Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages

Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages

By Ruth Mazo Karras

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8122-4420-5

Publisher’s Synopsis: The Middle Ages are often viewed as a repository of tradition, yet what we think of as traditional marriage was far from the only available alternative to the single state in medieval Europe. Many people lived together in long-term, quasimarital heterosexual relationships, unable to marry if one was in holy orders or if the partners were of different religions. Social norms militated against the marriage of master to slave or between individuals of very different classes, or when the couple was so poor that they could not establish an independent household. Such unions, where the protections that medieval law furnished to wives (and their children) were absent, were fraught with danger for women in particular, but they also provided a degree of flexibility and demonstrate the adaptability of social customs in the face of slowly changing religious doctrine.

Unmarriages draws on a wide range of sources from across Europe and the entire medieval millennium in order to investigate structures and relations that medieval authors and record keepers did not address directly, either in order to minimize them or because they were so common as not to be worth mentioning. Author Ruth Mazo Karras pays particular attention to the ways women and men experienced forms of opposite-sex union differently and to the implications for power relations between the genders. She treats legal and theological discussions that applied to all of Europe and presents a vivid series of case studies of how unions operated in specific circumstances to illustrate concretely what we can conclude, how far we can speculate, and what we can never know

Click here to listen to an interview with Ruth Mazo Karras, from the University of Pennsylvania Press

Click here to visit the Publisher’s website

Click here to view Unmarriages from Amazon.com

Except: Chapter 3: Priests and Their Partners

When I told people that I was working on a book on couple who lived together without being married, most non-medievalists (and many medievalists) immediately said, “Oh priests.” The idea that some churchmen keep their vows of celibacy in the technical sense of being unmarried, but not in the more common sense of abstaining from sexual activity, surprises no one, whether we are talking about the Middle Ages or today, when a majority of Christians in the world belong to denominations in which the clergy may marry. The fact that “celibacy” developed to mean “chastity” as well as “the unmarried state” reflects that the vast majority of Christian thinkers, across denominations and right up to the twenty-first century, have held that marriage is the only proper venue for sexual relations and therefore that anyone who is celibate in the sense of unmarried should also be celibate in the sense of abstinent.

Video: Ruth Mazo Karras talking about her book

See also:

Invisible Women, by Ruth Mazo Karras

Holy Harlots: Prostitute Saints in Medieval Legend, by Ruth Mazo Karras

medievalverse magazine