Marry or Burn – 10 Surprising Facts about Medieval Marriage and Divorce

The church’s stance was that Medieval marriage was okay if you weren’t strong enough to remain virginal all your life.

As 1 Corinthians 7:9 puts it :

“But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”

The reality of medieval marriage is more complicated than its general perception as a cold, loveless and one-sided union.

Although wives were in the care and under the control of their husbands, there was an expectation that the husbands should be fair to their wives (within cultural constraints!).

Wives also had the same conjugal rights as their husbands.

That is, either spouse could demand sex, as part of the marriage contract. Women could even ask for annulments if they claimed their husbands were impotent.

They had to be careful, as prostitutes could be called as “expert witnesses” to verify this!


Marital Combat


Translations of the captions will help to explain this bizarre picture :

Here is how a man and woman should fight each other, and this is how they begin.
Here the woman stands free and wishes to strike; she has in the cloth a stone that weighs four or five pounds.
He stands in a hole up to his waist, and his club is as long as her sling. [source]

In regions of medieval Europe, judicial combat was sometimes used to solve domestic disputes between husband and wife.

The marital combat rules required special attire. Usually, competing husband and wife had to wear a tight-fitting body suit with a hood. Perhaps a ritual or burial outfit?

Another form of attire for a female participant was a special long chemise with an extended sack-like closed sleeve (in which a stone was placed).

There are a few written testimonies about such combats. In the year 1200 a man and his wife fought under the sanction of the civic authorities at Bale, in Switzerland. In 1228, a woman fought her husband in Berne, Switzerland, and soundly defeated him.

German law provided that the man should be armed with three wooden clubs. He was to put be up to his waist in a three-foot wide hole dug in the ground, with one hand tied behind his back. The woman was to be armed with three rocks, each weighing between one and five pounds, and each one wrapped in cloth in form of a small sack.

The man could not leave his hole but the woman was free to run around the edge of the pit. If the man touched the edge of the pit with either his hand or his arm, he had to surrender one of his clubs to the judges. If the woman hit him with a rock while he was doing so, she forfeited one of her stones.

Bizarre as it may seem to us today, this marital duel was real. In the early Medieval Era, for both parties, the penalty for defeat could be death. If the woman won, the man was executed; if the man won, the woman was buried alive.

Later, the terms seemed to be softened!


Impotency Trials


By most accounts, divorce was not permitted in France from the early twelfth century.

In 1426, a strange thing appeared in the departmental archives of the Aube region, a quick note concerning a marriage dissolved on account of an “impotent.”

Proceedings almost always began with a disgruntled wife. She approached the ecclesiastical court requesting an annulment of her marriage by the only means possible: clear evidence of her partner’s debilitated loins.

She was likely to be wealthy. Decent lawyers were expensive and whichever partner was “proved” impotent bore full legal costs of the proceedings.

One-fifth of recorded annulment requests originated from the nobility, who represented only 3 percent of the population.

The unhappy couple would then be subject to speculative groping by surgeons, physicians, and midwives.

A husband’s natural parts were scrutinized for color, shape, and number.

The husband underwent humiliating tests. Could he muster an erection? Expel reproductive fluids on demand? Was he capable of healthy performance, or had he been forcing his partner into lascivious positions without the promise of coming children?

As could be expected, many wilted under pressure. According to reports of a trial in Rheims:

The experts waited around a fire. Many a time did he call out: “Come! Come now!” but it was always a false alarm. The wife laughed and told them: “Do not hurry so, for I know him well.” The experts said after that never had they laughed as much nor slept as little as on that night.


Medieval Ireland had temporary marriages


Secular law tracts on marriage were written around 700 A.D. Cáin Lánamna, ‘The Law of Couples’, describes the many permitted types of marriage.

Permanent, semi-permanent and transitory marriages were allowed in Ireland.

Married women were divided into five classes.

Three classes are those women who legitimately form formal unions. The other two are more open and include the marriage of wandering mercenaries.

And you didn’t have to stop at one wife.

The practice of concubinage, or subsidiary marriage, was also tolerated.

The law also gave inheritance rights to the children of these unions.


Women had 14 grounds for divorce in Medieval Ireland

The early Irish had a detailed law for divorce.

While it allowed men a long list of reasons, it also gave women fourteen grounds for divorce.

A man could divorce his wife for not keeping house well, if she stole on a regular basis, had an abortion, betrayed him to his enemies or dishonored him.

A woman could get a divorce for 14 different reasons, including her husband’s failure to provide for her or her family due to unemployment, mental or physical illness or entry into a monastery; emotional or physical abuse; impotency, sterility, bisexuality or homosexuality.

The husband of a barren woman could leave for a while to impregnate a woman in a more informal form of marriage and the wife of a sterile husband could leave to get pregnant by another man.

Early Irish women weren’t emancipated, but they certainly fared better in marital law than their European counterparts.

