On Marriage

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

There are a whole series of laws (both canon law and secular) surrounding marriage as it developed in the Middle Ages. In this article, I'll show you a bit of each.

In the early Middle Ages, marriage was not as regularized as it later became. What we would term "common-law" marriages were quite popular, and as legal as a church marriage. William the Conqueror (aka William the Bastard--not a pejorative term at that point) was an illegitimate son, but nonetheless inherited the Duchy of Normandy. However, the growing feudal system, and the importance it placed on rights of inheritance, combined with the Church's desire to further regulate the practices of its flock, caused this to change.

In the Catholic Church, marriage is one of the seven sacraments (an 11th or 12th century development) 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. Clandestine marriages, while permitted, were frowned upon for several reasons. First, in a public marriage, banns would be posted for three weeks prior to the marriage. This was to insure that both parties were willing, that there were no grounds which would invalidate the marriage. (Some of these grounds could be overlooked with a papal dispensation). This is also what is behind the presiding priest's question to those attending a wedding as to whether anyone knew of reasons why a couple could not marry.

There were a good many reasons why a couple might not be permitted to marry. The first, of course, was consanguinity. If a couple were too closely related (usually within the third or fourth degree), the marriage could not occur, though the Pope could issue dispensations for second cousins or less, and occasionally for first cousins. Consanguinity is much more complex than this, however. One's spiritual relations, including godparents, also were included, as were all priests (since they were considered the spiritual fathers of all laypeople). The definition was also tightened to include anyone one had had sexual relations with as relatives....which technically should have prohibited Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn on yet another set of grounds, since Henry had formerly had an affair with Anne's sister. As you might imagine, consanguinity was a complicated matter and could be grounds for annulment if discovered after the marriage. Complicated charts were often devised so that flustered priests could figure this out.

Another bar to marriage was a monastic or religious vow. Sometimes widows or widowers would take vows of celibacy on the death of a spouse, which they later regretted when they wished to be remarried. These could be set aside with papal dispensation. The vows of a priest, monk, or nun could only be set aside with difficulty, however.

A previous betrothal could also stop a marriage. Often marriages would be arranged by families while the couple was too young; in that case, a "plight-troth" would be said, which was essentially a promise to marry (this was Mary's case when she discovered she was pregnant with Jesus). This was not a full marriage, but was a vow nonetheless and was thus binding. A plight-troth could be broken, but only with the agreement of both parties. Children born to a betrothed couple could usually be legitimized merely by marriage and could often inherit, whereas children born out of wedlock were often barred from inheriting even if the couple later married.

The following were causes for dissolution of an already established marriage: one of the parties was not of legal age (12 for girls, 14 for boys), if the woman was incapable of sexual relations, if one was in religious orders or bound by a vow (as above), if one married a servant one had formerly had sex with; if one of the parties was not a Christian, or if there was a mistake (someone marries person A instead of person B, thinking that they ARE marrying person B), or a previous marriage (even if not consummated) with a relative of onešs intended spouse. The following prohibited a marriage if known before, but would not be grounds for dissolution of an existing marriage: rape, adultery, a marriage performed during a prohibited fast period (Lent or Advent), incest, or marriage by someone who had killed a clergyman.

Marriages (in England, at least) were often performed at the church door, after which the couple would proceed inside to hear Mass. But the sacrament was not completed until the marriage was consummated (non-consummation was always grounds for a dissolution). Various restrictions (honoured more in the breach, perhaps) were placed on the collection of the "marital debt" (which, contrary to popular belief, the wife had just as much right to demand as the husband). Just a few included: no sex in churches or cemeteries, nor on major feast days, nor during pregnancy, nor on top of holy relics, nor with only lust in one's heart!

In secular law, clandestine marriages were frowned upon because of the difficulties they could bring into determining inheritance. A marriage which was not public (or at least witnessed by someone other than the couple) could lead to claims on property by other relatives upon the couple's death....which, of course, meant that it was left to the heir to prove that the marriage was valid. Clandestine marriage also meant that there was usually no dowry (the female child's share of her fatheršs property, which was given over to her husband, but was sometimes left in her personal control), and by definition, there could be no dower (an English custom, where the groom named part of his property, usually one-third, as the wife's share should she survive him), because a proper dower could only be constituted "at the church door", in other words, in front of witnesses. This was both to insure that a widow would be provided for and to make sure that heirs were not deprived of their rightful inheritance, since dower property was only for use during the widowšs lifetime, after which it passed to the heirs. With the advent of wills, men began leaving their widows possessions in their own right, which unlike dower property, these women could sell or give away as they saw fit.

Most of the traditions we now associate with marriage, with the exception of the actual ceremony, do not really date back very far. For example, white was not particularly associated with brides-- surviving portraits of weddings reveal that brides chose a wide variety of colours. As many may know, only the bride usually received a ring (which was symbolic of her vow--nuns who "married the church" also wore a ring on the left ring finger). However, the tradition of a large feast or party survives to this day. We also know that a wedding was a time for throwing expense to the wind; lords were entitled to collect a "relief" or fee from their vassals or tenants on the marriage of their eldest daughter (though kings sometimes used this money for other things, like beating up on France).

Copyright 1993, 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.