To Have and to Hold: Marriage in Pre-Modern Europe 1200 – 1700

Peter and I had the opportunity to attend the To Have and to Hold: Marriage in Pre-Modern Europe 1200 – 1700 conference at the University of Toronto on October 17th.

The first session I attended was “By Force, By Love, By God”, which explored the idea of consent and marriage. There were two medieval papers given. The first paper was entitled “Marriage by Capture in Late Medieval England” by Caroline Dunn (Clemson). This paper dealt with the issue of the abduction and forced marriage of wealthy widows. The targets of these abductions were usually affluent widows. Widows were not as closely guarded as maidens and maidens could also be disinherited by their fathers making them less appealing targets.

The line between consent and non-consent was a grey area. Professor Dunn’s paper dealt with cases on non-consent.  Abductions seemed to have been a common occurrence and dated back to the reign of King Edward I; a statute in 1275 referenced ‘the ravishment of women’. Women, often widows, were captured, forced into marriage and raped. Rape was designed to shame the woman into submitting to the marriage and  to seal the arrangement by consummation. Most women remained silent and acquiesced.

The law failed women in that they could not prosecute their husbands. The problem was wide spread enough that several laws were enacted to resolve future abductions in 1453 and 1487. Abduction was a felony but punishment of the abductors was rarely meted out and they were often acquitted. Many of these abductions were premeditated, in some instances, a priest was standing by, ready to perform the ceremony. Priests who celebrated these forced unions also appear to have gone unpunished.

The second medieval paper was entitled “German Tales of Celibate Marriage at the Transition from Spiritual to Secular Narrative”, given by Claudia Bornholdt ( Catholic University of America). This paper spoke about the German Bridal Quest Romances and of consensual celibate marriage. Some of these German Bridal quests were changed in that they now ended in celibate marriage, whereas the initial purpose of these stories was for a man to go out, win a bride, and have many children. Some examples of this change can be seen in the lives of St. Oswald and St. Alexis. In Bede’s version of St. Oswald’s life, Oswald married the daughter of a Pagan king and had a son. In an Icelandic version, the bridal quest story is added, and Oswald again has an heir. It is in a third version of the story St. Oswald takes a vow of conjugal chastity, has no son and dies chaste. In the vitae of St. Alexis, this motif is again reflected in the story of his marrying and yet remaining a virgin. Alexis gets his wife to consent to a chaste marriage and then leaves her.

What caused these changes to the bridal quest? It is likely due to the story of Emperor Henry II and St. Cunegund, who were believed to have taken a vow of mutual celibacy on their wedding night. Henry’s chaste marriage demonstrated that not consummating a marriage did not automatically negate the validity of the marriage. The Investiture Controversy had stripped kingship of its spiritual importance. Once Henry and Cunegund were canonized (March 12, 1146), the idea of kingship and spirituality was re-established.  Couples were free to choose this course at the moment of their marriage if they wanted to pursue perpetual chastity so long as both husband and wife mutually consented.

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