probability that marriage or pairing between one man and one woman, though the union be often transitory and the rule frequently violated, is the typical form of sexual union from the infancy of the human race" (History of Matrimonial Institutions, I, pp. 90, 91).
One deviation from the typical form of secular union which, however, is also called marriage, is polyandry, the union of several husbands with one wife. It has been practised at various times by a considerable number of people or tribes. It existed among the ancient Britons, the primitive Arabs, the inhabitants of the Canary Islands, the Aborigines of America, the Hottentots, the inhabitants of India, Ceylon, Thibet, Malabar, and New Zealand. In the great majority of these instances polyandry was the exceptional form of conjugal union. Monogamy and even polygamy were much more prevalent. The greater number of the polyandrous unions seem to have been of the kind called fraternal; that is the husbands in each conjugal group were all brothers. Frequently, if not generally, the first husband enjoyed conjugal and domestic rights superior to the others, was, in fact, the chief husband. The others were husbands only in a secondary and limited sense. Both these circumstances show that even in the comparatively few cases in which polyandry existed it was softened in the direction of monogamy; for the wife belonged not to several entirely independent men, but to a group united by the closest ties of blood; she was married to one family rather than to one person. And the fact that one of her consorts possessed superior marital privileges shows that she had only one husband in the full sense of the term. Some writers, e.g. McLennan (Studies in Ancient History, pp.112, sq.) have asserted that the Levirate, the custom which compelled the brother of a deceased husband to marry his widow, had its origin in polyandry. But the Levirate can be explained without any such hypothesis. In many cases it merely indicated that the wife, as the property of her husband, was inherited by his nearest heir, i.e. his brother; in other instances, as among the ancient Hebrews, it was evidently a means of continuing the name, family, and individuality of the deceased husband. If the Levirate pointed in all cases to a previous condition of polyandry, the latter practice must have been much more common than it is shown to have by direct evidence. It is certain that the Levirate existed among the New Caledonians, the Redskins, the Mongols, Afghans, Hindoos, Hebrews, and Abyssinians; yet none of these peoples shows any trace of polyandry. The principal causes of polyandry were the scarcity of women, due to female infanticide and to the appropriation of many women by polygamous chiefs and strong men in a tribe, and to the scarcity of the food supply, which made it impossible for every male member of a family to support a wife alone. Even today polyandry is not entirely unknown. It is found to some extent in Thibet, in the Aleutian Islands, among the Hottentots, and the Zaporogian Cossacks.
Polygamy (many marriages) or, more correctly, polygyny (many wives) has been, and is still much more common than polyandry. It existed among most of the ancient peoples known to history, and occurs at present in some civilized nations as in the majority of savage tribes. About the only important peoples of ancient times that showed little or no traces of it were the Greeks and the Romans. Nevertheless, concubinage, which may be regarded as a higher form of polygamy, or at least as nearer to pure monogamy, was for many centuries recognized by the customs and even by the legislation of these two nations (see CONCUBINAGE). The principle peoples among whom the practice still exists are those under the sway of Mohammedanism, as those of Arabia, Turkey, and some of the peoples of India. Its chief home among uncivilized races is Africa. However widespread polygamy has been territorially, it has never been practised by more than a small minority of any people. Even where it has been sanctioned by custom or the civil law, the vast majority of the population have been monogamous. The reasons are obvious: there are not sufficient women to provide every man with several wives, nor are the majority of men able to support more than one. Hence polygamous marriages are found for the most part among the kings, chiefs, strong men, and rich men of the community; and its prevailing form seems to have been bigamy. Moreover, polygamous unions are, as a rule, modified in the direction of monogamy, inasmuch as one of the wives, usually the first married, occupies a higher place in the household than the others, or one of them is the favourite, and has exceptional privileges of intercourse with the common husband.
Among the principal causes of polygamy are: the relative scarcity of males, arising sometimes from numerous destructive wars, and sometimes from an excess of female births; the unwillingness of the husband to remain continent when intercourse with one wife is undesirable or impossible; and unrestrained lustful cravings. Still another cause, or more properly a condition, is a certain degree of economic advancement in a people, and a certain amount of wealth accumulated by some individuals. In the rudest societies polygamy is almost unknown, because hunting or fishing are the chief means of livelihood, and female labour has not the value that attaches to it when a man's wives can be employed in tending flocks, cultivating fields, or exercising useful handicrafts. Before the pastoral stage of industry has been reached scarcely any one can afford to support several women. When, however, some accumulation of wealth has taken place, polygamy becomes possible for the more wealthy, and for those who can utilize the productive labour of their wives. Hence the practice has been more frequent among the higher savages and barbarians than among the very lowest races. At a still higher stage it tends to give way to monogamy.
