Youth was brief, and marriage came early, in the Age of Faith. A child of seven could consent to a betrothal, and such engagements were sometimes made to facilitate the transfer or protection of property. Grace de Saleby, aged four, was married to a great noble who could preserve her rich estate; presently he died, and she was married at six to another lord; at eleven she was married to a third.27 Such unions could be annulled at any time before the normal age of consummation, which in the girl was presumed to be twelve, in the boy fourteen.28 The Church reckoned the consent of parents or guardian unnecessary for valid marriage if the parties were of age. She forbade the marriage of girls under fifteen, but allowed many exceptions; for in this matter the rights of property overruled the whims of love, and marriage was an incident in finance. The bridegroom presented gifts or money to the girl’s parents, gave her a “morning gift,” and pledged her a dower right in his estate; in England this was a life interest of the widow on one third of the husband’s inheritance in land. The bride’s family gave presents to the family of the groom, and assigned to her a dowry consisting of clothing, linen, utensils, and furniture, and sometimes of property. Engagement was an exchange of gages or pledges; the wedding itself was a pledge (Anglo-Saxon weddian, promise); the spouse was one who had re-sponded “I will.”

State and Church alike accepted as valid marriage a consummated union accompanied by the exchange of a verbal pledge between the participants, without other ceremony legal or ecclesiastical.29 The Church sought in this way to protect women from abandonment by seducers, and preferred such unions to fornication or concubinage; but after the twelfth century she denied validity to marriages contracted without ecclesiastical sanction; and after the Council of Trent (1563) she required the presence of a priest. Secular law welcomed the ecclesiastical regulation of marriage; Bracton (d. 1268) held a religious ceremony essential to valid matrimony. The Church raised marriage to a sacrament, and made it a sacred covenant between man, woman, and God. Gradually she spread her jurisdiction over every phase of marriage, from the duties of the nuptial bed to the last will and testament of the dying spouse. Her canon law drew up a long list of “impediments to matrimony.” Each party must be free from any previous marriage bond, and from any vow of chastity. Marriage with an unbaptized person was forbidden; nevertheless there were many marriages between Christian and Jew.30 Marriage between slaves, between slave and free, between orthodox Christian and heretic, even between the faithful and the excommunicate, was recognized as valid.31 The parties must not be related within the fourth degree of kinship—i.e., must not have an identical ancestor within four generations; here the Church rejected Roman law and accepted the primitive exogamy that feared degeneration from inbreeding; perhaps also she deprecated the concentration of wealth through narrow family alliances. In rural villages such inbreeding was difficult to avoid, and the Church had to close her eyes to it, as to many another gap between reality and law.

After the marriage ceremony came the wedding procession—with blaring music and flaunting silk—from the church to the bridegroom’s home. Festivities would there ensue through all the day and half the night. The marriage was not valid until consummated. Contraception was forbidden; Aquinas accounted it a crime second only to homicide;32 nevertheless diverse means-mechanical, chemical, magical—were used to effect it, with chief reliance on coitus interruptus.33 Drugs were peddled that would produce abortion, or sterility, or impotence, or sexual ardor; the penitential formulas of Rabanus Maurus decreed three years of penance for “her who mixes the semen of her husband with her food so that she may better receive his love.”34 Infanticide was rare. Christian charity established foundling hospitals in various cities from the sixth century onward. A council at Rouen, in the eighth century, invited women who had secretly borne children to deposit them at the door of the church, which would undertake to provide for them; such orphans were brought up as serfs on ecclesiastical properties. A law of Charlemagne decreed that exposed children should be the slaves of those who rescued and reared them. About 1190 a Montpellier monk founded the Fraternity of the Holy Ghost, dedicated to the protection and education of orphans.

Penalties for adultery were severe; Saxon law, for example, condemned the unfaithful wife at least to lose her nose and ears, and empowered her husband to kill her. Adultery was common notwithstanding;35 least so in the middle classes, most in the nobility. Feudal masters seduced female serfs at the cost of a modest fine: he who “covered” a maid “without her thanks”—against her will—paid the court three shillings.36 The eleventh century, said Freeman, “was a profligate age,” and he marveled at the apparent marital fidelity of William the Conqueror,37 who could not say as much for his father. “Medieval society,” said the learned and judicious Thomas Wright, “was profoundly immoral and licentious.”38

The Church allowed separation for adultery, apostasy, or grave cruelty; this was called divortium, but not in the sense of annulling the marriage. Such annulment was granted only when the marriage could be shown to have contravened one of the canonical impediments to matrimony. It is hardly probable that these were deliberately multiplied to provide grounds of divorce for those who could afford the substantial fees and costs required for an annulment. The Church used these impediments to meet with flexible judgment exceptional cases where divorce would promise an heir to a childless king, or would otherwise serve public policy or peace. Germanic law allowed divorce for adultery, sometimes even by mutual agreement.39 The kings preferred the laws of their ancestors to the stricter law of the Church; and feudal lords and ladies, reverting to the ancient codes, sometimes divorced one another without ecclesiastical leave. Not till Innocent III refused divorce to Philip Augustus, the powerful King of France, was the Church strong enough, in authority and conscience, to hew bravely to her own decrees.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!