November 25, 2012 by

Marriage in the Medieval Era

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“Perfect love sometimes does not come until the first grandchild.”  –Welsh proverb

Marriage as we know it now is a new institution.  While ‘love’ (at least among the upper classes) transformed the internal workings of marriage in the modern age, in Wales prior to the Midde Ages, marriage was a contract between two families, with no relationship to the Church or State at all.  Even once the Roman Church got involved, it still had nothing to do with the State.

Probably the change had something to do with taxes.

Regardless, what we know of marriage in medieval Wales comes primarily from the Laws of Hywel Dda (see the footnotes in Wikipedia for the English sources):  “The second part of the laws begins with ‘the laws of women’, for example the rules governing marriage and the division of property if a married couple should separate. The position of women under Welsh law differed significantly to that of their Norman-English contemporaries. A marriage could be established in two basic ways. The normal way was that the woman would be given to a man by her kindred; the abnormal way was that the woman could elope with a man without the consent of her kindred. In this case her kindred could compel her to return if she was still a virgin, but if she was not she could not be compelled to return. If the relationship lasted for seven years she had the same entitlements as if she had been given by her kin.[7]

A number of payments are connected with marriage. Amobr was a fee payable to the woman’s lord on the loss of her virginity, whether on marriage or otherwise. Cowyll was a payment due to the woman from her husband on the morning after the marriage, marking her transition from virgin to married woman. Agweddi was the amount of the common pool of property owned by the couple which was due to the woman if the couple separated before the end of seven years. The total of the agweddi depended on the woman’s status by birth, regardless of the actual size of the common pool of property. If the marriage broke up after the end of seven years, the woman was entitled to half the common pool.[8]

If a woman found her husband with another woman, she was entitled to a payment of six score pence the first time and a pound the second time; on the third occasion she was entitled to divorce him. If the husband had a concubine, the wife was allowed to strike her without having to pay any compensation, even if it resulted in the concubine’s death.[9] A woman could only be beaten by her husband for three things: for giving away something which she was not entitled to give away, for being found with another man or for wishing a blemish on her husband’s beard. If he beat her for any other cause, she was entitled to the payment of sarhad. If the husband found her with another man and beat her, he was not entitled to any further compensation. According to the law, women were not allowed to inherit land. However there were exceptions, even at an early date. A poem dated to the first half of the 11th century is an elegy for Aeddon, a landowner on Anglesey. The poet says that after his death his estate was inherited by four women who had originally been brought to Aeddon’s court as captives after a raid and had found favour with him.[10] The rule for the division of moveable property when one of a married couple died was the same for both sexes. The property was divided into two equal halves, with the surviving partner keeping one half and the dying partner being free to give bequests from the other half.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_law

Furthermore, in the book, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (the subtitle based on the fact that the medieval concept of sex was that it was something one person did to another rather than something two people did together), passage pp. 70-71.:

Consent between the parties could create a valid marriage even in the absence of intercourse. However, consent could be given in two different ways, a distinction clarified in the later Middle Ages. Words of present consent–“I take you as my wife”–created a valid marriage immediately. Words of future or conditional consent–“I will take you as my wife,” or “I take you as my husband if my father agrees”–did not. If, however, words of future or conditional consent were followed by sexual intercourse, the marriage immediately became valid; the parties were assumed to have dropped the condition. This meant that a promise of marriage given to seduce a woman into sex–“If you get pregnant, I will marry you”–was not merely enforceable but actually self-fulfilling. (It might or might not be enforceable, depending on whether or not there were witnesses, but according to canon law even if performed without witnesses and an officiant, the marriage was valid; they were married in the eyes of God, even if there was no evidence to convince a church court.)”

Thus, as my daughter pointed out, Meg and Llywelyn in Daughter of Time, were married by medieval canon law, even if they didn’t tell anyone about it.

Stephanie Coontz, in her book “A History of Marriage” writes:  “For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention. This is not true. People have always fallen in love, and throughout the ages many couples have loved each other deeply [as evidenced by the acknowledgement of elopement in Welsh law–SW].

But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.”  http://www.stephaniecoontz.com/books/marriage/chapter1.htm

John Davies writes:  “The readiness to marry close relations reflected the central role of the bonds of kinship in early Wales.  In the age of Hywel Dda, it was a man’s standing in a network of kindred rather than his standing as the citizen of the state which determined his social status, his economic rights and his legal obligations” (History of Wales, p. 91).

As the Middle Ages progressed, gradually the Church began playing a greater role in marriage throughout Europe, whether in blessing the act or interfering with who could marry whom, although once again, it took longer to gain traction in Wales.  Llywelyn ap Gruffydd married Elinor de Montfort at Worcester Cathedral–and Edward I gave the bride away–but a church marriage was still not common in Wales in 1278.  Even in Europe, “If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married” up until the 16th century.  http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/26/opinion/26coontz.html?_r=2&oref=slogin

4 Responses to Marriage in the Medieval Era

  1. Red Tash

    This was really fascinating. I didn’t even try to pronounce all the words, but I went ahead and read it aloud to Mr. Tash so he can stockpile my share of the common pool and prepare for any necessary beatings he may need. ;)

    • Sarah Post author

      Just as long as you don’t wish a blemish on his beard, you should be okay :) (and honestly, what exactly that means has been lost to the winds of time)

  2. Brynne McKay

    Worth pointing out, too, that the Church defined ‘incest’ as anything closer than 7 degrees (brother=first degree, cousin=second, etc) as incest, which meant that if you married anyone who had an common ancestor more recently than your great-great-great-great-great grandparent, you were committing incest. Which was IMPOSSIBLE to maintain, which is why the Church brought the incest cutoff down to 4 degrees, but even then the “readiness to marry close relations” of which John Davies writes could just as easily have been a matter of practicality, if Davies is using the Church’s definition of “close relation.”

    • Sarah Post author

      Yes! That’s especially true for Wales, which was so close-knit. Thanks for pointing that out.