Tag Archives: Medieval Marriage

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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Medieval marriage

Bologna_marriage_women

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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When is a clandestine wedding not a secret wedding?

Bologna_marriage_women

As demonstrated by the life of Joan of Kent, clandestine marriages were not always invalid marriages, nor were they solely the province of the lower classes. Joan had two clandestine marriages: one to Thomas Holland and the other to Edward of Woodstock, the Prince of Wales. Joan’s difficulty with establishing the validity of the first shows in part why the church frowned on them and tried to stamp them out.

The church had been trying for centuries to control marriages, but all that was needed for a valid marriage was for the two people concerned to say to one another that they were married. There were other conditions, of course. They could not be too closely related, as in the case of Joan and the Prince, and they could not already be married to someone else. They did not need to be married inside a church or by a priest, nor did the marriage need to be recorded officially.

Clandestine marriages were not necessarily secret, although that was so in Joan’s case. The marriage vows themselves were often made publicly. Clandestine simply meant that there was no public betrothal and no solemnisation. The public betrothal allowed anyone who had an objection to the marriage to make it before the wedding itself took place. The church wanted couples to be married with a priest in attendance. The idea was not that the priest married them, for the couple did that themselves when they made their vows to one another. They were not even married inside the church. If the couple were having a ‘church wedding’ it took place in the church porch, with the couple only going inside if a nuptial mass was to be celebrated. If they were not getting married in front of a priest, they could be married anywhere they chose.

Clandestine marriages had the disadvantage that, most often, only the couple themselves knew that it had taken place and either of them could say that there had been no marriage (or claim that they were married to someone when they were not). It happened frequently that a woman would have sexual intercourse with a man she believed to be her husband, only to have him repudiate the marriage later, usually if she became pregnant. This was the course that Joan of Kent’s relatives urged her to take when she told them that she was married to Thomas Holland. She had been young, only twelve at the time, and impressed by an older man (he was probably about twenty-four), but Joan insisted that, not only had the marriage taken place, but that it had also been consummated. It was also not unknown for a woman whose marriage prospects were slim to claim that she was married to a man who had made no such promises.

There were many discussions in the medieval church, as well as in legal circles, about what constituted marriage. Was it the promising to one another of the two people concerned? Was it the consummation? Was it the living together after both of these? In the end it came down to the promising to one another of two people able to do so, which was why it was so difficult to eradicate clandestine marriages.

 

 

 

 

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