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Marriage in Medieval England: Law, Literature and Practice

Marriage in Medieval England: Law, Literature and Practice

Conor McCarthy
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 194
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  • Book Info
    Marriage in Medieval England: Law, Literature and Practice
    Book Description:

    Medieval marriage has been widely discussed, and this book gives a brief and accessible overview of an important subject. It covers the entire medieval period, and engages with a wide range of primary sources, both legal and literary. It draws particular attention to local English legislation and practice, and offers some new readings of medieval English literary texts, including ‘Beowulf’, the works of Chaucer, Langland's ‘Piers Plowman’, the ‘Book of Margery Kempe’ and the ‘Paston Letters’. Focusing on a number of key themes important across the period, individual chapters discuss the themes of consent, property, alliance, love, sex, family, divorce and widowhood. CONOR MCCARTHY gained his PhD from Trinity College Dublin.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-254-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vi-vi)
    Conor McCarthy
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    This book is about marriage in medieval England, the ways in which marriage is represented in medieval English legal and literary texts, and the relationship of these representations to actual practice. Both legal and literary texts have a great deal to say on the subject of marriage, and therefore provide us with a rich source of evidence. Where English legal writings are concerned, texts from the seventh-century laws of Æthelbert onwards contain regulations concerning marriage, albeit cryptically expressed, and later Anglo-Saxon laws show the influence of developing ecclesiastical thinking on marriage. From the point where William the Conqueror divides the...

  6. 1 The Principle of Consent
    (pp. 19-50)

    When the Church canonists of the central Middle Ages considered the question of what created a marriage between two people, the conclusion that they came to was that it was the consent of the persons to be married which created the marital bond. It was not necessary for a public ceremony to be held, or for their families to consent, although these things were seen as desirable, and were recommended by the Church. Nor were people considered to be married simply because of long cohabitation, or the birth of children. Rather, the bond of marriage was created through each person...

  7. 2 Marriage and Property
    (pp. 51-77)

    Although the Church in the later Middle Ages promoted marriage first and foremost as a consensual commitment between two individuals, marriage always had implications for the transfer of property between kin.Major redistribution of property within families tends to take place on two occasions – at the death or marriage of a family member. Along with inheritance strategies, marriages were the major means by which families sought to establish economic viability for the succeeding generation. Marriages, then, were occasions on which property transfers, both symbolic and real, took place within and between families.

    What this meant in practice was that it was...

  8. 3 Marriage as Alliance
    (pp. 78-91)

    As is well known, the notion of marriage as an alliance between families, or as a means of cementing peace treaties and settling feuds, is implicit in several passages in Beowulf. In the description of the building of the hall of Heorot near the poem’s beginning, the poet juxtaposes a description of the hall’s construction with an account of its eventual destruction. That destruction comes about because of a feud between relations by marriage: the Danish king Hrothgar, the builder of Heorot, and his son in law, Ingeld:

    Sele hlifade

    heah ond horngeap: heaðowylma bad,

    laðan liges. Ne waes hit...

  9. 4 Love and Marriage
    (pp. 92-106)

    In his 1936 book, The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis argued that a new form of love had found expression in the French troubadour poetry of the central Middle Ages, and that this new form of love exercised a fundamental influence on the literature of the later medieval period, in France, but also in England. He argued further that this new form of love with which medieval literature was concerned had nothing to do with marriage, and was in fact an idealization of adultery. For Lewis, marriage from the medieval aristocracy’s viewpoint had nothing to do with sentiment, and everything...

  10. 5 Marital Sex
    (pp. 107-125)

    There are some obvious difficulties in attempting to write about marital sex in the Middle Ages. For the most part, the texts that provide us with evidence about medieval social practices were written by clerics. These texts are necessarily problematic, in that they were written by clergy who should have been unmarried and celibate, and who were often either uneasy or hostile to all forms of sexual behaviour. They do not provide us with firsthand evidence of the experience of married people themselves. But the medieval Church’s prolonged attempts to govern the sexual behaviour of the married laity nonetheless provides...

  11. 6 Marriage and Family
    (pp. 126-138)

    Familia, as David Herlihy tells us, comes from the noun famulus, ‘a slave,’ and the original meaning of familia was a band of slaves, a meaning that persisted after the decline of slavery to refer to groups of servants or serfs. This meaning of familia extended to include all persons placed under the authority of a single person, an authority that could include the patria potestas of a man over his wives and children. Hence its modern sense.¹

    It is generally agreed that the medieval family was a nuclear family, essentially based around a core unit of a coresidential couple...

  12. 7 After Marriage
    (pp. 139-158)

    Saint Augustine viewed Christian marriage as a lifelong commitment. In his formulation of the three goods of marriage as fides, proles, et sacramentum, the sacramentality of marital union referred to the indissolubility of the marital bond. Augustine’s model of the indissoluble marriage was influential throughout the Middle Ages, and, in the later Middle Ages, the marriage vow taken in England contains within it an expression of the lifelong nature of the commitment being made. Partners took one another as spouses ‘tyll dethe vs departe.’¹ Christian disapproval of divorce was an innovation: divorce was legal in ancient Jewish law, as it...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 159-164)

    This book opened by arguing that some continuities in thinking about marriage are visible to a greater or lesser extent across the medieval period. Anglo-Saxon texts suggest that consent is important in marriage, at least as an ideal, long before the Church formulates its consensual model. Likewise, the importance of property in making marriages and the notion of marriage as alliance survive the introduction of the Church’s emphasis on the consent of the partners. That love should be encouraged between spouses is a feature of thinking about marriage from Saint Paul to the later Middle Ages. Unease about the role...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 165-176)
  15. Index
    (pp. 177-186)