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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and The Beautiful of Medieval Courtship

Buxom California blondes in layers of gaudy fabric dragged off by angry bearded men with fake British accents, slender brunette rebels sold by dictatorial fathers to greasy rich barons, and square-jawed Gillette-shaven youths stepping in against all that evil religious authority to help the ladies find true love: our Hollywood-driven view of medieval courtship, full of arranged marriages and misogyny, sometimes tells half-truths and even blatant lies. In any case, a clear illustration of what medieval courtship and wedding practices were does much more for cleaning up misconceptions than a thousand arguments regarding what wedding practices were not. Medieval courtship and wedding practices in early England provided an emphasis on a communally-regulated, spiritual companionship given expression in the spoken and written word, in material gifts, and in anticipation of sex. Sex and sexual control could motivate marriage, as a means of escaping sexual pressure or punishment for sexual sin, but other times it played the demonstrative role as a secondary actor proceeding from love in marriage. Words often vacillated in importance between pointless legalism and the sincere, concerned emphasis on affection or mutual consent that our modern ideal reflects. Material gifts could cause marriages for financial gain or express commitment and excitement emanating from love. Indeed, in medieval England all three factors could either play secondary roles as demonstrative of love, or could become the primary motivators for a marriage.

Perhaps one of the aspects of medieval premarital relationships most foreign to modern Westerners and at the same time most important to the early English has become the heavy involvement of the community in every relationship. Moderns, who tend to see premarital relationships as primarily affecting the two partners, often portray this communalism as mainly either financially motivated finagling or nosy societal control, and understandably so. For the lower class from the 1200s to the 1400s, marriage outside the home manor often required a license,[1] and, as one typical 1342 Wellington case illustrates, a woman could receive a fine for marrying outside her manor,[2] presumably so the manor lord could maintain control over the working population and flow of goods. No moral or health claims, but only the financially-driven ownership of one man over other people prevented free relationships. Reputation and behavior, something generally considered today a social and not a governmental or ecclesiastical concern, often spurred court investigations of women living or serving within homes, as in the 1519 case of the rector in Waddingham. The rector had come under suspicion because of the age of the two girls in his house, and it became the responsibility of the court to confirm their good reputation.[3] Medieval clerks would put in legal records what today limits itself to gossip chains: a 1530 record complains that “the widow lodges suspect persons in her house,” and “the wife of Elyott lives in a manner that arouses suspicion.”[4] The record cannot show that the women have actually broke ecclesiastical, local, or moral law, but even suspicion puts their names in the book.

Highly communal relationship regulation, however, had several oft-overlooked advantages, especially in a day where a mutually consensual marriage often occurred as early as puberty. These teenagers actually had enormous say in who they married and, if betrothed before puberty, could legally by both church and state law become divorced after they reached it.[5] If people made such drastic life choices during these life-cycle periods of extreme physiological and psychological change, one can imagine how quickly an entry into what then meant a theoretically permanent matrimony could end in abusive disaster. Individuals generally accepted community regulation as a theoretical means to curb this abuse. Having this courtship relationship had additional benefits for women in an era of constant violence and male domination. If even gentry found themselves abducted and raped,[6] one can only imagine how life transpired for the unprotected poor. Their only safety lay in community, for if everyone always knew the actions and intentions of both partners and all things happened in the open, a man had more difficulty taking advantage of a girl.

Community regulation also mandated emotional rights. In one 1530 case a woman who had married and borne two children by a man could legitimately bring to the bishop a complaint that involved not only her husband’s lack of recognition of the marriage but also “marital affection.”[7] Community regulation, whether in obedience to the church or to the family, in part enforced the acknowledgement of both partners’ emotional needs both before and during a marriage. Perhaps for this reason one didactic poem reflective of the era in England, “How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter,” warns a girl never to hide her courtship.[8] Instead, it seems, she should take pride in the public relationship protected and supported by the people around her, knowing that they would support her rights should something go awry. Even medieval dancing had a communal symbolism: in perhaps the most popular dances, carols, all the dancers would hold hands in a circle, alternating couples and singing stories with hands clasped.[9] Beside every couple danced someone else, to keep group camaraderie to the time of the music.

