The Medieval Wife: Part One

Griselda, the Medieval ideal of the patient and obedient wife
Griselda, the Medieval ideal of the patient and obedient wife

Here are my notes on marriage in the Middle Ages from Marilyn Yalom’s book  A History of the Wife:

  • In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church gradually took over the jurisdiction of marriage from the family, kin group, and the state.
  • In the Middle Ages, women of all social classes – the peasantry, the bourgeoisie, and the nobility – were subservient to their husbands. As an institution, marriage confirmed men as the masters of their wives on religious and legal grounds.
  • The ideal Medieval wife was patient, chaste and obedient.
  • The monogamous, nuclear family became the norm over time.
  • Homosexuality was strongly repressed in Medieval culture compared to Greco-Roman Antiquity.
  • Women weren’t voting in democratic elections but then again neither were the vast majority of Medieval men.
  • From the 1150s forward, couples were married at the church door, in front of witnesses, in the presence of a priest. The marriage vows were very similar to those that exist today although wives vowed obedience to their husbands.
  • The Catholic Church downplayed parental consent in favor of the mutual will of the bride and groom. This was a revolutionary change from marriage in Antiquity.
  • From the 700s forward, marriage was a sacrament, and was treated as a permanent, indissoluble union between husband and wife. This was finally made into canon law at the Council of Trent in 1563.
  • In German-speaking countries, husbands had the legal right to dispose of their wife’s property. Germanic men had the right to beat their wives and could punish their wives to enforce their authority short of murder. Battery was sanctioned by custom.
  • The taboo against illegitimate births among the peasantry wasn’t very strong. Mutual affection and sexual attraction played a role in their marriages. It was commonplace for couples to marry after pregnancy.
  • Among the elites, marriage was a means to secure alliances between families. See “Game of Thrones.” Elite women had the least sexual freedom. Elite men had the “freedom of youth” to sleep with women of the lower classes.
  • Among the bourgeoisie, marriage was typically arranged between families.
  • In Germanic countries, women often married under the auspices of a family member during the Early Middle Ages (500-1000). The Catholic Church fought long and hard to stamp out this folk custom and make marriage a public affair, which was announced weeks beforehand and was conducted at church.
  • As in Antiquity, women were “given away” by their fathers to the groom during the wedding, but the key difference was that Medieval marriage was based on mutual consent, whereas marriage in Antiquity required the consent of the fathers of the bride and the groom during the Roman era.
  • In the Middle Ages, chastity was glorified in popular culture. Ascetics were the Medieval ideal and women who abandoned their families to join a convent were praised. Virgins and widows were ranked higher in the social scale than married women. Sex was considered a dirty thing.
  • The clergy was always supposed to be sexually celibate, but some of the clergy lived with concubines, or were married during the Early Middle Ages. In the early 12th century, there was a crackdown on clerical marriage.
  • “Romantic love” began in the courts of southern France in the early 12th century and typically involved a knight pursuing an inaccessible woman such a queen or princess. Remember, elite women had the least sexual freedom in the Middle Ages, so the idea of dashing young men appealed to them.
  • “Romantic love” reversed traditional gender roles by giving women power over men. It was the first time that women were portrayed in a position of superiority. Although this only involved a few elite women at court in the Middle Ages, the ideal of romantic love later trickled down to the lower classes in later centuries.
  • In the Middle Ages, motherhood was seen as the fulfillment of a woman’s life, children were considered a blessing, and marriage as an institution was propped up by a strong religious, emotional, social, and economic foundation.
  • The Catholic Church strongly discouraged infanticide and contraception. Women had on average 7 to 8 children.
  • The average life expectancy for men and women was 30 years. This was due to the high infant mortality rate.
  • During the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500), public schools were founded and wealthy elite women had some access to education. Not all women worked in the home. Some worked in textiles, making beer, or as servants to elite families.
  • Among the peasantry, Medieval women were spending the vast majority of their time in household management on the same tasks they were performing later in the Early Modern Era.
  • Medieval wives needed the permission of their husbands to leave the household.
  • In Italy, parental control over marriage, which was a civil affair in cities like Florence and Venice, lasted longer than it did in Britain and France. In Tuscany, the average woman married at 18, and the average man in in the country married at 26 while the average man in the city married at 30.
  • Generally speaking, peasants married other peasants, bourgeoisie married other bourgeoisie, and nobles married other nobles. The Medieval family played a much greater role in arranging the marriage than they do today, but Medieval marriage was based on mutual consent like its modern counterpart. As in Antiquity, the size a women’s dowry played a key role in attracting a suitor.
  • Marriage was considered too important of an institution (it was basically a religious and economic institution) to be dictated by romantic love.
  • During the Middle Ages, the average age of marriage seems to have increased among women and decreased among men from Antiquity.

4 Comments

  1. I’d rather be a dead woman than a goddamned slave to some man or institution like the church!

  2. The Roman Empire was a far greater civilization even if it had its fault and was taken down by the poison from the middle-east.

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