On the Say of Seven Honest Women (Medieval Mondays #5d)

Duty calls

Marriage is tough; this is the case no matter what period in history one considers.

Medieval marriages, though, as discussed in my three previous posts on this topic, were all the more difficult for the numerous challenges that arose at every stage of their formation.

Yet another difficulty of medieval marriage was hard it was to go about ending one.  This was neither easily nor readily done given that, according to Eileen Power, author of Women in the Middle Ages, “Divorce in the modern sense did not exist in the Middle Ages.” (p. 33).

Medieval marriage was a matter of the Church; as such, so too did any motions to end a marriage fall under Church jurisdiction – a prerogative it maintained for centuries.

(So much so that even some 300 years later, the most famous divorcee in history – King Henry VIII – had to instigate a break with the Church and form an entirely new religious denomination to obtain the divorce he so desperately desired.)

One’s day in (church) court

In the 13th century, the height of the Middle Ages, divorce didn’t even have a single meaning.  Rather, according to Peter Coss, author of The Lady in Medieval England: 1000-1500, the word divorcium meant two different thing:

  • Judicial separation, or divorce from bed and board (divorcium a mensa et thoro), and
  • Annulment proper, or divorce from the chains of marriage (divorcium a vinculo).

The difference between the two, as explained by Eileen Power, is that, “a couple might separate not to remarry [judicial separation], or might have their marriage declared invalid [annulment], in which they could marry again.” (p. 33)

Annulments, however, were expensive and required the case to be pleaded before church courts.  At the same time, clerics strongly objected to mutual pacts of separation between spouses that excluded the Church from the proceedings.

In most cases, the Church preferred to keep marriages together.  It held (as mentioned in a previous post) only two official reasons for marriage.  In the same vein, so too would it only grant annulments under a handful of conditions.

Coss, in The Lady in Medieval England, discusses six of them:

1. The existence of a prior contract

In the medieval times, the contracting of marriages was serious business which, once entered, was not easily abandoned.  This was especially the case if the couple was already betrothed (i.e. engaged), for betrothal was celebrated in a ceremony quite similar to a wedding, and was considers almost as binding.

The very words a person spoke in the acceptance of a marriage contract – “I will take you as my wife” (implying at some unspecified time in the future) vs. “I will have you as my wife” (implying from the present moment forward) made a significant difference in what constituted a valid marriage.

Leading canon scholars believed consent was the only true requirement for a marriage to have occurred – even in the absence of banns, a ceremony, and even consummation (although such “clandestine marriages”, as they were termed, were frowned upon).

As such, it was entirely possible that a prior marriage could take place in advance of the current one, thereby rendering the current one invalid.

2. Consanguinity and affinity

Although not from the medieval times, the marriages of King Henry VIII is germane to the topic of medieval divorce.

Although not from the medieval times, the marriages of King Henry VIII are germane to the topic of medieval divorce.

By far, this was the most common defence people offered as the grounds for annulment.

Consanguinity is the term used to express the medieval concept of incest, which in the early 13th century, prohibited marriages between persons related within seven degrees (in 1215, the forbidden degree was reduced to four).

But that wasn’t all: spiritual kin (e.g. godparents) and relatives by marriage (e.g. in-laws) were also deemed incestuous and thus off limits.  Affinity, meanwhile, referred to the blood relative of someone with whom a person had had sexual intercourse (e.g. the sister or cousin of a mistress).

Given the relatively small, regional populations of both the noble and peasant classes, one didn’t have to search that hard to find a consanguineous or affinal connection between two people.  According to Eileen Power,

Since consanguinity included distant blood relationships, relationships by marriage, and even godparents, it supplied a convenient excuse for annulment.  A marriage within a forbidden degree was often contracted and allowed to continue until one or the other of the parties wanted to end it, whether for lack of male heirs, for political or economic advantage, or simply because other fields looked greener. (p. 33)

In the absence of a genuine consanguineous relation, a falsified one would do.  According to Frances and Joseph Gies, authors of Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages,

The tracing, or creation, of genealogies, in which both witnesses and documents might be bought and paid for, supplied employment for an army of lawyers and copyists. (p. 140).

Far from powerless against claims of consanguinity and affinity, however, the Church frequently ordered spouses back together.

Where necessary, it even turned to the Pope.  According to Marty Williams and Anne Echols, authors of Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages, the Pontiff, as Christ’s vicar, could grant dispensations for consanguineous and affinal marriages.

3. Impotence

As previously mentioned, the Church’s allowed only two official reasons to marry, one of which was procreation (avoidance of fornication was the other).

A married couple that was unable to even attempt to bear children was therefore in contravention of the very purpose of being married.

That being said, the Church didn’t just take the couple’s word for it.  Instead, it sought the proof of a group of “seven honest women”, who subjected the man in question to some rather thorough testing.  The Gieses write,

In one recorded inspection at York, one honest woman “exposed her naked breasts, and with her hands warmed at the fire, she held and rubbed the penis and testicles of the said John.  And she embraced and frequently kissed the same John, and stirred him up in so far as she could to show his virility and potency, admonishing him that for shame he should then and there prove himself a man.  And she says … that the whole time … the said penis was scarcely three inches long … remaining without any increase or decrease.” (pp. 245-6).