We may now sum up the whole historical situation concerning the forms of sexual union and of marriage in the words of one of the ablest living authorities in this field of investigation:
It is not, of course, impossible that, among some peoples, intercourse between the sexes may have been almost promiscuous. But there is not a shred of genuine evidence for the notion that promiscuity ever formed a general stage in the history of mankind . . . although polygamy occurs among most existing peoples, and polyandry among some, monogamy is by far the most common form of human marriage. It was so among the ancient peoples of whom we have any direct knowledge. Monogamy is the form which is generally recognized and permitted. The great majority of peoples are, as a rule, monogamous, and the other forms of marriage are usually modified in a monogamous direction. We may without hesitation assert that, if mankind advance in the same direction as hitherto; if, consequently, the causes to which monogamy in the most progressive societies owes its origin continue to operate with constantly growing force; if, especially, altruism increases and the feeling of love becomes more refined and more exclusively directed to one, (the laws of monogamy can never be changed, but must be followed much more strictly than they are now. (Westermarch, op. cit., pp. 133, 459,510)
The experience of the race, particularly in its movement toward and its progress in civilization, has approved monogamy for the simple reason that monogamy is in harmony with the essential and immutable elements of human nature. Taking the word natural in its full sense, we may unhesitatingly affirm that monogamy is the only natural form of marriage. While promiscuity responds to certain elemental passions and temporarily satisfies certain superficial wants, it contradicts the parental instinct, the welfare of children and of the race, and the overpowering forces of jealousy and individual preference in both men and women. While polyandry satisfied in some measure the temporary and exceptional wants arising from scarcity of food or scarcity of women, it finds an insuperable barrier in male jealousy, in the male sense of proprietorship, and is directly opposed to the welfare of the wife, and fatal to the fecundity of the race. While polygamy has prevailed among so many peoples and over so long a period of history as to suggest that it is in some sense natural, and while it does seem to furnish a means of satisfying the stronger and more frequently recurring desires of the male, it conflicts with the numerical equality of the sexes, with the jealousy, sense of proprietorship, equality, dignity and general welfare of the wife, and with the best interests of the offspring.
In all those regions in which polygamy has existed or still exists, the status of woman is extremely low; she is treated as man's property, not as his companion; her life is invariably one of great hardship, while her moral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities are almost utterly neglected. Even the male human being is in the highest sense of the phrase naturally monogamous. His moral, spiritual, and æsthetic faculties can obtain normal development only when his sexual relations are confined to one woman in the common life and enduring association provided by monogamy. The welfare of the children, and therefore, of the race, obviously demands that the offspring of each pair shall have the undivided attention and care of both their parents. When we speak of the naturalness of any social institution, we necessarily take as our standard, not nature in a superficial or one-sided sense, or in its savage state, or as exemplified in a few individuals or in a single generation, but nature adequately considered, in all its needs and powers, in all the member of the present and of future generations, and as it appears in those tendencies which lead toward its highest development. The verdict of experience and the voice of nature reinforce, consequently, the Christian teaching on the unity of marriage. Moreover, the progress of the race toward monogamy, as well as toward a purer monogamy, during the last two thousand years, owes more to the influence of Christianity than to all other forces combined. Christianity has not only abolished or diminished polyandry and polygamy among the savage and barbarous peoples which it has converted, but it has preserved Europe from the polygamous civilization of Mohammedanism, has kept before the eyes of the more enlightened peoples the ideal of an unadulterated monogamy, and has given to the world its highest conception of the equality that should exist between the two parties in the marriage relation. And its influence on behalf of monogamy has extended, and continues to extend, far beyond the confines of those countries that call themselves Christian.
