Medieval marriage


In many romance novels there is a wedding near the end and, spoiler alert, mine tend not to be any different. The weddings in my novels, however, are not big affairs with the bride in white attended by bridesmaids, and the groom attended by his best friend. They don’t even take place inside a church.

One of the things I learned early in my reading about life in the Middle Ages is that a wedding wasn’t always what I thought it should be. I wrote a short post a few weeks ago about church porches, where weddings often took place. They were, however, just as likely to take place in a house or in a wood. Most of the weddings in my novels take place in church porches, but one takes place in a wood and one inside a solar.

What constituted a marriage in the Middle Ages? It was a civil contract between the two people involved. This didn’t mean that there couldn’t be affection or even romantic love between them, but that was rarely the reason for marrying. Marriage was often about property or security.

There were two ways to achieve a valid marriage. We looked at the future intent way last week. If a couple meant to be married immediately they only had to say to one another “I take you, name, as my husband/wife”, or something similar. Regardless of whether the marriage was immediate or deferred, the consent of both parties was necessary.

The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 decreed that a wedding must be in public and that the bride must have a dowry, but there did not need to be any witnesses, nor did there need to be clergy present. Often even these simple requirements were not met. Once again, Joan of Kent is our example. She married in secret without the knowledge of her mother or anyone else who was responsible for her, which obviously meant she had no dowry. Yet this marriage was, eventually, declared valid by the pope. All that was really necessary for a marriage to take place were the words spoken by the man and the woman.

According to a fascinating book I read recently, Beds and Chambers in Late Medieval England by Hollie L. S. Morgan, marriage vows were often made in bed. You can see how easy it would be for either party to deny that such a wedding had taken place, or for one of them to claim that it had when it had not.

Marriages without witnesses did not always end well. It would often turn out that one or other party was already married, or had pretended to marry the other party, in order to entice them into bed. Sometimes a woman who became pregnant would claim that the father had married her when he had not.

Clandestine marriages, i.e. those without witnesses, were forbidden by the Fourth Lateran Council. The prohibition was widely ignored. Despite its best efforts, the church found it impossible to control where and how couples made their vows.

If you were a villein getting married would often involve paying a fee (or merchet) to the lord of the manor. It was only payable if the bride had a dowry.

Weddings were supposed to take place at the door of the church or in the church porch, because it was the most public place in the village. The man often gave the woman a ring as a token of the dower that he would provide for her. The dower was the property he gave to his wife to provide for her after his death, but she would only have it for her lifetime. Her children could not inherit it. Sometimes there was a nuptial mass after the exchange of vows. Then there was usually a feast.

Premarital sex was condemned in public, but accepted in private. Many marriages, in villages at least, did not take place until the woman was pregnant, thus demonstrating the couple’s fertility.

The church had a struggle as it tried to control marriage. The New Testament declared that marriage is second-best to celibacy and turning it into a sacrament was an uphill task. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the Catholic Church required its members to be married by a priest in front of witnesses. In Protestant England the law changed at the beginning of the seventeenth century, so that a priest or a magistrate was required to make a marriage legal.






Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Marriage

25 responses to “Medieval marriage

  1. has really turned into a complicated bit of theatre since those days..I had heard that in Brehon Law (old Irish law) it was said two people could be married by each throwing a stone into the sea and if they wanted to separate they would have to go and retrieve their stone!I am not sure how true that is but the ancient Irish also used handfasting ie tying the two betrothed together in advance of the wedding day…they would know all about it then!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ButterflyinRemission

    Very interesting, thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love reading all those tidbits 🌺

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ali Isaac

    Well that was interesting! I had no idea it took so long for the church to take control of marriage. It was pretty much the same in early Ireland. Marriage forged alliances, secured power and wealth and status. Irish law recognised 10 types of relationship betwee

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ali Isaac

      Sorry… problems posting. Meant to say 10 types of relationship between men and women. Must write about that on the blog. Loved the post, and I think I’m going to enjoy your blog. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you. 10? Really?

        I’m reading a book now about the different kinds of relationships there were at the end of the Roman empire and going into the Middle Ages. It really seems to be marriage or concubinage, or sex with a slave, which didn’t seem to bother anyone except, presumably, the slave. I’m fascinated by the idea of 10 different kinds of relationships.


  5. Such an interesting post April. I didn’t know that marriage began as a civil contract. As for where weddings were held, we seem to be returning to places other than the church.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That’s fascinating, April. I think a marriage in the woods would be lovely (note to self: do that if there’s a next time!). I’m sure it would be a nightmare for medieval genealogists with all that bed hopping and ‘are they, aren’t they’ married! 😉

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  7. On a totally unrelated note, have you seen this? I thought it might interest you

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  8. Pingback: Athens – Part2 – Antiquity and Creativity – Global Housesitter x2

  9. I had no idea marriage could be so informal. So, the old joke about X% of marriages beginning with the words, “You’re WHAT?!” may be true after all!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think it was considered informal, it’s just that there wasn’t any need for more. Just as today, most people got married in front of everyone who knew them and saying the words is still the important bit today.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Athens – Part2 – Antiquity and Creativity – Life at No. 22

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