4. Force and fear

What some medieval ladies perhaps wished they could do to escape marriage

What some medieval ladies perhaps wished they could do to escape marriage

The use of this defence has to involve genuine duress – either the threat of imminent physical harm or a loss of one’s inheritance.  However, if the couple later enjoyed normal relations, the divorce would be denied.

5. The impediment of crime

This defence covered a very specific set of circumstances where not only was adultery knowingly taking place, but one of the adulterers was either plotting the death of his/her lover’s spouse or otherwise promising to marry his/her lover while that person’s spouse still lived.

6. Underage marriage

The canonical ages for marriage in the Middle Ages were 12 for girls and 14 for boys, the accepted ages of puberty (although betrothal could occur as young as age 7).

Any marriage that occurred before these ages were thus invalid, although upon reaching puberty, the child was given the opportunity to have the marriage ratified.


To this list of conditions for annulment, Marty Williams and Anne Echols also add bigamy (which relates to the existence of a prior marriage contract) and leprosy.

The Gieses as well indicate that nonconsummation after a reasonable amount of time was often accepted (this relates to the impotence defence).  Again, though, the Church would call upon the seven honest women to verify the wife’s virginity.

When it came to judicial separation, the three major reasons the Church allowed were adultery, heresy, or cruelty.  According to Coss, it was for cruelty that almost all known separation cases in England were brought forth.

When such cases were brought forth at all, that is.  Since the Church played no role in legislating material support and maintenance for parties, unless a woman had an alternate means of supporting herself (e.g. her family), she’d likely have no choice but to endure within the marriage.

Which is perhaps why – at least in part – cases suing for the enforcement of marriage far outnumbered those for divorcium in medieval England.

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Image source #1, #2 – J.G. Noelle, and #3)

4 thoughts on “On the Say of Seven Honest Women (Medieval Mondays #5d)

  1. ‘The Church’ gets blamed for a lot of this – but in many cases, the point was to keep property, inheritance, children – all the things a society needs, stable. It provided protection for women and children as well – and kept both spouses at least trying to make things work.

    The alternative was complete chaos, and that was not desirable. Individuals may have been harmed as well, since wife-beating wasn’t proscribed (just the size of the stick the husband might use to beat her – as thick as his thumb – from which the ‘rule of thumb’ came) but cruelty was a reason for separation.

    I don’t know about you, but if my husband beat me, he wouldn’t have a wife.

    Legitimate heirs were important for passing property on in an orderly way.

    I don’t get how they could have seven women allowed to see if a man was truly impotent – seems to violate all requirements of THEIR modesty and chastity. That was a new one for me!


    • The Church was carrying out the important work of caring for souls, of which marriage was an important component. No blame in that.

      What you say about the importance of marriage for the legitimacy of children and inheritance of property is very true. That said, I’m not sure how much the clerics concerned themselves with such secular affairs save in instances of the king or other magnates. For as much as it’s true that a child would become delegitimized and disinherited if his/her parents got an annulment, if the man remarried and sired a new heir, his property would just pass on this son instead. Not a fun situation for the original heir, to be sure. But life was not fun for most males who weren’t the firstborn, for they inherited nothing and thus had to make their own way as best they could. And if the man managed to produce no heirs in his subsequent marriage (or even his first marriage), there was a good chance his property would be donated to the Church.

      I didn’t know that’s where the “rule of thumb” came from. Now that I know that, I’m going to stop using that expression in my day-to-day life. I definitely wouldn’t stick around with an abusive husband, but so many medieval women probably had no choice, lacking any other means of supporting themselves.

      That fact about the seven honest women is one of the most fabulous bits of info I’ve turned up in my research to date. I was totally like “Say what?” when I read it. I wouldn’t have thought such a thing would be allowed either, but then, the medieval times was more sexually open than most people realize (I’ll blog about that in the future, but a general lack of privacy amongst living quarters will do that to a society). I like to believe that some woman had a little fun with the role. Maybe it afforded them a some social cache to be one of the Church’s official impotence testers!


    • That is NOT the origin of the phrase “rule of thumb”; it comes from carpentry or some similar trade. Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say on the subject:
      > “Etymology: < rule n.1 + of prep. + thumb n., probably so called on account of the thumb being used as a reference for approximate measurements of various kinds. Compare thumb n. 4.
      A suggestion that the phrase refers to an alleged rule allowing a husband to beat his wife with a stick the thickness of his thumb cannot be substantiated (compare the discussion by H. D. Kelly in Jrnl. for Legal Educ. 44 (1994) 341–65); it also poses semantic problems. The suggestion appears to be of late 20th-cent. origin."
      As for the seven women, there is some evidence (as Janna has pointed out) that they may have been prostitutes, who would not have cared about modesty, and who would have been well-qualified at "encouraging" men to rise up.


      • Yes, I’ve since learned that this idea of the “rule of thumb” referring to the thickness of a stick for wife-beating is apocryphal. And yes, the seven women would have been prostitutes. I wrote a follow-up post about that. I should link it to this one.


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