Changes in marriage laws have been in the news recently. They led me to think about medieval marriage and in which ways it was different to how it was before the recent change. I hear a lot of misconceptions about it, as about the middle ages altogether, so here are a few facts gleaned from my general reading around the period.
Medieval canon law inherited the rules of Roman law which decreed that no betrothal could be undertaken below the age of 7 and that the age of consent for a girl was twelve and for a boy, fourteen. The essence of marriage was the begetting of children. Free consent, even between slaves, was deemed a necessity.
Two kinds of agreement were in force. They may seem quite lax to us, probably because all a girl or boy had to do to make a legally valid consent to marry in the future was to say I promise to take you as wife/husband some time. This was like an engagement, per verba de futuro. If both of them said I promise to take you here and now it was verba de praesenti and they were tied for good. Divorce was more difficult than these days and usually only allowed for ordinary mortals if a previous marriage vow had been taken or if the intricate laws of consangunity could be shown as an issue. Unless, of coure you were royalty. Henry VIII showed his contempt for the law by simply having his unwanted wives executed.
The rituals of marriage developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with the exchange of gifts and the blessing of a priest. The church wanted to have some control over the event as they collected taxes from the participants and saw it as a way of controlling the sinful sexiness of ordinary people. The church’s idea of the perfect marriage was one with celibacy at its heart – not the usual reason most people want to shack up with someone. If you remember Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, she had five husbands ‘at church door’ and we can believe she didn’t have celibacy in mind.
It was not until the sixteenth century that marriage in church became a legal necessity after an edict of the Council of Trent. This was mandatory for Catholics but ignored by Protestants. In England the old, easygoing form from the twelfth century survived until Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 that enforced marriage in church. It was not until 1836 that civil marriage became part of English law.
This is just a brief account of the main differences between then and now.
If you want to findout more you could read a paper by Frederik Pedersen called ‘Romeo and Juliet of Stonegate’: a medieval marriage in crisis,’ for its clarity. It is well worth a read and condenses over eight hundred legal documents into a few pages. Christopher Brooke’s ‘The Medieval idea of Marriage,’ gives a fascinating overview of marriage as it existed in the rest of Europe at this time.