Friday, June 20, 2008

Marriage and Family in Middle Ages

I have been reading about role of marriage in the passing of property to the next generation and how marriage became what we have today. If you are fortunate enough to be able to trace your lineage into the Middle Ages, you will begin to see places where the husband and wife were closely related. So close a relationship between spouses would be considered improper to many today. I found a book that discusses the gradual changes at length and the following is quoted from it. I'm not responsible for the typos. I fixed some of them.


Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages
By Georges Duby

Translated by Jane Dunnett

Published 1996


Humans are no different than any other species. We have an impulse to procreate. We are not driven solely by baser instincts. We want to pass on our culture as well as our genetic material. A marriage is a joining of two lines of heritage and so a successful merger of two families should produce offspring of similar makeup, in theory. This cultural heritage is often what initially bonds man and woman together. Our heritage that has been passed down to us by our parents is the pattern we draw on for the rules of our relationship with the opposite sex. It is this heritage that we draw on in order to figure out what the role of man and wife are, where the power is divided up. It is how we decide who is to do what in our relationship. Most of the time, a man and woman marry within a community that shares the same or similar heritage as we do. And so, we don't feel that it is necessary to discuss how our marriage is going to work. For many of us, we wake up one day and say to ourself, "this is not how I thought it would work."

Due to the nature of human birth, we usually do not find it necessary to establish who the mother of a child, since pregnancy and birth make it plain to see. Fathers on the other hand need a way to establish who their offspring are. This is where the importance of marriage comes into play. Many of the rules, prohibitions and customs that control marriage have been established in order to ensure successful breeding of the next generation

Let us therefore set side by side the two framing systems, which, because of their aims, were almost entirely alien to one another. There was the lay model, which in this ruralized society, where each unit was rooted in landed inheritance, had the role of preserving through the generations the continuity of a mode of production. In contrast, there was an ecclesiatical model, whose timeless aim was to check the impulses of the flesh, that is to say, repress evil, by containing sexual excess within strict boundaries.

Maintaining the status of a 'house' from one generation to the next was a necessity, which determined the entire structure of the first of these two models. In different degrees according to various regions, and ethnic groups, Roman and barbarian i formed the raw ingredients; at any rate this model formed the basis for the notion of inheritance. It's role was to ensure that a stock of possessions, reputation and honor were handed down intact, and to guarantee the lineage a position, a 'rank', which was at least equal to that enjoyed by previous generations. Consequently all those responsible for the future of the family, that is to say, all the males who had some claim to the inheritance, and at their head, the senior member, whom they advised and who spoke in their name, believed it was their first right and duty to marry off their children, and to marry them off well. This meant giving away their daughters and negotiating as best they could their daughters reproductive potential and the advantages with which they were supposed to endow their offspring. It also meant helping a son to find a wife- to find her elsewhere in another family, to bring her into his family, where she would cease to depend on her father, brothers and uncles, and would instead be subject to her husband, whilst condemned always to remain a stranger, always a little under suspicion of secret betrayal, in the bed to which she had gained admittance. and where she was to fulfill her primary function, that of providing children to the group of men who received, dominated and kept watch over her.

In these children were united what she brought with her and what the received from their father--the hope of two lines of succession and reverence for these two ancestral lines which provided the names given to each child, according to rules, which I am attempting to reformulate. The positions which they would hold in the world, the opportunities to which they in turn, would have to make a good marriage, depended on the clauses of the contract entered into when their parents were married. We can according understand the importance of the agreement and see that it represented the culmination of long and tortuous negotiations, in which all of the members of each household were involved. It constituted a long-term and provident strategy, which explains why the arrangement between the tw families and the exchange of promises often took place far ahead of the time when the marriage was consummated. It was a strategy which required the greatest circumspection since it aimed to avoid, by the means of subsequent compensations, the risk of impoverishment which, in an agrarian society, lineages ran as soon as they became prolific.

