marriage.html Marriage in the Middle Ages
by Laura Reynolds

Marriage is an institution that requires love, trust, dev otion, and cooperation. It is a partnership that takes an enormous amount of hard work in order for it to be successful. The reward of having a successful marriage is knowing that your partner loves you with all his/her heart. This individual is someon e you can depend on in a time of need, or someone you can refer to as your best friend. The decision of choosing the person you will spend the rest of your life with may be the most important one you will ever make. However, imagine not being able to ma ke this decision for yourself.

Today, when couples decide to marry, they usually prefer to wait until they are out of high school. Many more wait until they are close to their thirties to make a permanent commitment. However, in the Middle Ages, marriage was entered at an extremely early age. "Augustus' legislation assumed that many girls would join their husbands at the minimum legal age of 12 years (and clearly too, their husbands would be much older)" (Herlihy 17). The reasons for early mar riage hinged on the fact that women lived such short lives. Society figured that if young women married older men these women would die within a very short time of each other. "The Augustan marriage laws of A.D. 9 penalized women who had not delivered a baby by age 20" (Herlihy 17). These laws instilled into women that offspring should be produced before they reach their death. There was only one law that protected minors from marriage. "Augustus forbade the betrothal of girls under the age of ten, a nd limited the time of betrothal to two years" (Herlihy 17). The betrothal of the medieval period is compatible to the engagement period of our time.

Once the age for a woman to marry was attained, the procedure for finding her a husband began by her parents. "Marriage was by arrangement; no sensible family would allow the possession of valuable lands and property to be jeopardized by casual alliances" (Chamberlin 57). Relationships built on monetary worth rather than genuine love were not ve ry solid to begin with, and often were surely awkward until each of them became used to living with the other. The dowry was an exceptional part of the marriage transaction. "The dowry was the donation, which is given or promised by the wife or by her s ide to the husband or his side with the purpose, that it remain forever with him because of the burdens of matrimony" (Herlihy 14). If the classical dowry was more valuable in worth, the more appealing the woman, or offer of marriage was to an available gentleman.

"First and foremost, wives brought lands and money to their husbands, and marriage proposals were frequently discussed in the most cold-blooded terms" (Smith 106). These couples needed to establish a bond between them eventually becau se essentially the two of them were strangers to each other. However, just because a marriage was based on these terms did not necessarily mean acquired love was not possible. "Despite the hard-headed practicality which dominated the marriage market, ro mance was often present. Courtship and romantic love, however, tended to follow the marriage agreement, not precede it" (Smith 110). Even if love was not eventually established in the relationship, admiration and friendship usually was. "The institutio n of the classical dowry imposed the chief costs of establishing the new household upon the bride or her family" (Herlihy 73). The role of the groom was to make a final decision on his choice for a bride, unless of course, his parents had chosen for him. "There is no hint of a contribution from the groom's side, or of any informal exchange of gifts" (Bennett 172). Even if he or his family wanted to, it was not allowed. "Laws forbade altogether conveyances between the spouses, except for the dowry itse lf" (Herlihy 15).

"Roman law recognized two types of legal marriage. The first and oldest was called in manu (under the hand). This form of marriage transferred the father's patria potestas (the power of life and death ove r her) over the girl into the hands of the husband" (Herlihy 9). This type of marriage was prominent, but as the emergence of free marriage came about in manu gradually began to fade out in popularity. "Under free marriages, the bride remained, t o be sure, under the technical authority of her father. But she could seek formal emancipation, and her father's death would at all events make her a person, sui iuris, to conduct her own affairs" (Herlihy 9). The wedding ceremony of today is a highly extravagant, as well as, a celebrated event in most cases. It is a day of merriment between family and friends of both bride and groom. In medieval times this ceremony did not take place at first, and when it eventually did it was nowhere near as elaborate as the ceremonies of today. "The Church was slow to develop rituals of marriage. Christian rituals of marriage appear in both East and West only toward the end of the fourth century" (Herlihy 13). Even though the wedding ceremony finally a ppeared across the world, no ritual was exactly alike. "In the East, the most characteristic ritual was the placing of crowns upon the heads of both bride and groom; in the West, the nuptial blessing, imparted by the priest, became the central religious ceremony" (Herlihy 13). At the beginning, marriage ceremonies were performed in the bedroom, but in or at a church. This seems the earliest appearance of the common medieval practice: the blessing of the couple infacie ecclesie, at the door of the churc h" (Herlihy 14).

Once the couple was married, the woman's role was very important. She was often left in charge of the household while her husband went away on trips. "The slightly better education which women were receiving enabled them to pla y a more active part in society, and the wife stepped out of the background she had long occupied" (Chamberlin 57). Through marriage, women were gaining a sense of power. They had more say in family affairs then they ever did. Husbands put their trust in these women, they referred to as their wives, to manage and control a majority of family affairs. "Marriage had always been a crucial stage in a woman's life, for at marriage a girl became a domina, the 'lady' of a house, part of whose internal authority was placed into her hands" (Duby 12).

These women were slowly becoming business women. They handled the finances, along with much of the hard labor around the house. "After marriage these women came to play a very active role in the managing of the family fortunes. Husbands were often absent on business for long periods, and the day-to-day running of the family estates fell to the women of the household" (Smith 107). Not only did these women have to handle the fact that their mate was far away, but they must take into account that they may not return. While all this was on their mind, they were still expected to conduct business, do chores, and take care of the children. "The wife's duty was as a charitable and competent economic manager by portraying her distributing alms, supervising the household production of food, supervising workers such as the dairy women, milking cows, and churning butter" (Bennett 147). These women definitely had to be responsible and organized in order to keep things together. Men had obviously put much of their trust into their wives even after they had not known them for a very significant period of time. She was, in a sense, the glue that held the family together.

"Marriage was dissolved by divorce, death, captivity, or by any other kind of servitude which may happen to be imposed upon either of the parties..." (Amt 34). Divorce was a widely used alternative if a marriage was absolutely not working out. However, the women were not allo wed to make the decision. "Laws continued to allow husbands to divorce their wives, but not wives their husbands. The husband had only to draw up a libellum repudii, or document of repudiation, in which he formally renounced the obligations he had assum ed in the original marriage contract" (Herlihy 51). A woman was forever attached to the institution of marriage; divorce was not an option for her. "A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to wh om she wishes, only in the Lords" (Amt 20). In some cases women can retain their dowry. "When a divorce takes place, if the woman is her own mistress, she herself has the right to sue for recovery of the dowry. If, however, she is under control of her father, he...can bring the action for the recovery of the dowry" (Amt 33). Though divorce was fairly easy, a few stipulations were given before remarriage. "Those who intend to estrange their wives shall wait four months (for cooling off); if they r econcile, then God is Forgiver, Most Merciful. If they go through with the divorce, then God is Hearer, Knower. The divorced women shall wait three menstruations (before marrying another man)" (Amt 299-300). Divorce has many similarities and differences from today's society. Divorce is not an easy decision, regardless of what time period it may occur in.

Marriage is a bond between two people. Whether the two people enter into this institution because they are in love or because of other reasons , such as in medieval times, it remains just as much as a challenge. Both individuals carry an enormous amount of responsibility in a marriage. However, for all the bad times, there are good times that can also be recalled. These joyous times are what s uccessful relationships thrive off of. Although marriages in the Middle Ages may have many contrasts with the marriages of today, the concept is basically the same. The only major difference is that today we are more advanced in our techniques regarding marriages.


Click here for bibliography
Return to "Domestic Life"