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Women in Medieval Society: Aspects of the Marriage

Kimberly Beumer

 Marriage in Medieval society was a strong mixture of rules and customs created in the ancient world that derived from the age of the barbarians, Rome, Judaism, and the early Church. For the most part, the fundamentals of marriage derived from Roman law and became a secular custom inherited by the Christian Church. Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe adopted these customs that were implemented through the Church. The courts of the Christian Church began to direct the laws of society, including the institution of matrimony and set guidelines for people to follow that are still practiced today (Laiou). Society rarely challenged these customs because the Church was trusted to be all knowing. If one did speak against the Church, they risked rejection by society and the possibility of endangering their life. Religion, inheritance, law and practice are several factors influenced by the Church that determine the aspects of marriage in medieval society.

In the dawn of English history, the nation saw marriage as a private transaction, an exchange of a girl for the gifts of a husband. The Germani people, who were European ancestors of the Romans, are responsible for creating the arrangements of a formal marriage. The Roman Church inherited these laws and implemented them into the structure that defined matrimony.

The laws of King Ethelberht of Kent (560-616), written in English before the apostle St. Augstine died in 604 or 605, state rules regarding to women in society (Stenon). These laws expand on the roles and responsibilities of both men and women and express more information then any other ruler of Anglo-Saxon. Some of the laws pertain to the relationship of man and wife, and refered to the woman as a valuable piece of property.

According to the law of the Church, the process of marriage followed a certain order that was carried out in two stages. The first is the beweddung, or the pledging of betrothal. Here the bride is handed over the weotuma, which is the price for the bride (Luca, p62). The prospective husband in exchange for his bride gave this "gift" to the father of the bride. The parents of the bride had to approve of the gifts, which usually consisted of utilitarian objects like: horses, oxen, cattle, swords and spears. The girl need not be present at this exchange, essentially this was an agreement between two men; the father of the bride; and the future husband. It was forbidden for the woman to have any word in the transaction. The guardianship of the woman is transferred from the father to the future husband, making it impossible for the women too ever obtain a sense of independence.

The concept of the dowry is an adaptation to this tradition. When settling a marriage, the bride’s family would give a portion of their land (the dowry) to the man. Marriage was like a purchase trade for the men of the families.

Once this trade has occurred, the bride is responsible for giving her future husband a gift. It most commonly consisted of some type of armor or weapon for self-defense, for at this time, people were under constant pressure of war. One had to be prepared to defend against an attack that could erupt at any given moment. The exchange of gifts reinforced the duty of the girl to serve her husband in times of peace and war. It also reiterated her responsibility to serve him in the drudgery of daily, domestic chores.

These objects of weaponry were also necessary for the woman to defend herself in the event of a wife-capture. When her husband was off in battle, she was left behind to manage their home. Peace was a rare luxury in the Middle Ages, so the demand for soldiers was always high. With the husbands off to battle, woman became objects of prey for other men not fighting in battle. This victim scenario was referred to as wife-capture in various books of law, and was looked down upon in the Anglo-Saxon society of the Middle Ages (Lucas).

The second stage was the actual handing over, or gifta (sometimes referred to as the tradition), where the ceremony physically took place. The price of the bride, or the weotuma was given directly to the bride and became her own property. However, the property was legally subject to control of the husband during his lifetime. Thus making the value of the weotuma a provision for widowhood, meaning that the value of the property was only payable to her after the death of her husband. If the woman was without child, she was at a greater risk of losing the property after becoming a widow.

The actual desire to be married was not by choice of the woman, rather it was determined by the will of the parents and fellow kinship. The concept of marriage was a constant pressure placed on girls at a young age. From the day a female is born, she is taught how to become a good wife for her husband, that she should please him and nurture their children for the rest of her life. It was unheard of to pursue any individual dreams or desires for a woman, that was left for the man. The average age of consent for a female was seven years old, however the marriage could not be nullified until the girl reached twelve and the boy fourteen. Girls were brought up to expect to be married. The only other alternative was to pursue a position within the church, which was only possible if one was in correct financial standing from the beginning of her life.

As the Christian Church grew and began to attract the authorities of the Roman Empire, there was an increasing pressure to conform to the rules of society set out by the church. Women were pushed out of the leadership roles in the church, such as the deacon, bishop, and priest. If a woman desired a position within the church her only option was to enter the nunnery, which was only accessible if she was in proper financial standing. As the church depleted the opportunities for the roles of women in the church and placed pressure within the society to conform to certain roles, women in medieval society succumbed to greater submission of the man.

Christianity did nothing to improve the situation for females entering into adulthood. As women matured into adolescence, they were to consent to the proposal of marriage, without ever questioning her chosen husband. It was not the place of a modest virgin to choose her future husband for he husband was chosen for her. Marriage in Medieval society was a strong mixture of rules and customs created in the ancient world. The fundamentals of marriage derived mostly from Roman law and became a secular custom inherited by the Christian Church. Throughout the Middle Ages, European society adopted customs and implemented them through the Church. The courts of the Christian Church began to direct the laws of society, including the institution of matrimony and set guidelines for people to follow. Society rarely challenged these customs because the Church was trusted to be all knowing. If one did speak against the Church, they risked the rejection of society and the possibility of endangering their life. Religion, inheritance, law and practice are several factors influenced by the Church that determine the aspects of marriage in medieval society. Women were regarded as valuable pieces of property, so men treated women like objects of commercial transactions, placing a price on the value of the bride, during the process of marriage.

Bibliography:

 Klapisch-Zuber, Christane. (1985). Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press.

 Lucas, Angela, M. (1983). Women in the Middle Ages. Great Britain: The Harvester Press Limited.

 Brooke, Christopher, N. L. (1989). The Medieval Idea of Marriage. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.

 Laiou, Anfeliki, E. (1992). Gender Society and Economic Life in Byzantium. Brookfield, VT: Ashdate Publishing Company.

 Stenton, F. M. (1943). The Historical Bearing of Place Name Studies. The Place of Women of Anglo-Saxon Society. TRHS, 4th Series, 25, 1-13.

 Internet Resources:

 Scheid, Troy. Toon, Laura (1997). The City of Women. Dominion & Domination of the Gentle Sex: The Lives of Medieval Woman. Cited October 15, 1997.

http://library.advanced.org/12834/index.html

 Dickstein, Ruth. (1997). Women's Studies on the Internet. Cited October 10, 1997.

http://dizzy.library.arizona.edu:80/users/dickstei/homepg.htm

 

From University of Arizona. Women’s Studies Dept. WS200 Women and Western Culture. WS200 Webpage Project. January 27, 2004. <http://info-center.ccit.arizona.edu/~ws/ws200/fall97/grp7/part2.htm>