Medieval Marriage, or, I Thought I Just Made That Up

The things you find out…

I was watching a really cool BBC documentary yesterday called Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death.  Specifically, this one was episode 2, “A Good Marriage” (at the moment you can watch it here, although it might not stay up forever. Canadians can also stream it off Knowledge Network, which is what I did). And I learned something really interesting: up until the 12th Century in Europe, all it took to get married was for two people to make a commitment to each other. That’s right, you just said to each other: “I take you as my husband” and “I take you as my wife”, and bingo, you were married. It could be anywhere – a pub, a hedgerow, a cottage…

And I was sitting there, watching this, and started to sputter: “That, that, that – I made that up for Seventh Son!! That’s my idea! And it was actually real!!” The marriage customs of Ruph, the place where Cat and Guy live, are exactly that: they say “I marry you,” and that’s it, they’re hitched. But I just made that up – and now it turns out it was exactly like that in medieval Europe! I had no idea. It’s kind of cool when you find that your fiction inadvertently copies reality.

medieval peasantsSo, yes, according to that documentary, the meaning of marriage was two people committing to each other. They didn’t even need witnesses, although if you had some, that helped if the marriage was ever contested (by your spouse who wanted to get out, or by anyone else, say, your parents because they wanted to hitch you to someone with more money). If you had witnesses, your friends John, Joan, Robert and Roberta could confirm that the Thursday after Whitsun, you (Joseph) and your sweetheart Margaret had pledged your troth at the Blue Hare in front of all of them (after you’d quaffed about five pints of ale each, Margaret’s eyes had sparkled exceptionally bright, so you figured it might be a good idea to officially tie the knot. Fortunately, John and Joan had only had about two pints each, so they have a clearer memory of the event than you do). And that was entirely legal.

medieval marriageIt was only from the 12th century onwards that the church figured it should put a bit more of a control on this marrying gig, so they could keep tabs on folks a little better. However, it really was just an extension of the old custom, with the priest serving as the witness and delivering God’s blessing on the union. Legally, it was still the same thing; the priest didn’t have any actual powers – the marriage was in the vows, not in the priest’s role or a legal document. (Apparently, also, the marriage – the spoken “I take thee…” commitment – took place outside the church, in the porch, so the couple was already married by the time they crossed the threshold into the church for the blessing service).

So then I got to thinking: it’s almost like we’ve come full circle again in this day and age. From where I sit, it looks like that in the Western world, a large proportion of marriage-like relationships take place on an informal basis – two people make a commitment to each other, they move in together, and they’re a couple. In the most telling phrase, they’re in a common law marriage. All it takes is a commitment.

The one great, big, ginormous difference between medieval marriage customs and ours today, though, is not the way marriages are contracted – formally or informally, common law or regulatory law. It’s the fact that today, marriages can be un-contracted. If the common law marriage doesn’t work out, you just move your stuff out of your girlfriend’s house; if the formal law one goes sour, you go to divorce court, and (at least in Canada) after a year you can start all over again with someone else. That, in the Middle Ages, was very much not happening. A marriage was a marriage, whether contracted in a hedgerow with just the sparrows and the odd bunny rabbit as witnesses, or in Westminster Abbey with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. And they took that “til death do us part” thing deadly serious. The only way you could ever get out of a marriage while your spouse was alive was to establish that it hadn’t actually taken place – get it annulled, in other words. Didn’t matter if your wife turned out to be a vicious shrew or your husband a jerk who knocked you about; if you’d slept together (proof positive: children), you were stuck with them for good.

I have to say, I prefer our way of doing things today. Divorce sucks, but at least it means you’re not permanently trapped in a relationship you contracted in the heat of the moment (see “five pints of ale”, above). Could you imagine if you were bound for life to your first boyfriend, the one you thought you couldn’t live without and swore eternal faithfulness to back in grade 10? Urgh, yeah. Mind you, “for life” in the Middle Ages was a considerably shorter time period than it is today. But still.

Incidentally, I hadn’t considered it before, but I do think that in spite of their medieval marriage style, the people of Ruph do have divorce as a last-resort option. It hasn’t come up yet in my stories, but it might, some day. I wouldn’t want anyone to be stuck in a horrible relationship, you know? But I’m sure they’ll think long and hard about it before they call it quits. People are like that in Ruph.

Life, the Universe, and Marriage. The things you find out…

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Filed under The Septimus Series, this and that, writing

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