Misconceptions about Medieval Marriage

This weekend one of my very best friends got married, and he and his beautiful wife did me the great honor of asking me to officiate the ceremony.

Aren’t they adorable!
Me up at the pulpit
Joking around before the ceremony started

With marriage on the brain, I figured what better topic for this week’s post than medieval weddings.

After scouring old notes and reading a lovely dissertation, I discovered there are a lot of myths, or at least misconceptions, surrounding marriage in the Middle Ages.

Myth 1–Women had no choice in who they wed.

wedding-day-memeSo this one isn’t exactly true. Consent mattered. In fact, consent, not consummation, was what made the marriage. So if a woman didn’t want to marry someone, she had the legal right to refuse, regardless of what her father or anyone else wanted. A bride married under “force and fear” had grounds for annulment in court.

The thing is, consent and desire are not the same things. A woman might not have been forced, but there was definitely some pretty heavy, 80’s-style after school special kind of pressure going on.

Most marriages were arranged, sometimes before the person in question was even born. I imagine it went something like this:

Wife: Darling, I have great news. I’m pregnant.

Husband: That’s wonderful! [grabs quill and parchment] Better let the clan know, so we can find this fetus a wife.

GossipOkay, maybe it didn’t happen quite like that, but telling friends and family was the first step. Finding a suitable spouse was very much a community endeavor. Family members would tell friends who would tell their own family and friends, and it would spider across the community until someone deemed suitable was found. After that, contracts were drawn up, and when the intended were of suitable age, they would marry.

Like I said earlier, consent did matter. If the bride met her intended husband, and he turned out to have bad breath and a nose picking habit, she could refuse. But that didn’t happen often. Not only would her parents, who presumably had her best interests in mind, be angry, but so would that giant network of friends and family who spent time and effort finding her a suitable mate. Better to marry the nose-picker than become a social outcast.

Myth 2–Kissing Cousins

married cousin memeNo. It wasn’t okay to marry your cousin in the Middle Ages. In fact, there were more stipulations about who you could or could not marry back then than there are now.

There were laws against incest (consanguinity)–You couldn’t marry anyone out to the 5th degree of relation.

Laws of Affinity–You can’t marry anyone related through marriage.  So you couldn’t marry the sister of your cousin’s wife, for example, even though she isn’t related by blood. But there were less obvious (to a modern mindset) applications to this law. For instance, there was an example listed in Heather Parker’s dissertation, In All Gudly Haste, where one couple couldn’t wed because the groom had once had sex with a serving girl who happened to be a third cousin of the bride.

Spiritual Affinity–You can’t marry anyone within one degree of a Godparent. So you couldn’t marry the son of your Godmother. Also, if your Godparent had another Godchild who wasn’t related to you in any other way, he or she was still out of bounds.

As you can imagine, all of these restrictions made it pretty hard to find an appropriate spouse. Fortunately, there were ways around it:

  1. You can apply to the Pope for a dispensation. You had to give him a reason, which was often a load of B.S. You might claim you didn’t know he was your 3rd cousin before you wed (3rd was as close at the church would ever allow). Or you might claim that your marriage will prevent very, very bad things from happening–wars and feuds will break out unless you marry. As long as you knew what to say, and had the money to pay (it was very expensive 3-12 Florians), the church almost always gave you your dispensation.
  2. You can just get married outside of the church (Clandestine Marriage). In the Middle Ages you didn’t actually need to be married by a priest. The act of agreeing you were married was enough to be legally (though sinfully) married. Living together and acting married was also enough (Cohabitation with habit and repute).

Myth 3–Handfasting

handfastingMany people believe that this was a sort of trial marriage that took place in medieval Scotland. The couple would live together for a year and a day as man and wife, after which they could decide to stay together or end the trial marriage without penalty.

As appealing as a trial marriage might sound, this myth is false. It actually stems from a type of formal engagement–per verba de futuro. This was a promise to marry in the future. This was a more serious affair than modern engagements, and there could be legal ramifications to breaking off the engagement. However, this wasn’t by any means a trial marriage. If the engaged couple consummated the marriage, or even lived together, they would be considered legally married. At that point, if they didn’t want to be together, they had to find grounds for annulment.

Myth 4–People Married at a Young Age

Child_BrideHonestly, this is one myth I didn’t even think to question. It made sense to me that people in the Middle Ages would marry young. After all, life spans weren’t all that long. So I was surprised to find that it wasn’t necessarily the case.

People could marry early–girls at 12 years and boys at 14. But that didn’t mean it was usual to do so. For nobility, the average age for a 1st marriage was 22 for men and 18 for women. My grandparents were younger than that when they married, so I found that really surprising. But the numbers when you look at all people, regardless of class, are even more shocking. The median age for women was 26 for their 1st marriage, with a quarter of all women never marrying at all.


