A Medieval View of Marriage


This was part of an essay I wrote on Medieval Marriage when taking Early European History at Uni. I had broken it up and posted it on my blog but I’ve noticed that one part get read more than the others. I think that they are getting lost – so I’ve decided to put it back together again.


 It’s a broad subject and we are just touching the surface. Generally we are looking at England and France during the 12th and 13th centuries.


Medieval society was divided into three distinct groups (known as estates).


1.      Those who prayed. (Church)


2.      Those who fought.  (Nobility)


3.      And everybody else. (Peasants)


And all three had very different ideas about marriage.




Okay, so according to the medieval Church, sex was a sin... even when it was accompanied with marriage, they weren’t that hot on it. The use of this Biblical quote was bandied about –


 “A man is better off having no relations with a woman. But to avoid immorality, every man should have his own wife and every woman her own husband.” 1 Corinthians 7:12


So the medieval Church’s view was marriage was permitted for the sole purpose of begetting children. In fact, sex for pleasure even among married couples was regarded as a mortal sin. A marriage would only be seen as valid if it met the Church’s requirements.


1.      Consent – both parties must willingly give their consent to the marriage before witnesses.


2.      Both were Christian.


3.      Both were free of prior contracts of marriage or pre-nuptial agreements.


4.      No Consanguinity – no incest. The Church ruled that this included cousins up to the 6th extent and anyone who was a former lover and their kin.


5.      The church service – which was generally held on the church steps or porch, meant the marriage was sanctified.


6.      Consummation of the marriage.


The Church felt the need to control sex and the relationship between husbands and wives. It prohibited marriage (and sex) during the holy days of the year. Marriages were banned during Lent, Rogationtide, Advent, saint days, Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The Clergy had encouraged the idea that saint’s days had a supernatural aura and emphasised that a sin committed on a holy day was worse than one committed at any other time. For example, Friday, as it was the day of crucifixion, was thought to be unlucky for any new venture, especially for marriage and journeys. Now, if you add up all the days that you weren't allowed to marry or have sex... I think you are looking at over five months.


The Church believed that consent was the most important aspect of marriage. Families arranged marriages during this period, in fact it was only the very poor who had the luxury of marrying for love. Many of the betrothals were contracted when the couple were as young as six or seven, in some cases even from the cradle. This was to align families and to join wealth and property. However, the Church condemned this practise and insisted that the couple could only be betrothed when they were old enough to understand the proceedings and willingly give their consent.




In addition to the Church teachings, the wishes of the feudal lords were also influential and must be acknowledged as a power over peasant marriages. The feudal lord had a vested interest when it came to whom a peasant wanted to marry. If a peasant woman married a free man , the lord would not only lose a worker but also a producer of serf children.

Another aspect that effected peasant marriages was the seasons. Generally speaking, marriages did not take place during the harvest or winter. So peasant marriage could be seen as being tied to the rhythm of the seasons.

The Church saw virginity as a highly desired state before marriage, however the issue of premartial sex and illegitimate birth was more accepted in daily village life. Premartial pregnancy was seen as a prelude to marriage, as children were so important to the economy that some couples wanted to be sure of fertility. Infants and small children could be seen as a drain on the peasant household or domus, but once they matured, the offspring could work and bring prosperity to the home through marriage. Another factor was that adult children could care for their ageing parents.

Lords turned the situation of premartial sex and birth to their advantage by fining women a Legerwrite / Lechewytt charge (premartial sex) and a Childwrite charge (children out of wedlock). An example of this can be found on January 1316 in Wakefield, where the young women were rounded up and fined for being deflowered or being married without a license. One case recorded is that of Juliana, daughter of John Sibbeson; who was deflowered before she was married and had not yet paid her lechewytt or merchet (similar to a modern day marriage license).

The medieval marriage service itself, was an adaptation of the ancient Roman civil rite of marriage. The ceremony generally took place on the Church steps or porch, which suggested that it was not in origin a church service and the role of officiating priest was simply that of chief witness. The medieval service did not differ very much from what is used today.

           "I... take thee... to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part, if holy Church will ordain, and thereto I plight thee my troth."

After the bride had plighted her troth in simliar words, the groom placed gold, silver and a ring on a plate. This was blessed by the priest and then the groom continued...

          "With this ring I thee wed, and this gold and silver I thee give; and with my body I thee worship and with all my wordly chattels I thee endow. In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen."

To truly solemnise the proceedings a mass could then be held within the church.


The questions of consanguinity and consent created conflict between the Church and the other orders of society. As I mentioned in an earlier part of these posts, the Church banned incest. This meant marriage between cousins up to the sixth extent, but they also believed that people formed a kinship tie to anyone they had a sexual relationship with. This kinship tie then encompassed the former lover's family as well. A hypothetical example of this would be, if two brothers from one family wished to marry two sister from another, only one couple could marry. By the first couple's marriage the remaining unwed pair would be considered brother and sister, and therefore if they wed it would have been considered incest.

Both the nobility and the peasants wished to reject these laws. In the case of the nobility, many of their arranged marriages were based on increasing their property and wealth, and in some cases to form alliances. The laws of consanguinity thwarted their plans.

For peasant families, these laws totally restricted their options in marriage. If we consider a small village, a person was quite possibly already linked by marriage or kinship to over half of its population.

For sections of the nobility it was possible to appeal to the Church and the Pope. They could buy a dispensation which would allow them to marry their chosen partner, even if they fell into the category of incest. This, however was not an option for the poor.

Consent was another area which caused friction between the Church and its people. The Church stated that consent was the most important aspect of marriage, as it was a vow between two people and God. Whereas families (both peasantry & nobility) believed that this would lead to the young refusing to carry out family wishes and a rise in clandestine marriages. In response, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 ordered that marriage banns should be called in the churches of the bride and groom prior to the wedding.

From the 12th century on, Church enforced priestly celibacy. Priests were not to be married or enter into any sexual relation, instead they were to spend their lives in contemplation of the spirit and not their flesh. This was an attempt to set the clergy apart from the other members of society. However, priestly concubinage remained common. Chidren of priests were considered bastards and could not inherit any property and the priest's mistress had no social standing.

In conclusion, both nobles and peasants followed the teachings and laws of the Holy Roman Church in belief but in daily practice deviated from it. In other words the ideals of the Church on virginity, chastity and consanguinity were at times just too hard to live up to.








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