Medieval marriage, much like medieval society as a whole, was not an institution of equality between both partners.
For the medieval woman, marriage did dramatically increase her prestige compared to an unmarried girl, who had no real occupation or standing in her household and spent most of her time in the company of older female chaperones.
Medieval woman thus looked forward to marriage and the subsequent establishment of a home that was independent of those of their parents.
However, upon finally saying “I will”, the woman was anything but independent herself.
According to Peter Coss, author of The Lady in Medieval England: 1000-1500, a wife could own nothing save the dress on her back, and any money or chattels (including her dowry) she possessed became the property of her husband.
Coss goes on to write that,
On marriage, a woman came “under the husband’s rod”, as the lawyers put it, a phrase meaning “under his authority”, but one with unmistakable physical overtones. (p. 123).
The expression none too subtly refers to a man’s physical dominance over his wife in addition to him being in charge financially.
Women were expected to be obedient to their husbands at all times. As discussed in my previous post, this fact was specifically written into the woman’s marriage vows, and differed from those of the man in that regard.
Frances and Joseph Gies, authors of Women in the Middle Ages, quote Tertullian, an early Christian author who summed up the matter of a woman’s place in marriage as follows.
Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands, as unto the Lord (p.38).
Violence and gender roles
For women who were deemed disobedient, or merely for men who were naturally cruel and abusive, domestic violence was not only legal but often viewed as justifiable.
In Women in the Middle Ages, the Gieses quote a 13th century French law code called the “Custom of Beauvais”:
In a number of cases men may be excused from the injuries they inflict on their wives, nor should the law intervene. Provided he neither kills nor maims her, it is legal for a man to beat his wife when she wrongs him. (p. 46)
Also quoted is a popular medieval Florentine saying: “A good woman and a bad one equally require the stick!” (p. 46)
The rationale for this behaviour is owing to a married woman’s lack of personhood and resulting dependence upon her husband. Because a wife had no legal existence, it was argued, she thus had no responsibilities. This made her husband liable for her misbehaviour, and entitled him to chastise her as necessary.
Medieval men were further goaded into such harsh treatment due to societal expectations, which demanded husbands present a masculine and authoritative persona at all times.
As still occurs today, if to a lesser or less overt extent, characteristics and personality traits were viewed as being either masculine or feminine, with the feminine considered the inferior of the two.
Effeminate behaviour from men was viewed as sinful and disgusting, and a man who followed a virago – the name given to a woman who overly concerned herself with matters of male power (i.e. a pseudo-man) – was generally considered an effeminate man.
Mutual affection and/or respect
All this being said, it doesn’t mean all medieval woman were unhappily married to controlling, abusive men, or even that all marriages were unhappy in general by virtue of having been arranged the material gain rather than for love.
In Life in a Medieval Castle, the Gieses state, “There is evidence that many marriages were happy.” (p. 78). Peter Coss concurs, claiming in The Lady in Medieval England that, “more often, no doubt, affection developed after marriage, and a level of sentimental attachment was not at all uncommon.” (p. 91).
Because betrothal and marriage often occurred when both parties were young (children could be betrothed from age 7 onward and married as early as 12 for girls and 14 for boys, although both sometimes occurred in secret even earlier), spouses often had the opportunity to grow up together from childhood, all the while getting to know each other becoming friends.
Even when this didn’t occur, though, life in the Middle Ages was extremely precarious and arduous, and as such, required a high degree of cooperation among married couples.
Peasant men and women worked together farming their lord’s land and their own to maintain their livelihood. Meanwhile, the nobility devoted themselves to acquiring, retaining, and enlarging their land holdings – evidently no easy task according to the Gieses in Life in a Medieval Castle:
Estate management itself … was extremely demanding. No lord, however fond of fighting, could afford to neglect his estates. (p.39)
Yet at the same time, noblemen had a feudal obligation to fight for and/or serve their lords in person for at least 40 days a year to maintain their status as vassals. Beyond this, men often spent long periods away from home at court or abroad in foreign lands.
The role and responsibilities of medieval women in the household is a key topic I’ll discuss in depth in future posts. For now, Eileen Power, in the book Medieval Women, sums it up as follows:
In observing the medieval lady at home, we must bear in mind that in the Middle Ages, the home embraced a much wider sphere than in many later dates. Not only much more had to be done within the household, but throughout the period, social and physical conditions of life, constant wars, and slow communications inevitability threw a great deal of responsibility on ladies as representatives of their husbands … while the lord was away at court or at war. (p. 42)
Managing lands and households was a partnership between husbands and wives in which both depended upon the other to carry out their necessary roles. Through this state of partnership, respect, fondness, or even affection often developed.
Even the Church acknowledged martial camaraderie. In Medieval Women, Eileen Power discusses the viewpoint of Peter Lombard, a renowned 12th century bishop and theologian:
Peter Lombard proclaimed that God did not make woman from Adam’s head, for she was not intended to be his ruler, nor from his feet, for she was not intended to be his slave, but from his side, for she was intended to be his companion and his friend. (p. 34)
The Church also recognized the softening effect wives could have on their husbands’ sense of charity, morality, and piety, which not only benefited the Church itself, but was also believed to play an important role in men’s salvation. Husbands were thus encouraged think fondly of their pious, kind-hearted wives.
A debt for sex
No discussion of medieval married life would be complete without mention of medieval marital sex – a fascinating topic that will also be the subject of a post all its own.
One key point to consider here, though, is the existence of the ecclesiastical doctrine known as the marital debt. This was the obligation for both partners (not just women, as might be expected) to engage in sexual intercourse whenever the other requested it, upon threat of excommunication for refusing.
How this arrangement would have played out in reality remains a mystery. As mentioned above, a power imbalance existed between husbands and wives. As well, women’s sexuality was strictly controlled and monitored: female adultery was forbidden; women were required to be virgins at marriage; they were expected to bear their husbands sons, and were blamed if unable to do so.
It was also claimed that women were helplessly promiscuous by nature, and thus needed to be cared for in that regard – an insidious and paternalistic assertion responsible for much of the sexual mistreatment and overall lack of sexual agency women experienced throughout the Middle Ages.
That being said, the Church’s influence notwithstanding, the medieval times was a very bawdy, lusty time period. A general lack of privacy among living conditions and shared sleeping quarters prevented people from being secretive about their sex lives. The medieval times were far more sexually open then than the buttoned-up, repressive Victorian era that came later.
As such, it seems well within the realm of possibility that some wives from time to time called in the marital debt, particularly if couples did come to grow fond of each other.
The reason for this doctrine was to ensure spouses kept each other sexually satisfied, to prevent either party from committing some manner of sexual sin – adultery, masturbation, or even lustful thoughts.
In this regard, it was yet another way husbands and wives worked together as partners, and perhaps even had a little fun while doing so.
A/N: Coming next month: How to end a marriage, medieval style.