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Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The Middle Ages are often viewed as a repository of tradition, yet what we think of as traditional marriage was far from the only available alternative to the single state in medieval Europe. Many people lived together in long-term, quasimarital heterosexual relationships, unable to marry if one was in holy orders or if the partners were of different religions. Social norms militated against the marriage of master to slave or between individuals of very different classes, or when the couple was so poor that they could not establish an independent household. Such unions, where the protections that medieval law furnished to wives (and their children) were absent, were fraught with danger for women in particular, but they also provided a degree of flexibility and demonstrate the adaptability of social customs in the face of slowly changing religious doctrine. Unmarriages draws on a wide range of sources from across Europe and the entire medieval millennium in order to investigate structures and relations that medieval authors and record keepers did not address directly, either in order to minimize them or because they were so common as not to be worth mentioning. Author Ruth Mazo Karras pays particular attention to the ways women and men experienced forms of opposite-sex union differently and to the implications for power relations between the genders. She treats legal and theological discussions that applied to all of Europe and presents a vivid series of case studies of how unions operated in specific circumstances to illustrate concretely what we can conclude, how far we can speculate, and what we can never know.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0641-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: Marriage and Other Unions
    (pp. 1-24)

    Histories of marriage are inevitably teleological: they put “marriage” as we know it at the center, and they evaluate all other forms of union in terms of that model. It is understandable, of course, that people want to know how an institution that is so important in contemporary society came to be the way it is. Given the contested nature of marriage today—between groups who think that it is primarily a bond between two people who love each other and should therefore be available to all such couples, and groups who think that it is primarily a way of...

  4. Chapter 1 The Church and the Regulation of Unions between Women and Men
    (pp. 25-67)

    The traditions discussed in the Introduction took on new configurations as the Western church claimed control over marriage. The Hebrew Bible allowed one man to have several permanent partners, either several women with full wifely status or one woman as primary and the rest secondary but with all the children having inheritance rights. Ancient Roman law, however, did not: Roman marriage was monogamous, and only the children of a wife could inherit. Prehistoric Germanic forms of union are, as we have seen, very difficult to document, but the evidence points to a pattern more like that of Rome, where one...

  5. Chapter 2 Unequal Unions
    (pp. 68-114)

    Many unions noted in the previous chapters were between partners of different social levels. Often an elite man formed a union other than marriage with a woman of lower status, either before marrying or while married to a woman who was selected for him for family, political, or economic reasons. This was especially true of monarchs and the highest aristocracy, among whom the practice continued well past the Middle Ages (and is not unheard of today). Considered from the standpoint of marriage as a central institution for the transfer of wealth, these unions were side affairs of little permanent consequence;...

  6. Chapter 3 Priests and Their Partners
    (pp. 115-164)

    When I told people that I was working on a book on couples who lived together without being married, most non-medievalists (and many medievalists) immediately said, “Oh, priests.” The idea that some churchmen keep their vows of celibacy in the technical sense of being unmarried, but not in the more common sense of abstaining from sexual activity, surprises no one, whether we are talking about the Middle Ages or today, when a majority of Christians in the world belong to denominations in which the clergy may marry. The fact that “celibacy” developed to mean “chastity” as well as “the unmarried...

  7. Chapter 4 On the Margins of Marriage
    (pp. 165-208)

    Priests and their partners did not have the choice of formalizing their union; neither did slaves or servants pressured or forced into relations by their employers. This chapter examines some couples who had a choice of types of union, and chose not to make a formal marriage. Either they preferred a temporary union, thought marriage was uneconomical, faced family pressures or widely discrepant social standing, or chose deliberately to leave the situation vague. We look here at a microcosm: Paris at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. Many, though not all, of these cases appeared...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 209-214)

    This work has looked at the range and variety of pair bonds in which people engaged across the space of western Europe over a thousand-year period. It has attempted to bring to the fore alternatives to what medieval people considered marriage, or what we now consider marriage. Yet all these varieties of unions existed within a world in which marriage was considered the standard pattern of pair bond. The centrality of marriage can be seen in the fact that people who rejected sexual activity for religious reasons, or who wrote about people who rejected it, described this choice in terms...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 215-262)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-270)
  11. Index
    (pp. 271-280)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 281-283)