The concept of marriage that existed in the Middle Ages was a different thing entirely from what we think of when we think marriage today. Was it about love? Was it about happily ever after? Or was it a cold and heartless contract?
Well, actually, the truth is that it was something both between those two extremes and entirely different from them.
Marriage has always been the focal point of family life. In the world of the upper class, marriage meant the successful continuance of the estate or the alliance of one family or estate with another. It was an important political bargaining chip, used to make or break peace with neighboring people of power. Did the bride and groom have any say in it? Well, not really. A little bit. But there seems to be this mistaken concept that nobles were married off when they were still children and because of that their lives were loveless pieces on a chessboard of politics. The truth is a little stickier.
In the High Middle Ages many noble marriages were contracted when the bride and groom were still children. The contracts would be in place for many years before the marriages themselves took place. This was so prevalent, in fact, that there were all sorts of rules and laws about what one family or the other would do if the bride or groom died after the contract was made but before they reached an age when they could consummate the marriage. It was all about alliances and dowries. Furthermore, the rules about what goods or money one side or the other had to give back if either the bride or groom died before reaching the altar depended on whether they had ever kissed, if they had embraced, or if they had had sex before the final marriage ceremony.
Yep. Having sex strictly after the marriage ceremony was a done deal is a fairly modern invention. And being officially, legally married didn’t mean you were expected to have sex with your spouse. Although from what I’ve read it was incredibly unlikely that married people wouldn’t do the deed, even if it was a contractual marriage. You needed legitimate heirs to keep the system going, after all. And medical science of the Middle Ages held that sex was essential for the health of both men and women. This fact was so widely accepted that it was common for the bride and groom to sleep together before the wedding, especially since the process of marriage took years and went through so many stages between the time when parents arranged the matches to the time they were legalized by the Church.
That’s another important point. The Church had to work long and hard over the course of its early days and into the High Middle Ages to become the authority on legally-binding marriage. Up until the High Middle Ages marriages were more of a contract between families that the Church had nothing to do with than a sacrament. It wasn’t until around 1100 that the Church had a truly firm monopoly on marriage as a legal institution. Incidentally, it wasn’t until the ecumenical councils in 1123 and 1139 that priests and monks were legally forbidden to marry or keep concubines. Before that they could marry just like anyone else, although the Church frowned on it.
In the modern world we hear that word “concubine” and think of something Biblical and a little bit seedy. But in the Middle Ages it was still an institution. Why? It all has to do with the structure of the Medieval noble family and the rules put in place for its continuance. In many traditions throughout Europe only the eldest son and maybe one other were allowed to marry and produce legal heirs. That left a heck of a lot of single men and women, and human beings aren’t naturally inclined to remain single.
Some joined the Church, yes, but a lot of “single” men had mistresses. These mistresses were legally not quite wives but were considered more than prostitutes. Many of these relationships were life-long and the offspring had a measure of legitimacy. And quite frequently men who had married a woman for legal, contractual reasons would keep a mistress on the side. We can only speculate about the nature of these relationships, but frankly, if you were forced to marry someone you didn’t love for political reasons but no one batted an eyelash if you kept house with a man or woman you did love, well, that sounds like something I think a lot of people would do behind the scenes. In fact, there are cases where men sought to divorce their contracted wives so that they could marry their beloved mistresses.
So in effect, marriage as we think of it now wasn’t the same thing back then. Two major scholars of the 12th century wrote defining legal texts about the subject. Gratian, writing in 1140, said that only two things were needed for a marriage to be considered binding: “the act of physical union” and “marital love”. In his widely-accepted definition, all you needed to do to be officially married was love your partner and have sex. That’s it. Peter Lombard, bishop of Paris, writing a few decades later, added one other thing to this notion: “words of the present”. Meaning vows. So for all intents and purposes, in the Middle Ages you could be married if you loved someone, spoke vows to each other, and slept with them, not necessarily in that order.
Of course, the legality of these sorts of marriages was hard to prove. Medieval court rolls are full of cases of women suing to prove that they were, in fact, married to a man who tried to skip out on them by claiming they weren’t married. Yeah, it’s always the men who run out, isn’t it. What’s up with you guys? Anyhow, in a surprising number of these cases the courts upheld what were referred to as “clandestine marriages” (ha! Take that, men!) and in some cases official marriage ceremonies would be held right there in the courtroom to seal the deal. Not in every case though. As often as not the Medieval courts would leave a woman high and dry and then she would have to pay a fine for fornicating. You win some, you lose some.
So as you may have guessed by this point, I’ve slid down the social scale to marriages amongst the peasantry. They were still frequently arranged by parents, at least for the more prosperous peasants involved in trade. It was still all about keeping business and inheritance going. But amongst the peasantry, at least in England, at least in the late 12th, early 13th centuries, women had a lot more freedom to marry and inherit than their contemporaries on the continent. They were also able to inherit land and businesses and belong to guilds. But that’s a whole other blog post.
It was at about this time that the practice of reading banns over three consecutive Sundays began to be practiced. This was a way to avoid the confusion of he-said, she-said court cases and the like. Reading the banns was simply the practice of the local priest announcing that two people intended to be married over three Sundays or holy days so that if anyone knew of any reason why they legally couldn’t be married, say, a pre-existing clandestine marriage, they were related, stuff like that, they could speak now or forever hold their peace.
For peasants and upper classes alike, as practices became more standardized, vows would be said at the church door followed by a mass inside the church with the signing of the church’s rolls. However, a contemporary noted that most peasants chose to just speak the vows at the church door then ignore the rest of it. Very few marriages were actually recorded in any legal records. The only reason you would need to have any kind of a signed, witnessed document was if you expected a legal objection to the marriage at some point (which is important to remember if you happen to find yourself reading my novel The Faithful Heart – hint, hint, spoiler, spoiler!).
One final point. Nowadays we have so many people “living in sin”, shacking up together, having kids and buying houses, etc. together without ever legally marrying. Think that’s a modern development? Not at all. In fact, in the Middle Ages everyone would have assumed that those couples were legally married from the moment they decided to set up house together. From what I can tell in what I’ve read, those kinds of arrangements were far more prevalent in the Middle Ages than the institute that we think of as marriage now. So when you get down to it, not much has changed.