Marriage: For Love or Money

imgres-24Overview and Introduction

* Can we see the institution of Marriage as static throughout most of the middle ages?

No – why? Because.

* Church Slow to Seek to Regulate Marriage: In the early Middle Ages, marriage was not as regulated as it later became. What we would term “common-law” marriages were quite popular, and as legal as a church marriage.

* Church Authority Ineffective in the Early middle Ages. The church was fighting for its life during the early Middle Ages – its dictates often had little effect on the many diverse cultures that made up Western Europe – and little sway over more or less endogamus village populations – in PARTICULAR:.

*Surviving Roman marriage customs and laws often clashed with emerging Christian beliefs about marriage – especially in the areas of ‘sexuality’, ‘dissolution of marriage’, ‘who one could marry’ and finally ‘the ranking of marriage in the divine hierarchy’.

*Tribal Germanic marriage customs were also quite diverse and deep-rooted – they also clashed with some aspects of the Christian ideal of marriage – for example polygamy was widespread among Germanic nations.

* Nevertheless The Church Did Eventually Wield a Great Deal Of Power Over Marriage:

* 12th Century situation: By the 11th or 12th centuries Christian attitudes toward marriage had either absorbed or defeated most other conceptions of marriage – in particular among Europe’s elite classes.

*Feudalism and the Trans-European consciousness: The feudal system, and the importance it placed on rights of inheritance, combined with the Church’s desire to further regulate the private lives of its flock both lead to a greater interference by the state in private life. On both scores – church and state – the elite banded together in order to transform the old localised views of the relationship between self and church (so dependent upon the binding together of powerful local families through marriage) into trans-European social networks/relations.

* Canon Law on Marriage: In consequence the church through Canon Law became the disputed but universal arbitrator over the institution of marriage in later Medieval Europe – rather than state or civil law as we have today.

*The Medieval institution of Marriage is part of an only recently discovered sub-history related to the history of Private Life – it is a history which has come to include archaeologies of the body, sexuality, sentiment, changing conceptions of the divine and maladies of the psyche.


Theory: Marriage According to Monks and Church Fathers

*Christianity’s Fundamental Ambivalence Toward Marriage: From the early Days of Christianity ‘Chastity’ had been an ideal. The tone of the gospels is not particularly positive toward marriage (or sexuality) – stemming perhaps from the earliest chapters of the Old Testament – Woman (Eve) as the weaker sex (easily tempted by the devil) the temptress whose actions eventually have humankind cast out from the Garden of Eden. Stemming also from a certain ambivalence toward the flesh which set up a kind of duality between ‘spirituality’ and ‘the animal passions’. This eventually showed up in the Medieval period in terms laws forbidding priests to marry, also in terms of the sacred bonds between nuns and the church- they became the bride of Christ. Monks to took vows of celibacy.

But the church was also quite practically minded – marriage among the common people was a necessity of the church itself was to continue on as an institution:

“But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn”. (Corinthians 7:9).images-15

There were, however more positive pronouncements on the topic:

“So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.” (Ephesians 5:28).

* The Christian tradition followed many of its predecessors in making husbands lords and masters over their wives

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.” (Ephesians 5:22-3)

The Later Medieval Situation:

From the 11th to the 13th centuries the Church both extended its laws concerning marriage and worked harder to impose older laws on the other two estates:

* Marriage as a sacrament. Marriage was one of the seven sacraments and the only sacrament not to require the assistance of a priest. The sacrament, in fact, is performed by the couple; in public ceremonies, the priest merely guides the couple and insures the proper completion of the ritual.

*Marriage as an outlet for Lust (prevention of sin)

*Marriage primarily a means to conceive children.

*Marriage a means to procure ‘mutual companionship’

*Marriage an indissoluble monogamous relationship between a man and a woman.

*Free and legitimate consent of two parties before God required:

  • the only thing that made the legal marriage was the free and legitimate consent of both parties; preferably stated in front of witnesses.

What was free and legitimate consent?

  • both man and women had to be of an age to give consent: 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy (however, betrothals could be made from the age of 7 … both betrothed parties were supposedly free to back out until the age of consent).

Note: Free and legitimate consent had to be correctly worded:

  • any contract using the present tense was binding
  • any contract using the future tense could be backed out of, unless sexual union had taken place (sex implies full consent)
  • a conditional contract of marriage could also be broken if the conditions were not met. (For example, a conditional contract might be worded: “I will take you for my wife if your father agrees”, or, “I will take you for my wife if you give me two pigs.”)

*11th to 13th C Church Alterations to conceptualisations of (and laws against) Incest. – extensions to church law concerning consanguinity;

* marriage to blood kin banned out to the ‘sixth’ cousin – from the 1st in most Barbarian cultures – which was still the case in most village communities up to the 15th century or so.