Myth 5–Illegitimate Children

Jon_Snow-Kit_HaringtonThis last one isn’t exactly a myth, rather it’s just something I found surprising. In Scotland, the illegitimate children of the nobility were acknowledged and treated very well. And nobles had no problem marrying their legitimate children off to illegitimate children. King Robert II married his daughter to the illegitimate son of the lord of Galloway.

Though typically illegitimate children couldn’t inherit titles (except in some of the northern isles), the king often made it up to them by bestowing titles and land on their offspring. When I read this my nerdy mind immediately went to Game of Thrones. I know Westeros isn’t the same as medieval Europe, but still, wouldn’t Daenerys and Jon Snow make a great couple…unless the whole R + L=J theory is true. If you’re not familiar with this fan theory, look it up. But I digress…

I’d like to end this post by congratulating my friends Dave and Caroline on their marriage. They had a beautiful ceremony (even if I almost broke into tears 3 times as I officiated), and I know they will have a wonderful life together. I love you both!




photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/8441189@N04/3943242725″>Handfasting of Tammy & Sloan 100_8748</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>


26 thoughts on “Misconceptions about Medieval Marriage

  1. wow, had no idea you could do weddings! on the cousin note, we live in a somewhat rural isolated community meaning pretty much anybody, at least whose family’s been here any length of time, is related, so much so an outsider tried to do a computer program connecting everybody just to see and it crashed, but for the point, youngest son has decided he likes this girl up the road, now I was thinking her parents had moved in her; well her dad did, really I was thinking her grandparents, but again only her grandfather did, but both her mother and grandmother are one of the long-time families, so he asked his “adopted” grandmother, who’s done the genealogy around her to look up and see just how related they might be – but think it actually doesn’t connect till like 8 generations back – whew – so think they’re good to go but just thought it was interesting that he felt the need to check it out before he went any further with it 🙂

    1. This was actually the 1st time I’ve done a wedding. I got ordained specifically for this wedding. That is interesting about your town! I suspect that’s probably the case in many small towns across the US.

  2. I know this isn’t exactly the Middle Ages, but what about King Charles II of Spain? I think pretty much everyone was related to each other in multiple ways, did they all receive the Pope’s approval?

    Another question: did the rituals of marriage differ between social classes? I’d imagine a farmer’s daughter had more of a choice of whom she wed than a princess, as relationships between farmers wouldn’t have had much political impact. Or am I wrong here?

    Interesting post!

    1. Great questions! I won’t claim to be an expert on Charles II. But I jumped on wikipedia and had to laugh. One of the 1st sentences is that his line was known for extreme consanguinity. As a Catholic, he would have needed a dispensation, but these were par for the course for nobility. Most contracts had clauses in them about who would apply for it, and many weddings happened before the dispensation was received. Especially when it comes to a king, it would have been easy to justify need for the dispensation–i.e. we need this marriage for the stability of the land. Also, as he was involved in the Inquisition, he was probably in good favor with the church.

      A farmer’s daughter probably did have more choice in who she wed. However, kinship ties were an important factor in arranging a marriage. So her parents might have arranged a marriage for her based on finding a very distant relation for the good of the clan (I refer here specifically to Scotland). Some clans had “cadet branches” and would maintain and strengthen contact through marriage. But I suspect you’re right that they the lower classes probably did have more freedom overall. Also, they were the ones who were most likely to have a clandestine marriage, because they couldn’t afford the steep price of dispensations should they be necessary.

  3. That was really interesting. I was surprised about the age of of people marrying. I always thought it was younger, too. I enjoyed that very much! Also, your friends wedding looked lovely; congratulations to them! Aren’t you a surprise, too. Officiating and all! What a nice privilege!

  4. This is such an interesting post!

    I don’t know about UK but here in India young marriages were quite a norm just 50 years ago.Many laws have been made to prohibit them.

    I enjoyed reading this post and as I wanted to share it on the social media they take me to your pages instead of allowing me to share on my pages–technical glitch I guess.

    I wish you all the best!

    Love and light <3

    Anand 🙂

    1. Thank you so much Anand! I think that young marriage was pretty common in many places. I think my grandmother was 14 or 15 when she married my grandfather. If you want to share, there is a button below the social media icons at the bottom of the post that says “share”. When you click it, it will give you a few choices–twitter, Facebook, and i forgot the 3rd. That should allow you to share it on your own social media site. Thanks again!

  5. Looking for some inspiration bedtime read before I end my day and I’m glad I stumbled upon this treasure! Thank you for such a well written piece.

    Just want to tell you I enjoyed it very much.

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