Love and Lust in Later Medieval England: Exploring Powerful Emotions and Power Dynamics in Disputed Marriage Cases

Love and Lust in Later Medieval England: Exploring Powerful Emotions and Power Dynamics in Disputed Marriage Cases

By Jeremy Goldberg

Conference paper, Powerful Emotions / Emotions and Power c 400-1850, York, 28-29 June 2017

From the Queen Mary Psalter, British Museum image: Royal 2 B VII f. 168v.

Abstract: Depositions from matrimonial litigation are a compellingly, if deceptively, vivid source for the words, sentiments and circumstances surrounding courtship and marriage making. Such evidence is both coloured and shaped by the power dynamics of relations between the genders, between the individual and the collective of family, peer group and community, by the constraints of canon law, and the complexities of court procedure and recording practice.

Drawing upon evidence from the dioceses of York and London before 1500 this paper will attempt to explore two related questions. First, how far we can read erotic love or simply lust out of the material? Second, can we discern the degree to which a romantic discourse might have facilitated the expression of desire or alternatively provided a veneer of respectability to the business of transferring women from paternal to marital control?

Introduction: One of the most valuable sources used by scholars to investigate the culture of marriage making in later medieval England are the records of matrimonial litigation within the Church courts. In particular it the depositions made by witnesses testifying for one or other party that offer an apparently vivid window onto the words and actions of all those involved. Thus we learn of couples who speak affectionately to one another and kiss tenderly, of men motivated  by carnal desire rather than matrimony, or of couples made to marry only after beatings or the threat of death.

Depositions thus offer unusually direct evidence for emotions and specifically the emotions of love and of lust that are our principal concern here. To read these emotions out of the necessarily fictive and sometimes dramatized accounts derived from the testimony of always partial witnesses is, however, fraught with difficulty. Indeed there is a paradox in looking to evidence derived from the tiny proportion of marriages that were subject to litigation in order to make observations about the social practice of marriage formation within society at larger during the course of the later Middle Ages. We need to confront this paradox  before we attempt to make sense of the evidence in relation to the study of emotions.

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