Medieval marriage and superstitions
By Lesley Smith
Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, Vol.38 (2012)
Introduction: Whatever her rank through birth, a woman in the early medieval period was obliged by Anglo-Saxon law to live under the lordship of a man described as her mundbora; a modern translation would be ‘protector’. The father was the natural protector of his children, and in the case of daughters would continue to be so until her marriage, when the responsibility would pass to her new husband.
If her father died before she was married then her brother would take on the responsibility, and in the case of his death it would pass to her male kin; if none survived she would come under the direct protection of the King.
The new bride could be literally bought and the value of a woman was determined both by her rank and also by her marital status at the time of marriage negotiations. For example, a widow was worth approximately half as much as a virgin of the same rank. A widow could find times particularly difficult as the law of King Canute prohibited her to remarry until 12 months had passed since the death of her husband or the money paid for her would pass back to her late husband’s family; in such a case she would be likely to have very little to offer in terms of fortune to a new husband. Henry I made this law of Canute not just a tradition but part of the fabric of the English marital legal system.
The giving of gifts to the newly married couple was well established, as was the literal ‘giving away’ of the woman to the new husband by her mundbora with the words: “I give thee my daughter, to be thy honour and thy wife, to keep thy keeps and to share with thee bed and goods”. In a modern ceremony, whether church or civil, we usually hear the words: “Who gives this woman…?”.