Our discussion of the various forms of marriage would be incomplete without some reference to those practices that have been more or less prevalent, and yet that are a transgression of every form of marriage. Sexual license amounting almost to promiscuity seems to have prevailed among a few peoples or tribes. Among some ancient peoples the women, especially the unmarried, practised prostitution as an act of religion. Some tribes, both ancient and relatively modern, have maintained the custom of yielding the newly married bride to the relatives and guests of the bridegroom. Unlimited sexual intercourse before marriage has been sanctioned by the customs of some uncivilized peoples. Among some savage tribes the husband permits his guests to have intercourse with his wife, or loans her for hire. Certain uncivilized peoples are known to have practised trial marriages, marriages that were binding only until the birth of a child, and marriages that bound the parties only for certain days of the week. Although any general exercise of the so-called jus primae noctis has no historical basis, and is now admitted to be an invention of the encyclopedists, at times serf women were required to submit to their overlords before assuming marital relations with their husbands (Schmidt, Karl, "Jus Primae Noctis, a historical examination"). Japanese maidens of the poorer classes frequently spend a portion of their youth as prostitutes, with the consent of their parents and the sanction of public opinion.
Concubinage, the practice of forming a somewhat enduring union with some other woman than the wife, or such union between two unmarried persons, has prevailed to some extent among most peoples, even among some that had attained a high degree of civilization, as the Greeks and Romans (for detailed proof of the foregoing statements, see Westermarck, op, cit., passim). In a word, fornication and adultery have been sufficiently common at all stages of the world's history and among almost all peoples, to arouse the anxiety of the moralist, the statesman, and the sociologist. Owing to the growth of cities, the changed relations between the sexes in social and industrial life, the decay of religion, and the relaxation of parental control, these evils have increased very greatly within the last one hundred years. The extent to which prostitution and venereal disease are sapping the mental, moral, and physical health of the nations, is of itself abundant proof that the strict and lofty standards of purity set up by the Catholic Church, both within and without the marriage relation, constitute the only adequate safeguard of society.
This is a modification of monogamy that seems to be no less opposed to its spirit than polyandry, polygamy, or adultery. It requires, indeed, that the parties should await a certain time or a certain contingency before severing the unity of marriage, but it is essentially a violation of monogamy, of the enduring union of husband and wife. Yet it has obtained among practically all peoples, savage and civilized. About the only people that seem never to have practised or recognized it are the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, some of the Papuans of New Guinea, some tribes of the Indean Archipelago, and the Veddahs of Ceylon. Among the majority of uncivilized peoples the marital unions that endured until the death of one of the parties seem to have been in the minority. It is substantially true to say that the majority of savage races authorized the husband to divorce his wife wherever he felt so inclined. A majority of even the more advanced peoples who remained outside the pale of Christianity restrict the right of divorce to the husband, although the reason for which he could put away his wife are, as a rule, not so numerous as among the uncivilized races. In all those countries that adopted the Catholic religion, however, divorce was very soon abolished, and continued to be forbidden as long as that religion was recognized by the State. The early Christian emperors, as Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian, did, indeed, legalize the practice, but before the tenth century the Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage had become embodied in the civil legislation of every Catholic country (see DIVORCE). The Oriental Churches separated from Rome, including the Greek Orthodox Church, and all the Protestant sects, permit divorce in varying degrees, and the practice prevails in every country in which any of these Churches exercise a considerable influence. In some of the non-Catholic countries divorce is extremely easy and scandalously frequent. Between 1890 and 1900 the divorces granted in the United States averaged 73 per 100,000 of the population annually. This was more than twice the rate in any other Western nation. The proportion in Switzerland was 32; in France, 23; in Saxony, 29; and in the majority of European countries, less than 15. So far as we are informed by statistics, only one country in the world, namely, Japan, had a worse record than the United States, the rate per 100,000 of the population the Flowery Kingdom being 215. In most of the civilized countries the divorce rate is increasing, slowly in some, very rapidly in others. Relatively to the population, about two and one half times as many divorces are granted now in the United States as were issued forty year ago.
But the practice of attempting to dissolve the bond of marriage by law, is not confined to Protestant, schismatic, and pagan countries. It obtains to some extent in all the Catholic lands of Europe, except Italy, Portugal, and Spain. South America is freer from it than any other continent. The majority of the countries in the geographical division do not grant absolute divorce. A notable fact in the history of divorce is that those countries which have never been Christianized, and those which remained faithful to the Christian teaching for only a short time (e.g., the regions that fell under the sway of Mohammedanism) conducted the practice on terms more favourable to the husband than to the wife. About the only important exception to this rule was pagan Rome in the later centuries of her existence. In modern countries which permit divorce, and yet call themselves Christian, the wife can take advantage of the practice about as easily as the husband; but his is undoubtedly due to the previous influence of Christianity in raising the civil and social status of woman during the long period in which divorce was forbidden. In the long run divorce must inevitably be more injurious to a women than to men. If the divorced woman remains single generally has greater difficulty in supporting herself than the divorced man; if she is young her opportunities of marrying again may, indeed, be about as good as those of the divorced man who is young; but if she is at or beyond middle age the probability that she will find a suitable spouse is decidedly smaller than in the case of her separated husband.