*in-laws through marriage (not blood) and all their relatives were classed as blood kin by the church.

images-14*anyone you’d ever slept with (ie, even concubines), and all their kin, were classed as blood kin

* Church Banns: Church’s conception of ‘betrothal’ stated that neither party could be previously contracted (betrothed or married): thus Church ‘banns’ to be read 3 weeks prior to the marriage to give anyone claiming prior contract time to come forward.

*Prohibition, Divorce, Annulment: general principle The Indissolubility of Marriage: No divorce – except in extreme situations – a marriage could only be annulled if it could be shown it was not legal in the first place – or if a partner died.

Who Could Not Marry:

*Those who had taken a monastic or religious vow. The vows of a priest, monk, or nun could only be set aside with difficulty,

* widows or widowers would had taken vows of celibacy on the death of a spouse. These could be set aside with papal dispensation.

*A previous betrothal could also stop a marriage.

Causes for dissolution of an already established marriage:

*One of the parties was not of legal age (12 for girls, 14 for boys),

*the woman was incapable of sexual relations,

*one of the partners was in religious orders or bound by a vow (as above),

*Marriage of a servant one had formerly had sex with;

*if one of the parties was not a Christian,

*One of the partners had previous marriage (even if not consummated) with a relative of the intended spouse.

Prohibition of a marriage (if known of before hand) – note, not grounds for dissolution of an existing marriage:



*marriage to be performed during a prohibited fast period (Lent or Advent),


* marriage by someone who had killed a clergyman.


Examples: see also Source Booklet: Twelfth-Century Canon Law: The Decretals

Case 27, Question II:

  1. “Coitus does not make a marriage, consent does …”
  2. “When there is consent, which alone makes a marriage, between those persons, it is clear they have been married …”
  3. “Marriage is initiated in the betrothal …”
  4. “The union of the couple completes the marriage …”

Case 32, Question II:

  1. imgres-25“Childbirth is the sole purpose of marriage for women …”
  2. “Immoderate conjugal union is not an evil of marriage, but a venial sin …”
  3. “Those who obtain drugs of sterility are fornicators, not spouses …”

Thus, to indulge in sex only for pleasure was a mortal sin, but to obtain pleasure from sex while trying to conceive children was bearable (if unfortunate).

Marriage in Practice.

*Church and State Theory in Conflict with Village and Domus Based conceptions of Marriage [Sites of Conflict – the Private].

*Theory and practice: As we see in regard to the Montaillou situation there was a huge difference between the church ideal, the interpretation of those ideals by local priests and the actual practices of the peasants. Again conflict between a Univeralist conceptions and localised conceptions. In the ‘field’ priests tended to try and convince people about the virtues of the Christian idea of marriage and sex in marriage rather than condemn –

*penances for wavering often light or not enforced at all.

*local priests turned a blind eye to concubinage and other transgressions of church marriage codes – tried to convince men that taking many lovers was an economic problem – it weakened the domus.

*Church also turned a blind eye to ‘negotiated’ and ‘arranged’ marriages – local priests often had a hand in negotiations.

*Nobles and Peasants: We note that the church laws related to the institution of marriage were more tightly controlled the further up the social ladder a person was – noble marriages were much more controlled by economic, political and religious pressures – subversion of the norms still took place – but, away from the public gaze.

*Endogamus Village Communities: Most people married people from their own village – even those who married externally chose partners very close to their own village. This localised view of marriage meant that many communities were simply unable to met many of the constraints placed upon them by church law.

So how did the institution of Marriage function among the Peasants?

* Village/Folk Patriarchies: In rural centres marriage was an important aspect of a prevalent patriarchy (not necessarily Christian in origin). “A wife is always given to her future husband by another man.”

*Doweries: A gift given by the parents of the girl to the husband – ‘to relieve fo the husband the economic burdens of matrimony’ – implicit view ‘men support women economically’. Peasant families often ‘promised’ a dowery to their daughter’s future husbands – big stress for men with only daughters – could ruin a domus … so sons were treasured above daughters!

*Love?: Men often selected women out of love but the reverse was less often the case. For many women passionate love only existed outside of ‘marriage’ – particularly among noble-women where this belief was immortalised in the songs of the troubadours.

*Fate and Passion (free consent before god often suspect): However, there is much evidence to suggest that among peasants anyway, ‘fated’ marriage – betrothal by parents, uncles, clergy etc. – often seems to have coincided with the objects of passion. Most wives seem to have stayed devoted to their husbands for a lifetime – give or take a night or two.

*The Importance of Family Connections: Marriage was a welding together of two domuses/families arranged by the dominant members of those two families. Even among peasants there were many social gradations which affected ones capacity to marry. What one brought with on into the marriage was all important. Thus servant girls, shepherds and other people less well-off economically often stayed single for life. No matter if you had a realm to dispose of, or three strips in an open field, you wanted the best deal possible in your son or daughter’s marriage negotiations – because it could prove beneficial to oneself in old age. To maximise economic possibilities people generally waited until they could afford to provide for a family, thus nobles tended to marry earlier (teens) while peasants waited until mid- to late twenties.