There were, it seems, three main attitudes which guided the negotiations which proceeded any marriage. There was a propensity, whether conscious or unconscious, towards endogamy, towards choosing wives from amongst cousins, descendants of the same ancestors, heirs of the same inheritance, with whom the matrimonial tie thus tended to bring together it's scattered fragments rather than dividing them further. Prudence operated, so that only moderate numbers of offspring were produced, and this limited the number of married couples, thereby keeping a sizeable proportion of offspring unmarried. Finally, there was cunning in the subterfuge employed in the bargaining, care taken to obtain guarantees to protect personal interests and concern on both sides to balance the concessions agreed by the anticipated advantages.

At the end of these interminable discussions, there were public words and gestures, a ceremonial which was itself was split in two.First there was the marriage, in other words a ritual of words and faith and pledge, verbal promises, a show of disinvestment and of assumption of possession, the handing over of pledges, the ring, the deposit, the coins, and finally the contract-which in the provinces where the practice of writing had not entirely disappeared- custom dictated must be drawn up. Then there was the wedding, which was the ritual of the couple setting up house. Bread and wine were shared by the bride and bridegroom and the married couples first meal inevitable a great banquet; the bridal procession led the newly wed woman to her new home. That same night, in the darkened room, the deflowering took place in the bed; and then in the morning, there was the present expressing the gratitude and hope of the man whose dream it was already to have embarked upon his legitimate paternal role by impregnating his wife.

All these rituals were obviously surrounded by a code of ethics and I would like to concentrate on three of it's principles.

This society was not strictly monogamous. To be sure, it allowed only one wife at a time, but it did not deny the husband, or rather his family group, the power to break the marriage at will, to dismiss his wife so that he could seek another, and to this end start the hunt for a good match again. All the marriage vows, (the sponsalicium, the dotalicium) had among other objectives that of protecting the material interests of the repudiated wife and her lineage.

The area of male sexuality, and by that I mean lawful sexuality, was not at all limited by marriage. Accepted morality, the morality which each individual pretended to respect, did indeed require that the husband content himself with his wife, but did not prevent him from having other women either before marriage, during what in the twelth century, was clled 'youth', or after marriage, during his widowhood. There is much evidence that men made extensive and very conspicuous use of mistresses and prostitution, and enjoyed amorous adventures with the servants, as also of the exaltation of male prowess in the value system

On the other hand, in girls what was exalted, and what a whole series of related restrictions carefully sought to guarantee, was virginity, and in wives what was praised was constancy. The natural depravity of women, those perverse creatures, would be liable, if there was not vigilance, to introduce into kinship with the heirs to the ancestral fortune intruders, born of another blood, whose seed had been secretly sown - those same illegitimate children whom the married men of the lineage blithly and generously placed outside the house or within the ranks of their servants.

The morality which I have outlined applied to the family. It was private.The penalties which ensured it was observed were also private: vengeance for an abduction fell within the province of the girl's male relatives, whilst revenge for an adulterous act was the responsibility of the husband and his blood relatives. But since people were at liberty to appeal to Assemblies of the Peace and to the prince, abduction and adultery were therefore provided for in secular law codes.

We know far more about the model proposed by the Church, as there are a large number of documents and studies on this subject. It should suffice to highlight five of it's features.

The whole ascetic, monastic side of the Christian Church, everything that led it to disdain and reject the world, as well as everything that, in the cultural baggage which it inherited from Rome, related it's thinking to the philosophies of antiquity, led the church to condemn marriage. It was criticized as a blemish, a source of disturbance for the soul, an obstacle to contemplation on the basis of scriptural arguments and references, most of which were already collected in St. Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum.

However, since humans unfortunately do not reproduce like bees but have to copulate in order to reproduce, and since amongst the traps laid by the devil there is none worse than the excessive use of the sexual organs, the Church accepted marriage as a lesser evil. It adopted an instituted marriage - all the more easily since it was accepted, adopted and established by Jesus - but on a condition that it should serve to control sexuality, to fight effectively against fornication.

to this end, the Church first offered, a moral code for a good married life. The intention was the attempt to purge marriage of it's two major corruptions, namely the filth inherant in carnal pleasure and the frenzy of the impassioned soul, and that wild Tristan- like love which the Penitentials sought to stifle when they banished love potions and other bewitching drinks. When thery were married, the couple's one thought was to be procreatiion. If they were to abandon themselves and to take pleasure in their union, they at once would be 'defiled', for in the words of Gregory the Great, 'they are transgressing the law of marriage'. Even if they were cold as stone, they still had to purify themselves if they wished to receive the sacrament afterwards. They had to abstain from all carnal intercourse during holy periods of God would take vengeance. Gregory of Tours warned his audience, that monsters, cripples and sickly children were conceived on Sunday nights.