Another factor of medieval relationships that often makes moderns uncomfortable lies in their extreme spirituality. People did not merely organize love for God into a hierarchical, separate responsibility above love for their partner: they saw loving God as an intrinsic part, if not the whole, of loving their partner. The “How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter” poem does not separate the two, and declares that if a girl wished to become a wife she should love God.[10] Without loving God, she would not have sufficient understanding of love, or perhaps by loving God she could become the source of blessing and prosperity for her beloved. Whatever the specific mentality, even in a private Valentine the most tender closing an upperclass girl could think to send to the man she wanted to marry revolved around a blessing from God.[11] Perhaps, one could argue, this greeting and advice only reflect a desire to pacify the church, or a respect for tradition, rather than a desire to bring God into the relationship. Perhaps—indeed, even the tradition of “best man” comes from legalistic church services, for when an early medieval tribe would abduct a woman the groom’s best friend would stand by him at the altar with sword ready to fight off her family in case they came charging armed down the aisle before the priest finished.[12] Putting God into the relationship with a Christian marriage ceremony in this case merely functioned as a legitimizing power ploy that could completely ignored crime.

However, for all their legalistic insincerity, the medievals also brought forth other sacred rituals that had bore no legal requirement and indeed no significance other than to represent the love of God. These treasured symbols must have meant something to the practitioners, for they still exist today, although with less spiritual significance. The modern wedding reception comes from the early Christian agape love feast, named, not for love between a man and woman, but for the love from God to man that romantic love foreshadowed.[13] Flowers, especially roses, originally held great religious symbolism for medievals,[14] but medieval art could depict them encircling couples,[15] perhaps indicative again of the love of God surrounding the love of man and woman. The golden ring, placed on the ring finger because someone miscopied Greek theories about the love blood-vessel flowing directly from the heart to the middle finger, still contains religious connotations to many Westerners. In pre-Protestant England, as in much of Europe, the placement of the ring became analogous to baptism as marriage evolved into matrimony, the Catholic sacrament, and the man would place the ring successively on each finger of his bride in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit before resting it on her ring finger.[16] To love a partner was to love God.

An understanding of the emphasis on the spiritual relationship between men and women helps to clarify certain aspects of medieval thinking, especially with regards to the restrictions on sex. Some medieval towns tolerated prostitution with the excuse that an outlet for sexual activity could keep men from corrupting respectable women, including their wives.[17] If one sets aside the obvious gross prejudice against the desperate women involved in English prostitution that labeled them “fit” for corruption, one finds here an astonishing idea. On the one hand, this reasoning aptly illustrates the extreme fear of sex within marriage that plagued medieval society and especially the church, completely ignoring early Biblical sex poetry such as Song of Solomon (perhaps another reason the church kept the Bible out of the hands of the populace). On the other hand, the attempt to protect women from “sexual corruption” by their husbands illustrates an understanding of the problem of marital rape completely ignored later on in the Victorian era and beyond. It also makes sense when one begins to understand the medieval view of marriage as a spiritual and intellectual companionship. The relationship between the husband and wife needed a root of carefully built compatibility beyond simply the physical in order to maximize pleasure for the partners, productivity for society, and love towards God, and the medievals feared that a completely sexualized relationship would take away from the companionship. Here, developing alongside that well-known medieval literary vision of instant love on sight, one finds a profoundly “modern” understanding of the difficulties in maintaining a long-lasting, healthy relationship.

In this spiritual companionship view of courtship and marriage, sex takes the role of product, or expression, if you will, of a healthy marriage. In many real life instances, however, the roles became reversed and sex became the motivator for a marriage in a sex-first-marry-later world. In reaction to this, marriage developed as merely a means to control sexual activity. The repulsion of sex would have popularized itself especially amongst the literate, who could read the ABCs of Aristotle in which “thou shalt not be too Amorous” took primary position.[18] Control often bridged into the well-known extreme, for example when certain bishops listed days of the year couples could make love,[19] but the problem of promiscuity actually contained much more complexity than simple tyranny. For example, in one typical instance the church court forced a man to marry his servant because he had had sex with her.[20] On the one hand, this marriage would protect her financial interests should she find herself with child by her master and without provision for it. One can imagine, however, that a forced marriage would not induce the master to treat his servant well, and probably increased the risk of domestic abuse. Again, in another instance, a master handled the problem of a promiscuous servant man by forcing him to marry one of the maids he had bedded.[21] In this case the woman seems to claim that the man had bedded her promising marriage, and the master, no doubt concerned about how to look after a household full of pregnant servant girls, takes the opportunity to force the man to consent to her request for marriage. Again, while this protects the financial and social interests of the woman on the other hand, physically one can imagine it puts her in greater danger, for while wife-abuse had a penalty of a whipping attached to it, many women would not tell the church if their husband had beaten them.[22]

