Category Archives: Medieval Life

Dissolution of Marriage

Boxgrove Priory

Boxgrove Priory

Painful though it is for someone whose novels always have a Happy Ever After ending (I don’t think I’m giving anything away there), I have to conclude the short series on betrothal and marriage with a post on the dissolution of marriages.

Whilst it was normal for a marriage to continue until one of the parties died, marriages could end in a variety of ways.

An acceptable end to a marriage was for both parties to agree to enter the religious life. The husband would become a monk and the wife a nun. Things were obviously less satisfactory if only one of them wanted this. They were even less satisfactory if one of them (the husband) used it as a means of shutting the other away. This was usually done so that a mistress could be installed in the wife’s place, often in the hope of being able to marry the mistress later. Since the husband concerned had to be fairly powerful to achieve this, it was not something to be feared by all women.

What we would call a separation could also take place, but it was not necessarily straightforward. These would usually occur because of adultery or cruelty. Except for the very poorest, a marriage would involve a transfer of property. The bride’s family would have provided a dowry, which was given to the groom. If she and her husband no longer wished to live together, some arrangement had to be made about the dowry. Should the whole thing be returned to the bride’s family? Should the groom keep part of it? If the dowry was a cow, for example, should any offspring go to the bride’s family? Should any go to her children? Clearly, a third party would have to make a decision and this could be expensive. Sometimes the separation was less formal, but either way, neither party could marry again. Marriage was indissoluble. They might not be living together, but they were still married to one another.

There was only one option for a man who wished to marry again. It was usually the man who wanted to follow this course and it would be because he wanted an heir, or, in the case of Phillippe II of France, because something (unknown) went terribly wrong on the wedding night. In order for another marriage to take place the existing marriage had to be annulled, which meant both parties would be single again, as if the marriage had not taken place.

Marriages could be annulled for very few reasons. The marriage might be annulled because it was not valid in the first place. This would apply where the marriage was bigamous or where one of the couple was too young to marry. For poorer people, bigamy was the most common reason for an annulment. Among the aristocracy the most frequently used reason was consanguinity, i.e. the couple were so closely related to one another that their marriage was really incest. Eleanor of Aquitaine requested an annulment of her marriage to Louis VII of France for this reason. This was originally opposed by her husband, but he gave way after they had a second daughter. They had been married for fifteen years and there were no sons. Shortly after the annulment was granted by the pope, Eleanor married the future Henry II, to whom she was just as closely related.

 

I’ve been asked, more than once, to reveal my sources, as it were.  I shall try to remember to do so. Here they are for this post:

Unmarriages by Ruth Mazo Karras

Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies

 

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Papal Dispensations

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In one of the Soldiers of Fortune stories a couple needs a papal dispensation in order to marry. This is because they’re too closely related to marry in the normal course of things. There were rules about consanguinity which were fairly closely observed by monarchs and the nobility, who would not want anyone to question the validity of a marriage and, by implication, the legitimacy of any heirs. These rules were probably more or less ignored by everyone else.

A papal dispensation is permission from the pope for someone to do something contrary to canon law. Its best-known use relates to marriage, where it can permit a marriage which would not otherwise be allowed or dissolve a marriage.

Probably the most famous papal dispensation was one that wasn’t granted. Henry VIII requested one to enable him to put aside his wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. Since he had already requested, and received, one in order to marry Katherine, he was on a bit of a losing wicket from the start. Henry had needed a dispensation to marry Katherine because she was his brother’s widow, which meant that their marriage would be incestuous. Katherine said that her marriage to Prince Arthur had not been consummated and the pope allowed Henry and Katherine to marry.

There were prohibitions against marriages considered incestuous and the rules of consanguinity also covered people who were only related by marriage. Hence, if Katherine’s marriage to Arthur had been ruled valid, Katherine and Henry would have been related to the first degree, that is, they would have been considered brother and sister.

The prohibited degrees of consanguinity varied throughout the Middle Ages. Before 1215, when the Fourth Lateran Council clarified the issue, marriage between sixth cousins was prohibited. Who is your sixth cousin? It’s someone who shares a great-great-great-great-great-grandparent with you, or someone who was married to someone who shared a great-great-great-great-great-grandparent with you. You can see how it might be difficult to know who your sixth cousin was. If you lived in a small village, you could almost guarantee that you were related to everyone else more closely than that.

In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that the fourth degree of consanguinity was the closest at which a marriage could be permitted. This meant that marriage between a couple who shared a great-grandparent was not permitted. Brother and sister are related in the first degree, first cousins in the second, second cousins in the third and so on. An infringement of this rule was considered incest.

If you were a noble, however, you might be able to persuade the pope that your close relationship to your intended wife was not such an impediment. Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, needed a papal dispensation to marry Joan of Kent. His great-grandfather, Edward I, was her grandfather, which meant that they were first cousins once removed. They married secretly some weeks before the dispensation was requested in the hope of forcing the pope’s hand. The pope gave his permission and Joan’s third marriage reinforced her reputation of marital irregularity.

 

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Medieval marriage

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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.

 

 

 

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Medieval Betrothals

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In this second post relating to the Soldiers of Fortune series of novels I’m looking at betrothals. A betrothal was sometimes a precursor to marriage, but it was not necessary to enable a marriage to take place. What did and did not constitute a marriage in the fourteenth century is a different topic, but they could be secret or public. A betrothal was always a public act.

There were, generally speaking, two ways to marry. One was by present consent and the other by future consent. The latter was a betrothal. The vows made in a betrothal were such that the couple said that they intended to marry and would be married if they consummated that intention physically. When that consummation took place (weeks, months, years later) they were married. Sometimes there was another ceremony after the betrothal and before the consummation, but that was rare.

A betrothal was not a religious ceremony.

Both children and adults could be betrothed. Although it was more usual for a child to be betrothed to another child, a child was sometimes betrothed to an adult.

Children became adults at a much younger age than they do today. We saw last week that men were not considered too young to lead an army at fifteen and sixteen, and boys and girls came of age much younger than they do now.

A marriage was not supposed to be consummated until the woman was capable of bearing a child and the couple might wait for some time after that. Some did not. Joan of Kent maintained that she consummated her clandestine marriage to Thomas Holland at the age of twelve. When she was married to William Montague later that year, the unwilling bride and her new husband lived apart, because she was considered too young to consummate the marriage. It’s believed that Edward II, who married Isabella of France when she was 12, waited two or three years before consummating their marriage.

Fourteen was the acceptable age for cohabitation for a woman.  She was considered to be in her prime child-bearing years in her late teens and early twenties.

Marriages were often used by aristocratic families to cement alliances as parents betrothed their children to one another. Betrothals could be, and were, broken. Loyalties changed and someone who was seen as an ally one day could be an enemy the next.

 

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