As regards the social practice of marriage, the Church set out to correct lay customs in a number of matters. In so doing, the Church visibly shifted the boundaries between the lawful and the unlawful, increasing freedom in some areas and limiting it in others. The clergy therefore sought to tone down the act by which a marriage became sacrimentally complete, since their loathing of the flesh prompted them to shift the emphasis to commitment, to agreement (consensus), to that spiritual exchange in the name of which, according to Saint Paul, marriage could become the symbol of the union between Christ and the Church. They were thus forced down a path which enabled the individual to be freed from family constraints, and made the plighting of troth a matter for personal choice; it was a path which also led, since it was the asserted that the social positions of individuals should in no way impede effective relationships, to legitimizing the marriage of the unfree and liberating the m fromall seigneurial contol. Conversely, the Church tightened it's control when, in it's attempt to impose absolute monogamy, it condemned repudiation and remarriage and exalted the ordo of widows, as when it sought to establish a disproportuanately broad definition of incest and introduced further restrictions on marriages between blood relatives and those related by marriage.

Finally, the priests gradually played a greater role in the marriage ceremonial, making the rituals sacred, especially the wedding rituals, and surrounding the marriage bed with set phrases and gestures which were designed to ward off the devil and keep the couple in chastity.

In the very long history of the progressive and incomplete integration of the ecclesiastical into the secular model, the ninth century stands out as a decisive period. This partly because the revival of writing lifts the veil which until then almost entirely conceals social facts from the historian. But it is mainly because that period in the area of Europe which was under Carolingian domination, experienced a sort of cooperation, centered on the annointed king, between civil power and ecclesiatical authority, which for a while, combined their efforts to construct, for the use of the Christian people, a social morality less remote from the injunctions of scripture. This task involved above all reflection on concrete exemplary cases which occurred in the matrimonial affairs of the Empire's highest aristocracy and brought into play what we would refer to as politics
The specific task of the oratores, that is to say bishops, was to study the mystery of marriage (nuptials mysterium) so as better to guide their flock. The applied the wisdom (sopientia) with which their consecration had imbued them to the conceptual development of patristic material. In so doing they set out to construct a theory of marriage for purely pastoral and practical purposes. At the time the worke requiered codification in that wider domain where, under the gaze of the soveraign who presided over the general sessions of court and council, the secular and the sacred were more closely intertwined than ever before. Indeed by that time marriage was regarded as coming under bth the authority (auctoritus) of the prelates and the power (potestas) of the princes, and the system of sanctions of which the two associated authorities - as Hincmar says with the reference to the abduction of Judith - were the driving forces in the hierarchy.

Thus, from this alliance, there originated, almost complete, that normative construct, which as I have mentioned above, must not be considered in isolation, but which none the less is worth looking at quite closely during the period when it suddenly emerged from the Dark Ages. It consisted of precepts and exhortations to conduct, thereby offering a model of Christian life for married couples (conjugati) whom the conception of the ordines, or orders, relagated to the lowest level of ternary hierarchy of perfection. This hierarchy first exalted virginity and then continence, but it at least offered salvation to married couples whilst it denied to others, to fornicators who were cast out into darkness because they rejected the exclusive constrainsts of a conjugal sexuality which was indisoluable and chaste. To these admonitions were added rules to maintain the social order, to prevent and allay the discord, which could arise out of the institution of marriage.

It is obvious that when marriage was taken out of the secular into the ecclesiastical, it's purpose shifted and therefore the rules changed to match the change in purpose..
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