The fact that in the United States more women than men apply for divorces proves nothing as yet against the statements just set down; for we do not know whether these women have generally found it easy to get other husbands, or whether their new condition was better than the old. The frequent appeal to the divorce courts by American women is a comparatively recent phenomenon, and is undoubtedly due more to emotion, imaginary hopes, and a hasty use of newly acquired freedom, than to calm and adequate study of the experiences of other divorced women. If the present facility of divorce should continue fifty years longer, the disproportionate hardship to women from the practice will probably have become so evident the number of them taking advantage of it, or approving it, will be much smaller than today.
The social evils of easy divorce are so obvious that the majority of Americans undoubtedly are in favour of a stricter policy. One of the most far-reaching of these evils is the encouragement of lower conceptions of conjugal fidelity; for when a person regards the taking of a new spouse as entirely lawful for a multitude of more or less slight reasons, his sense of obligation toward his present partner can not be very strong or very deep. Simultaneous cannot seem much worse than successive plurality of sexual relations. The average husband and wife who become divorced for a trivial cause are less faithful to each other during their temporary union than the average couple who do not believe in divorce. Similarly, easy divorce gives an impetus to illicit relations between the unmarried, inasmuch as it tends to destroy the association in the popular consciousness between sexual intercourse and the enduring union of one man with one woman. Another evil is the increase in the number of hasty and unfortunate marriages among persons who look forward to divorce as an easy remedy for present mistakes. Inasmuch as the children of a divorced couple are deprived of their normal heritage, which is education and care by both father and mother in the same household, they almost always suffer grave and varied disadvantages. Finally there is the injury done to the moral character generally. Indissoluble marriage is one of the most effective means of developing self-control and mutual self-sacrifice. Many salutary inconveniences are endured because they cannot be avoided, and many imperfections of temper and character are corrected because the husband and wife realize that thus only is conjugal happiness possible. On the other hand, when divorce is easily obtain there is no sufficient motive for undergoing those inconvenience which are so essential to self-discipline, self-development, and the practice of altruism.
All the objections just noted are valid against frequent divorce, against the abuse of divorce, but not against divorce so far as it implies separation from bed and board without the right to contract another marriage. The Church permits limited separation in certain cases, chiefly, when one of the parties has been guilty of adultery, and when further cohabitation would cause grave injury to soul or body. If divorce were restricted to these two cases some pretend that it would be socially preferable to mere separation without the right to remarry, at least for the innocent spouse. But it would surely be less advantageous to society than a regime of no divorce. Where mere separation is permitted, it will in a considerable proportion of instances need to be only temporary, and the welfare of parents and children will be better promoted by reconciliation than if one of the parties formed another matrimonial union. When there is no hope of another marriage, the offenses than justify separation are less likely to be provoked or committed by either party, and separation is less likely to be sought on insufficient grounds or obtained through fraudulent methods. Moreover, experience shows that when divorce is permitted for a few causes, there is an almost irresistible tendency to increase the number of legal grounds, and to make the administration of the law less strict. Finally, the absolute prohibition of divorce has certain moral effects which contribute in a fundamental and far-reaching way to the social welfare. The popular mind is impress with the thought that marriage is an exclusive relation between two persons, and the sexual intercourse of itself and normally calls for a lifelong union of the persons entering upon such intercourse.
The obligation of self-control, and of subordinating the animal in human nature to the reason and the spirit, as well as the possibility of fulfilling this obligation, are likewise taught in a most striking and practical manner. Humanity is thus aided and encouraged to reach a higher moral plane. In the matter of the indissolubility, as well as in that of the unity of marriage, therefore, the Christian teaching is in harmony with nature at her best, and with the deepest needs of civilization. "There is abundant evidence", says Westermarck, "that marriage has, upon the whole, become more durable in proportion as the human race has risen to higher degrees of civilization, and that a certain amount of civilization is an essential condition of the formation of lifelong union" (op. cit., p. 535). This statement suggests two tolerably safe generalizations: first, that the prohibition of divorce during many centuries has been a cause as well as an effect of those 'higher degrees of civilization" that have been already attained: and, second, that the same policy will be found essential to the highest degree of civilization.