* Limits to Monogamy and extended incest laws (to 2-6th cousins and relations of inlaws): Peasants often lax in regard to their adherence to church laws in these areas. “Concubinage”, “taking lovers”, “short term relationships’ and marriage between cousins beyond 1st cousin were common and rarely frowned upon. Even local church priests interpreted church laws in common sense ways – many priests were themselves unable to fulfil the vows of monogamy and were guilty of incest according to the strictures of church law. The one triumph for the church was in the area of polygamy, the marrying of several partners – which was suppressed. The relationships themselves continued to exist however, and many men (and some women) kept lovers (and bastard offspring) as domestic servants in their domus – along with their legitimate wives!

*Gifts and Tokens: Since marriage was very much a social event involving all of the hanger-ons of two domuses – and often the whole village community – gift giving was a major feature of the process. In particular a young man had to make himself very sweet with the prospective mother-in-law. There was much show and celebration after the marriage vows were taken and surviving records indicate that many women treasured their wedding dresses as symbols all their lives. [See Diana O’Hara’s article on “The Language of Tokens & the Making of a Marriage”]

*gifts—their size, quality and quantity—told families much about the prospective spouse and his/her prospects

*gifts could involve a large number of people within the local society

*in a world where marriage consisted of mutually given consent, the acceptance of gifts could prove consentimgres-26

*the stage of courtship at which the gift was given (and accepted) was important … receipt of a ring, even if no words were spoken, could be upheld in a court of law as freely given consent and a legal marriage …

*thus, in medieval society, the acceptance of a ring, our ‘engagement’, was often represented the formal and legal part of a marriage.

* Courting (where it took place): Male initiative. Belonged mostly to men – modern Romantic notions of ‘pre-marital’ courtship held no great currency to Medieval women –

*Women were married off young: Men were often ten years or more older than women they sought to marry – they tended to have ‘sown their wild oats’ and were settling down by marrying models of the good wife – living embodiments of virginal innocence’. Though technically a sin, among peasants pre-marital sex was more or less approved of. This age disparity often lead to many women finding themselves as young widows relatively early in life.

*Concepts of Honour and Shame: These concepts – variously articulated in different Medieval cultures – kept many women in bad marriages. Losing honour in the eyes of the village community for transgressing against conventional notions – laid down by the twin patriarchies of domus and church – of the ideal marriage partner stifled female rebellion. Particularly the case because one also brought shame on one’s entire domus – the family name.

The Best of a Bad Situation: Female Resistance to local and Europe-Wide patriarchies:

* Early Death of Husband: Widowhood left many women in control of both their own doweries and the economic accumulations of their former husbands. If they did not remarry these women often wielded power over their own domus as the eldest person – especially the case if they had daughters who brought ‘husbands’ into the domus – less so when they had sons – technically the sons became heads of the domus.

* Many Economic and Later Life benefits accrued to a married Woman: Marriage an important part of becoming a woman. Given the localised economy of the Medieval period many women found genuine independence/joy in their houshold/croft/domus duties – the position of wife in a Medieval household was honoured and probably did not involve the degrees of alienation that came when women became a kind of kept-leisure class centuries later. In old age a woman was very much respected and loved by her sons and daughters, also by nieces, nephews and grandchildren.


The Process Itself

Place of marriage:

* anywhere! though it had to be witnessed by reputable people. [Priests, if in attendance at all, were only guides.]

* if associated with a church or priest, then couples tended to be blessed by the priest at the church door infacie ecclesie, rather than actually enter the church itself.

* many couples married outside Church’s auspices. Old fertility beliefs and customs still had a hold on the peasant mind and this was reflected in the kinds of celebrations peasant communities engaged in on wedding nights …. Many peasants prayed to saints or other supernatural personages for healthy children, sexual potency (in marriage), and a strife-free married life.

*Consumation seals the union – women should be virgins on their wedding night (not such a widely held proviso among the peasants.

The Timing of the marriage was influenced by:

*Church Laws: the Church which banned marriage during the most holy periods of the year: the major seasons for marriage bans were Lent, the 40 weekday fast leading up to Easter, Advent, a similar fast leading up to Christmas, and Rogationtide (a series of movable feast days in mid-year).

*The Seasons: the demands of the agricultural year: certain times of the year were simply too busy, e.g. late summer and early autumn – the heat and haste of the harvest.


images-11What Did Medieval People Look For in a Spouse?

  • the ability to provide for a family: land, wealth, goods or a good craft or trade
  • what each partner would bring into the family (again, land, goods, money, ability to work and to provide)
  • feudal bonds – a feudal lord might have a say in who (or if) his peasants took as a spouses (more the case up to 1200 when Lord’s saw their serfs as virtual slaves).
  • someone mother and father liked! family influenced the choice of a spouse
  • the ability to have children (children were always the most important product of the marriage)
  • reputation, ancestry, ‘breeding’
  • after all that …. maybe personal attraction and love …