In 1074, Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury wrote to the Irish kings, describing the marital unions in Ireland as “abominable exchanges.”


Medieval marriage Law forbid men to marry their grandfather’s wife


Some of the pronouncements on incest seem a little excessive:

“No man in Ireland shall have to wife his grandfather’s wife.” (Synod of Cashel 1101).

It’s difficult to imagine the issue coming up too often.

But the complexities around kinship meant that many Irish marriages were now deemed to be incestuous.

The church was equally unhappy with divorce and remarriage, and of course subsidiary marriages. Yet the practices continued.

As the twelfth century progressed, Irish marriage practices came under renewed fire from external sources. Gerald of Wales, chronicler of England’s Henry II, wrote that “[The Irish] are a filthy people, wallowing in vice….they do not contract marriages. They do not avoid incest.”

Pope Alexander wrote to Henry II in 1172, advising that the Irish married their stepmothers, were not ashamed to have children with them and that a man might live in concubinage with two sisters.

Henry II’s invasion of Ireland was in part sanctioned by the Pope so that the moral and sexual laxity of the Irish could be dealt with. The Irish church in turn welcomed his support.

It was a move that was to have tragic implications in the history of Ireland.


Grooms footed the Medieval marriage bill


As for the wedding day itself, Brides did not traditionally wear white (that really became popular in Queen Victoria’s age), but instead wore their best dresses.

Gifts were exchanged, and grooms footed the bill for the wedding feast – in part, as compensation to the other bachelors of the community for depriving them of a bride.

When the time came to go to bed, the whole community was involved. Women helped brides get into bed, and men helped grooms get into bed.

Often, the community participated in much noisemaking outside the bedroom or house as part of the charivari tradition.

In the days before DNA testing, it was essential to the community to know that the children produced from a union were legitimate, which is the most likely reason for such involvement.

As well as being an excuse for a party!


The Church gave very detailed instructions for Martial sex

The Summae Confessorum, a handbook for confessors published during the early thirteenth century, listed some of the times in which sexual activity between husband and wife was not permitted.

These fobidden days included all feast and fast days, on Sundays, and at all times when the woman was considered “unclean” (during menstruation or pregnancy, while she was breastfeeding, and for forty days after childbirth).

This meant that, on average, most married couples could legally have sex less than once a week!

In addition to prescribing when couples might have intercourse, the church also provided instructions for marital coitus.

The treatise De secretis mulierum gave a detailed account of the process, advising physical and mental preparation (such as the emptying of the bowels and bladder) and sufficient foreplay, or fondling of “the lower parts,” in order to raise the female’s body heat to the correct temperature.

When the wife began “to speak as if she were babbling,” the husband should make his move.


The vicinity of the church was enough for Medieval marriage

Although the church controlled – or tried to control – marriage, couples did not need to marry in a church.

Legal records show people getting married on the road, down the pub, round at friends’ houses or even in bed.

All that was required for a valid, binding marriage was the consent of the two people involved.

In England, some people did marry near churches to give greater spiritual weight to proceedings, often at the church door (leading to some rather fabulous church porches being added to earlier buildings), but this still did not necessarily involve a priest.


The church only got a monopoly on Medieval marriage about 1100

It wasn’t until around 1100 that the Church had a firm monopoly on marriage as a legal institution.

Before this, marriages were more of a contract between families that the Church had nothing to do with.

Incidentally, until 1139 priests and monks could marry just like anyone else, although the Church frowned on it.

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, slept with them, and spoke vows to each other, not necessarily in that order.


Same-Sex Medieval marriage


A study turned up more than 60 texts, from the 8th to the 16th centuries, of Christian ceremonies for what has been variously translated as “spiritual brotherhood,” “adoptive brotherhood” or same-sex unions.

These ceremonies had all the contemporary symbols of a marriage: a community gathered in church, a blessing of the couple before the altar, their right hands joined as at heterosexual marriages, the participation of a priest, the taking of the Eucharist, a wedding banquet afterward.

All of which are shown in contemporary drawings of the same sex union of Byzantine Emperor Basil I (867-886) and his companion John. Such homosexual unions also took place in Ireland in the late 12th/early 13th century, as the chronicler Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis) has recorded.

Legal contracts from late medieval France that referred to the term “affrèrement,” roughly translated as brotherment.

In the contract, the “brothers” pledged to live together sharing “un pain, un vin, et une bourse,” (one bread, one wine and one purse). The “one purse” referred to the idea that all of the couple’s goods became joint property.

The same type of legal contract could cover a variety of arrangements, including where two or more biological brothers inherited the family home from their parents and would continue to live together.

But non-relatives also used the contracts. In cases that involved single, unrelated men these contracts may provide :

“considerable evidence that the affrèrés were using affrèrements to formalize same-sex loving relationships.”

Whether these relationships were sexual or not, they loved each other, and the community accepted that.

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