Society had other methods of controlling sexual activity besides forced marriages, often to reduce crime. Children had few rights in a world where, while wife-abuse bore a penalty, the goodwife poem counseled a woman to beat disobedient children “until they cry for mercy.”[23] With this view of children, if having babies became inconvenient, mothers and fathers often killed the unwanted by exposing them to the elements.[24] The fear of infanticide alone renders suddenly more understandable the harsh penalties for fornication, such as whipping.[25] The fear of the harsh punishment would so decrease the instance of crime that it lessened the necessity of punitive action overall, at least in the mindset of the time, protecting women from coercion and children from death. Interestingly enough, a comparison of several cases handled in manor court[26] against several cases handled in church court[27] illustrates a more egalitarian approach to punishment doled out by the church. In many of the manor-controlled cases, sometimes the woman received punishment and sometimes the man, but almost never both, even though obviously one needed both for the sexual act. In almost all the church cases both parties received punishment, with the woman often receiving less for physical reasons, or none if she had become pregnant. Other strategies such as black-booking also served as protection. One wealthy man had garnered a reputation for impregnating women without marrying them, and the court forbade any females to serve in his home, essentially knocking him down a social level by removing his privileged lifestyle.[28] Presumably, he had too much power to receive a whipping.

Despite the complex problems of sex in England as a motivator for marriage, the church did see it in a relationship as an affirmation of love. In fact, a legal marriage required two things: consent and consummation. The case of Margery and Thomas the saddler is just one long example of the many cases in the “Women in England” pages of primary documents that illustrates this: witness after witness has to answer, not only to the verbal agreement and to whether or not one coerced the other, but also as to whether or not they know if the couple has had intercourse.[29] Intercourse confirmed the marriage. Therefore, despite all the complications with the church, sex generally indicated to medieval Englanders that both parties loved each other or at least had satisfied themselves with the match.

Consensual sex did not imply consent to marry, however, and the church knew this. Both parties had to give a verbal recognition of the desire to wed,[30] again rendering community involvement essential via the presence of reputable witnesses. A marriage in 1432 done in the home, supposedly consummated but only affirmed by two friends of the supposed bride, came under question because of the poor reputation of the two witnesses upon investigation.[31] In an age when financial security often had much to do with winning a husband, the two friends seem to have contrived to force a marriage for their friend. In another situation, a man agreed to wed a woman on his death bed because he thought, about to die, that he could redeem himself from the transgressions he had committed with her. Once he recovered, however, and she tried to claim the financial benefits, he complained he had only agreed because of illness and, because no public ceremony had ensued, the marriage did not come to pass.[32] One can imagine that the mistress would have felt taken advantage of in this situation just as the man might have felt attacked in the first. Men thus feared becoming financial chips just as women did, and the public ceremony became important to prevent coercion and enforce legal rights of both genders. The public ceremony, the nuptial mass, and the celebration all became extended legacies of this elaborate and often legalistic consent system.[33]

Contrary to popular modern belief, if both parties did not verbally consent, as a rule the church would not legitimize the wedding; if they did, it would. Children had the option of deferring to their parents, whether for fear or for finances: in one case, the woman did not agree to the marriage because she wanted her father's good favor first, and he would only approve if the man agreed to certain financial arrangements. The man would not, she would not agree, and the mass did not proceed.[34] The church would legitimize marriages against parental will, however. Richard and Margery, an upperclass couple, contrived to marry against Margery's family, and though the bishop counseled Margery strongly to consider the fierce desires of her friends and family, warning her that she would have none if she married Richard, he legitimized the couple anyway.[35]

Although the church upheld the ideal of mutual consent, family and society often did not. In Margery's case, her mother threw her out of the house, and for unknown reasons for a time Margery and Richard had to remain apart. Richard wrote to Margery,

“My own lady and mistress, and in the eyes of God very true wife, I with a very sad heart recommend myself to you as one who cannot and will not be happy until it be otherwise with us than it is at the moment; for the life that we now lead gives no pleasure to God or the world, considering the great bond of matrimony uniting us.”[36]

Richard's note demonstrates that spirituality and emphasis on community (“no pleasure to God or the world”) and companionship considered essential for a medieval courtship and marriage. In some ways this ideal perhaps found easier achievement among the lower classes, where the church operated by the law of consent. Among the upper classes, marriages had political implications, and the king could give people in marriage.[37] In fact, often a marriage could not happen until someone had consulted the king.[38]

