By Danièle Cybulskie
I think the most widespread impression of medieval marriage is that of a cold, loveless, and practical union, made simply for the purpose of transferring real estate. This could certainly be a frequent occurrence, especially among the elite, but was not always the case. The tricky thing about marriage in the Middle Ages was that it didn’t necessarily have to be witnessed. That means that a hastily-declared statement of mutual consent between lovers – perhaps behind the proverbial haystack – followed by consummation was considered to be a valid contract. This kind of marriage contract could be awfully hard to prove, however, so most marriages were witnessed. Traditions like the reading of the banns also stem from this prickly predicament.
Marriage ceremonies weren’t always witnessed by priests, though they did eventually take over the roles of official witness and transferrer of the bride into the groom’s keeping. While the church had always had opinions on marriage, and how it should be carried out, matrimony was not officially outlined as a sacrament until the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 CE). The church’s stance, by the way, was that marriage was okay, if you didn’t have the willpower to remain virginal all your life. (As 1 Corinthians 7:9 says, “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”) Better still would be to refrain from any carnal act at all, ever – though that would quickly have reduced the size of future congregations. (Ironically, priests themselves often married, which was a bone of contention for several hundred years.)
What may be even more surprising about medieval marriage is that it was (at least officially) very much based on mutual consent. Both partners had to consent to the union at the outset, and both partners had rights and expectations within the marriage itself. Although wives were in the care and under the control of their husbands, there was a very real 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 (although they had to be careful of such statements, as prostitutes could be called as “expert witnesses” to verify this). While the “courtly love” tradition in literature glorifies adultery (probably another reason we view medieval marriages as being cold), adultery was unacceptable in life, and adulterers of both genders could be severely punished.
As for the details of the wedding day itself, many were the same as today, and many were different. 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 (I’ll leave you to imagine the ribaldry) 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 (aside from drunken merrymaking, of course).
The literature of the Middle Ages is full of praise and condemnation of marriage, and a heavy dose of the very same cynicism we see today. You can find some very good examples of all three posted online by the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. While many marriages were happy and prosperous, it was still easy for one of the authors who most influenced the age (St. Jerome, 347-420 CE – not medieval himself) to quip, “Marriage is good for those who are afraid to sleep alone at night.”
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist