By Suzanne Byers
Published Online, University of Colorado, 2008
Introduction: During the twelfth- and thirteenth-century, northern France underwent a subtle but dramatic change in its social power structure: the regulation of marriage fell under the power of the Church. This change restructured authority at the highest levels of society as evidenced by Pope Innocent III’s refusal to recognize the divorce of Philip II Augustus, the King of France, from Ingeborg of Denmark. How did the Pope gain the authority to judge the validity or invalidity of Philip’s marriage? For the answer, this essay will prove that the Church intended to regulate marriage for hundreds of years as we will see in historical canonical debate. Centuries of effort finally paid off: the Church successfully injected religious symbolism into the heart of the wedding ceremony, thereby changing a traditional family practice into a religious rite. The Church’s claim of marital authority could not have been achieved without the active support of the parents of nuptial-bound children. A comparison of French and English case studies will show how the Church offered incentive to families to accept ecclesiastic authority by demanding de presenti consent in theory, but in practice excommunicating participants of clandestine marriage, which exemplified present consent against the wishes of the family. Lastly, this essay will examine the marriage practices of northern France through D.L. D’Avray’s medieval marriage ceremonies,the romantic tales of Chrétien de Troyes, and the scholastic efforts of Georges Duby, Theodore Evergates.
Briefly, we must address the unusual historical analysis of literature. In establishing the cultural practices of twelfth- and thirteenth-century northern France, it is important to recognize the influence and popularity of Chrétien de Troyes’ romantic tales. Whether we consider the exemplary patience of Enide in the face of her husband Eric’s demanding bravado or we admire Fenice’s remarkable physical endurance under torture in the tale of “Cligés,” at the least these stories offer the reader a glance at idealized behavior. Narrative rewards and punishments present a model of approval or rejection of the choices of characters. Though Fenice dearly loves Cligés, she submits to her father’s will for her to marry the Emperor. She states, “I cannot understand how the one to whom my heart yields can have my body, since my father is giving me to another and I dare not oppose him.” Consider that Fenice must dare death in order to enjoy her lover. Death, even fake death, is preferable to publically disobeying her father. Her choice of discreet disobedience so profoundly resonates with the audience of the period that de Troyes has her tortured by malicious physicians before she may join her lover. Through literature, we may more clearly see the extent of the parental voice in arranging marriages and, thus, the significance of parental support in the Church’s bid for authority over the marriage process. More analysis of de Troyes’ tales will follow towards the end of this essay; for now, let’s return to the focus of historical canonical debate to establish the origins of and reasons for the long-suffering desire of the Church to regulate marriage.