Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne
The institution of marriage is commonly thought to have fallen
into crisis in late medieval northern France. While prior
scholarship has identified the pervasiveness of clandestine
marriage as the cause, Sara McDougall contends that the pressure
came overwhelmingly from the prevalence of remarriage in violation
of the Christian ban on divorce, a practice we might call "bigamy."
Throughout the fifteenth century in Christian Europe, husbands and
wives married to absent or distant spouses found new spouses to
wed. In the church courts of northern France, many of the
individuals so married were criminally prosecuted.
In Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval
Champagne, McDougall traces the history of this conflict in
the diocese of Troyes and places it in the larger context of
Christian theology and culture. Multiple marriage was both
inevitable and repugnant in a Christian world that forbade divorce
and associated bigamy with the unchristian practices of Islam or
Judaism. The prevalence of bigamy might seem to suggest a failure
of Christianization in late medieval northern France, but careful
study of the sources shows otherwise: Clergy and laity alike valued
marriage highly. Indeed, some members of the laity placed such a
high value on the institution that they were willing to risk
criminal punishment by entering into illegal remarriage. The risk
was great: the Bishop of Troyes's judicial court prosecuted bigamy
with unprecedented severity, although this prosecution broke down
along gender lines. The court treated male bigamy, and only male
bigamy, as a grave crime, while female bigamy was almost completely
excluded from harsh punishment. As this suggests, the Church was
primarily concerned with imposing a high standard on men as heads
of Christian households, responsible for their own behavior and
also that of their wives.
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