Two models of incest : Conflict and confusion in high medieval discourse on kinship and marriage
By Christof Rolker
Law and marriage in medieval and early modern times, ed. Pet Andersen ( DJØF Publishing, 2012)
Jesus Christ ordered every Christian
Not to marry his kin
You cannot take kin to within the fourth degree
Otherwise it will be buggery.
The lines from Yde et Olive, a thirteenth-century chanson de geste, clearly refer to the canonical marriage prohibitions as formulated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. At the same time, however, there are striking differences between the chanson and the synodal decrees. While in Yde et Olive the prohibited degrees are described as being instituted by Christ himself, and thus as immutable divine legislation, the Lateran Council famously argued that in reducing the prohibited degrees from seven to four it was simply changing ‘human legislation’ (statuta humana), adjusting it to changing needs of society. Violation of these laws was not ‘buggery’, but according to papal practice could be dealt with by dispensation.
These differences point to the well-known paradoxes surrounding medieval marriage prohibitions. On the one hand, transgressing them was to commit incest – one of the most horrible crimes possible, as both secular and clerical authors asserted. On the other hand, so many marriages violated at least one of the numerous prohibitions that one cannot help but think that such marriages were socially acceptable. Likewise, the rhetoric of divine law and God’s wrath stands in stark contrast to the cool negotiations over dispensations of all kinds. For the modern reader at least, it is also puzzling to encounter a legal category that encompassed such diverse elements as father/daughter incest, the abduction of nuns and marriages between third cousins twice removed.
In the present paper, I will address these paradoxes by looking at two very dissimilar branches of the medieval discourse on endogamy and exogamy, and more specifically at different justifications of marriage prohibitions as found in systematic canon law collections of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. At this time, the prohibitions had grown to their most extreme form. Banning, inter alia, marriages within the seventh degree according to canonical computation, the law as contained in these collections was excessive compared to any ancient or modern marriage law, and even compared to early medieval canon law or indeed canon law after 1215. The first of two important, but very different traditions relating to marriages among relatives is the view of kin marriage as incest and thus as an abomination, as a violation of divine precept. The other tradition is a discourse on the advantages of exogamy, as articulated perhaps most famously in St Augustine’s City of God. Although both traditions can be and have been used to justify the same legislation, I want to stress how strikingly different they were, before looking at the effects produced by the conflation of both traditions in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. As I want to argue, the systematic collections produced a new reading of the old texts by presenting them in a different way, both changing the law and presenting it as unchangeable. Finally, I want to argue that nonetheless there were contemporary approaches which, using very similar sources, developed models that did not justify the legal status quo but rather questioned it.