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What Happens to a Widow Who’s Un-Widowed?

By Danièle Cybulskie

One thing that can definitely be said for the modern age is that it is much, much easier to communicate. Now, it’s expected for people to check in with each other on a regular basis, after doing anything remotely dangerous, and after disaster strikes. In the Middle Ages, it was often a long wait between communications, and sometimes the wrong information or no information at all arrived. This was an especially tricky situation for wives, who depended on messengers, rumours, and time to let them know if their husbands were still alive after battle or travel.

British Library Royal 6 E VI, fol. 286v

So what happened to a widow whose husband returned? The case of remarriage was pretty straightforward: the woman’s original marriage still stood because it came first. But what happened to a woman who’d taken religious vows? Should she remain in the convent? Should she remain chaste? These questions were debated in Paris in the twelfth century, and when the scholars came to an impasse, they wrote to the archdeacon of Bath, Peter of Blois, for a decision. Here are the scholars’ questions in full:

You ask about a woman who, based on the credible report of good men, thought that her husband had died after he went abroad. If he unexpectedly returns, can she leave the convent on her own authority and return to him if he does not demand her back? You also ask if, after she declared her intention to remain chaste, she should be returned to her husband, and if she was and he later died, if she should then be obliged to observe her vow (given that the reason for the vow’s suspension was gone). (228)

Though these may seem like far-fetched hypothetical situations, they are exactly the type of questions that would keep a well-intentioned wife awake at night.

Peter’s answers are completely in line with the theology of the time, unsurprisingly, although the rationale behind them is not in line with modern ideas. If the husband returns, the wife is obliged to return to him. She does not have the option to stay in the convent unless her husband likewise takes a vow of celibacy. If, for some reason, the husband doesn’t send for her or refuses to accept her, the church is obliged to take matters into its own hands: “he ought to be compelled by the church either into taking her back or to binding himself with the bond of chastity” (228). As in the case with accidental bigamy, the first vows stand, and the couple must observe them to the letter.

The reason behind Peter’s thinking – which he’s backed up by citing previous popes, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine – is because medieval spouses owed each other a conjugal debt that could not be renounced without the other’s consent. Peter cites 1 Corinthians 7:4: “the wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband,” and he adds, for the record, “and vice versa” (228). Thus, he concludes, she could not have made the vow to be chaste without her husband’s consent: “it was not in fact in her power” (228). The fact that the wife’s vows were made in error is also a reason to nullify them, following precedents in canon law and civil law, Peter says.

So what happens to the woman if she returns to her husband, they resume conjugal relations, and then he dies? Must she then once again return to the convent? No, says Peter:

If the husband later dies, she will be freed from the control of her husband, and she can marry who she will in God. Nor can she be compelled to observe the vow [of chastity] which from the beginning did not bind her. (228-229)


This is the type of answer which would, no doubt, be a relief to a woman who found herself in this tricky situation, or one even contemplating entering a convent without proof positive that her husband is truly dead.

This academic case set before Peter of Blois is an example of a very medieval dilemma which illustrates the tricky business of making vows meant to bind a person into the afterlife in a world of imperfect communication. You can find it, and many more examples of the complexity of medieval life, in Alex J. Novikoff’s excellent compilation The Twelfth-Century Renaissance: A Reader.

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