With a very few unimportant exceptions all peoples, savage and civilized, that have not accepted the Catholic religion, have looked with some disdain upon celibacy, Savage races marry much earlier, and have a smaller proportion of celibates than civilized nations. During the last century the proportion of unmarried persons has increased in the United States and in Europe. The causes of this change are partly economic, inasmuch as it has become more difficult to support a family in accordance with contemporary standards of living; partly social, inasmuch as the increased social pleasure and opportunities have displaced to some degree domestic desires and interests; and partly moral, inasmuch as laxer notions of chastity have increased the number of those who satisfy their sexual desires out side of marriage. From the viewpoint of social morality and social welfare, this modern celibacy is an almost unmixed evil. On the other hand, the religious celibacy taught and encourage by the Church is socially beneficial, since it shows that continence is practicable, and since religious celibates exemplify a higher degree of altruism than any other section of society. The assertion that celibacy tends to make the married state seem low or unworthy, is contradicted by the public opinion and practice of every country in which celibacy is held in highest honor. For it is precisely in such places that the marriage relation, and the relations between the sexes generally, are purest. (See CELIBACY.)
The act, formality, or ceremony by which the marriage union is created, has differed widely at different times and among different peoples. One of the earliest and most frequent customs associated with the entrance into marriage was the capture of the woman by her intended husband, usually from another tribe than that to which he himself belonged. Among most primitive peoples this act seems to have been regarded rather as a means of getting a wife, than as the formation of the marriage union itself. The latter subsequent to the capture, and was generally devoid of any formality whatever, beyond mere cohabitation. But the symbolic seizure of wives continued in many places long after the reality had ceased. It still exits among some of the lower races, and until quite recently was not unknown in some parts of Eastern Europe. After the practice has become simulated instead of actual, it was frequently looked upon as either the whole of the marriage ceremony or an essential accompaniment of the marriage. Symbolic capture has largely given way to wife purchase, which seems to prevail among most uncivilized peoples today. It has assumed various forms. Sometimes the man desiring a wife gave one of his kinswomen in exchange; sometimes he served for a period his intended bride's father, which was a frequent custom among the ancient Hebrews; but most often the bride was paid for in money or some form of property. Like capture, purchase became after a time among many peoples a symbol to signify the taking of a wife and the formation of the marriage union. Sometimes, however, it was merely an accompanying ceremony. Various other ceremonial forms have accompanied or constituted the entrance upon the marriage relation, the most common of which was some kind of feast; yet among many uncivilized peoples marriage has taken place, and still takes place, without any formal ceremony whatever.
By many uncivilized races, and by most civilized ones, the marriage ceremony is regarded as a religious rite or includes religious features, although the religious element is not always regarded as necessary to the validity of the union. Under the Christian dispensation marriage is a religious act of the very highest kind, namely, one of the seven sacraments. Although Luther declared that marriage was not a sacrament but a "worldly thing", all the Protestant sects have continued to regard it as religious in the sense that it ought normally to be contracted in the presence of a clergyman. Owing to the influence of the Lutheran view and of the French Revolution, civil marriage has been instituted in almost all the countries of Europe and North America, as well as in some of the states of South America. In some countries it is essential to the validity of the union before the civil law, while in others, e.g., in the United States it is merely one of the ways in which marriage may be contracted. Civil marriage, is not, however a post-Reformation institution, for it existed among the ancient Peruvians, and among the Aborigines of North America.
Whether as a state or as a contract whether from the viewpoint of religion and morals or from that of the social welfare, marriage appears in its highest form in the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church. The fact that the contract is a sacrament impresses the popular mind with the importance and sacredness of the relation thus begun. The fact the union is indissoluble and monogamous promotes in the highest degree the welfare of parents and children, and stimulates in the whole community the practice of those qualities of self-restraint and altruism which are essential to social well-being, physical, mental, and moral (see FAMILY; DIVORCE; CELIBACY).
APA citation. (1910). History of Marriage. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09693a.htm
MLA citation. "History of Marriage." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09693a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Ginny Hoffman.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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