By Danièle Cybulskie
When people talk about the Middle Ages, it tends to be in absolutes, as if the world was black and white. A reason for this may be that many of the writings that have survived to us tend to paint the world that way: often they are law codes, treatises, or sermons which are meant to establish right and wrong. One of these absolutes, meant to be indissoluble for life, was marriage. As we are well aware from our modern world, however, relationships are anything but black and white, and not all of them last. The same was true in the medieval world, and one exceptional case bears out not only that marriages might not last, but that separation can indeed lead to a happy ending.
As Bridget Wells-Furby relates in her book Aristocratic Marriage, Adultery and Divorce in the Fourteenth Century: The Life of Lucy de Thweng (1279-1347), in late thirteenth-century England, Margaret de Gatesden was married to Sir John de Camoys, a marriage that was official in all respects and even consummated, resulting in a son. At some point, however, Margaret fell in love with another man, Sir William Paynel. It’s at this point that things may have gone badly for Margaret and John – especially for Margaret, who in her capacity as a wife, was subject to John’s command and even to his physical discipline (within limits).
While falling in love with someone else or committing adultery is grounds for divorce in the modern world, it wasn’t reason enough to dissolve a marriage in the medieval world. Couples were expected to work it out amongst themselves, with the support of the community, their families, and the church. If that wasn’t possible, they could ask for a legal separation, which meant they didn’t have to live together, but they were still very married in all other senses. They could also try to dig up a reason to annul the marriage, proving that it was never valid in the first place. Usually, this meant establishing a precontract (engagement or marriage to someone else before the marriage in dispute) or consanguinity (being too closely related). Sometimes, however, a private agreement was made, and this is what happened with Margaret and John.
In 1285, John did something remarkably kind and unusual. “In a formal document, John gave Margaret to [William], along with her goods and chattels, and stated that she was to live with [William] ‘during William’s pleasure’ or ‘at William’s will’.” He didn’t do it for free, however. While John gifted some of Margaret’s property to William, he asked for the first five years of rent to be given to him up front, after which Margaret and her children could have the annual rent for themselves.
To have a married woman move in with another man openly was unusual, to say the least, and not everyone was pleased with it. Presumably, Margaret moved in with William shortly after John wrote his wishes down, and the couple lived together from then on. However, over a decade later, at least one person – perhaps the local clergyman – was still unimpressed. Margaret and William were both accused of adultery individually: her in 1296, and him in 1298. And here’s where their story gets even more interesting.
People accused of adultery were brought before the church courts to answer the charges, but the tricky thing about adultery – and other sexual sins – is that unless the couple is caught in the act, it’s very difficult to prove that they took part in it in the first place. Margaret and William were both brought before the court in separate cases years apart, and though the community was very aware of their living arrangements, both were acquitted. Why? Because their neighbours supported them.
In both Margaret’s case and William’s case, the couple had friends and community members of good reputation stand up and swear under oath that Margaret and William were not, in fact, living in sin. Although this isn’t the only case in history in which people are known to have sworn that they didn’t actually see what was before their own eyes, Margaret and William must have been very well-liked in order to have enough people on their side to be cleared of wrong-doing. For their part, perhaps the witnesses were relying on the tree-in-the-forest technicality: if they didn’t actually see the couple having sex, how would they know if they were or not?
After they were found innocent, Margaret and William blithely went back to living together. This must, no doubt, have burned for the person who brought the charges in the first place, but without enough witnesses, there was nothing to do. Shortly after William’s case in 1298, however, Margaret’s husband John died, and Margaret and William made their relationship official by tying the knot.
The story of Margaret, John, and William is exceptional in the records, although, as Wells-Furby rightly notes, “The arrangements for this separation seem extraordinary because this is the only example known, but this does not mean that it was necessarily unique or even rare.” As historians will often say, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This is not the type of arrangement that would benefit anyone to have made public, as it was technically both sinful and embarrassing. It stands to reason, then, that more of these arrangements may easily have existed without leaving us a trace.
The fact that it exists at all shows (to my mind) a maturity, kindness, and willingness to make exceptions that modern people rarely imagine the medieval world possessed. After all, for John to allow this meant that he would have to endure the embarrassment of being (to medieval minds) cuckolded and unable to contain or control his wife. It also meant that John himself would not have been able to marry again, either, for love or for heirs. He would have to depend on his one son with Margaret to inherit his blood. It’s interesting to think about the human element to this story, and the motivations behind each of the parties’ decisions, even though we’ll never know all the details.
For this story, and many, many more fascinating stories of exceptional marital life in the Middle Ages, check out Bridget Wells-Furby’s Aristocratic Marriage, Adultery and Divorce in the Fourteenth Century: The Life of Lucy de Thweng (1279-1347).
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Zürich Kantonsbibliothek VAD 302 fol. 113v