The Medieval Marriage Market
By David Herlihy
Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 6:1 (1976)
Introduction: In the medieval world, as in most human societies, the terms of marriage normally included conveyances of property between the bride and groom, or their respective families. Assignments of property at marriage served many important functions. Gifts from the groom to the bride’s family may at one time have compensated that family for the loss of a daughter, but even the earliest medieval records preserve only fleetign glimpses of a true brideprice. These marital conveyances primarily served to cement the marriage and to help the newly formed household in its principal functions – the rearing of children and the support of its members.
Medieval commentators on marriage repeatedly stressed the symbolic importance of the marital gifts. In the ninth century, for example, Pope Nicholas I referred to the wedding ring, given by the groom to his bride and accepted by her, as a pledge of fidelity. The conveyance of gifts required witnesses and usually generated written instruments, which served as proof of marriage. The medieval Church, waging constant war against concubinage and casual sexual liaisons, insisted that marriages be publicly announced; governments, too, had evident interest in promoting stable unions and in maintaining lines of descent and inheritance. Gifts, publicly conveyed on occasion of marriages, helped endow the new union with public recognition and approval – basic requirements for legitimate matrimony. “Nullum sine dote fiat coniugium” – “let there be no marriage without a marriage gift.” This injunction, apparently dating from the Carolingian age, implied that cohabitation of a man and woman, in which no gifts were publicly given or exchanged, was not a licit marriage at all, but concubinage.