Richard's note would have appealed to the inherent attractiveness of mutual affection to the medieval English mind and its emphasis on the spoken word. The average medieval Englishman or woman could not read, and the fictional ideas that most strongly influenced their thinking would have come from the spoken tales of the minstrels. Available to every class through public performance, these acrobatic dancers (who included women[39]) carried forward romance traditions that still affect us today.[40] The idea that a person has a predetermined mate finds expression as far back as 1380 through the written works such as the Parlement of Fowles, in which the birds on Valentine's Day seek out Goddess Nature to give them wives.[41] However spoken word would have had a much greater effect on the generally illiterate medievals than literature did, and popular culture of the day emphasized courtship as a process of winning affection and garnering consent. Mumming, a popular form of public drama spun off of relatively the same consistent plot, depicted a long wooing ceremony in which the struggle for affection usually included a heavy motif of death and resurrection.[42] Written literature also associated romance with war or death,[43] presumably because as winning consent had replaced tribal kidnappings, medievals found that the myriad social factors affecting consent including logical calculation, fear of financial insecurity or commitment, opinion of family and friends, and not least of all affection turned courtship itself into a veritable battlefield. In some ways, simply taking or buying what you wanted had presented a much easier alternative, and love required the bravery of death to self. Symbolically, wedding celebrations of the wealthy could include tournaments of martial skill.[44] Public ceremonies, then, did not only play a legal role: they symbolically celebrated the triumphs of the consent system amidst a world of complexity.

Admittedly, finances did often interfere with the mechanics of consent. With huge manors at stake, parents also sometimes assumed that children had consented without ever asking them, whether because they operated in the child's best interest, or because they wanted to pull for their own pockets. Impressionable preteen or teenage minds found themselves thrown this way and that as people fought over money allotted to these children. One parentless girl had a brother-in-law, the earl of Buckingham, eyeing her potential estate, and he hired a tutor to educate this younger sister, “blaming the married state” to push her towards the nunnery and keep the property in the hands of the older sister, his wife. His brother, the duke of Lancaster, wanted her married, so he sent her aunt to convince the daughter to marry his son while the earl of Buckingham visited France. She consented and marriage occurred before the earl returned from France. The record speculates about the girl's wishes, indicating that at first she had seemed partial to singleness, but also suggests that the duke of Lancaster acted out of concern for her welfare.[45] Either way, the entire marriage had financial motivations. Single mothers could often be just as militant as guardians of orphans when it came to finding a match for their children. One man, Hugh, practically buys a daughter from her mother, the countess, and the entire affair reads like a business transaction.[46] One woman writes to her “most worshipful husband” that when a powerful man complemented her daughter's looks, she asked if he knew of any good marriages. She writes, “He knew of one, that would amount to 300 marks a year and could be obtained for less money now than later on.”[47] Apparently, wealthy parents could arrange marriages via hearsay, without even having met the person they chose for their child.

While in the case of Thomas the saddler discussed earlier one witness did speculate that the mother might have tried to force the relationship because of his financial stability,[48] in general the problems of financial finagling would have most strongly affected just that small portion of the population at the top where finances had as much to do with societal politics as survival. Most people had more freedom to operate via consent. In fact, the advice for men that parallels “How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter” suggests that a man should not marry for money, but rather find a woman of good character whom he can “cherish”.[49] However, the advice seems also to indicate that he should find a woman with good management skills, for while he only has to govern her, making her “at ease” “with an even hand,” the woman's advice targets her reign over any and all servants, children, and goods in the house.[50]

Political and social aspirations aside, financial considerations in a courtship included two things: firstly, to prove commitment to the relationship, the partners had to show they could contribute, and secondly, as an expression of their excitement towards one another, they would bring gifts. For the first financial consideration, security, the groom or his parents could pay the parents of the bride for some time beforehand for her “maintenance” to add weight to the promise of marriage.[51] Parents often tried to manufacture the financial environment for their children to enable them more freely to select their own futures. One will regarding two wealthy unwed daughters reads, “They should be married before 15 if they want to be married, or, if one or the other or both desires/desire to become a nun/nuns, by their own free will without compulsion, I wish that she/they should have aid from the aforesaid lands after they are sold.”[52] This parent provides for whatever possibilities the children might choose by carefully laying out what happens to the land. Someone who could not write might simply verbally entrust his or her child with something of value, perhaps livestock. Wedding displays held importance for everyone,[53] presumably illustrating status and/or the financial ability of the man to fulfill the commitment to provide for his wife. Status symbolism would have mattered more to the wealthy, since the woman would probably already have access to enough to provide for herself, and ability to provide probably mattered more to the peasants.

For the second material consideration, gifts, a wealthy couple might give jewels, which also doubled as financial security,[54] or metal jewelry such as a brooch with a love inscription on the back.[55] One rich woman, Phillipa, brought into her marriage several beds, including a unique 'bridal bed', a wedding dress, and five other gowns, one of gold cloth, among other lavish gifts.[56] Peasant couples would share things of beauty made of leather, glasswork or bone carvings[57] to express delight at the prospects of planning a life together. A poorer couple would treasure precious ceramics, often made to look like faces or people, or special roofing[58] provided by one partner or the partner's parents as assurance of fealty.

In the modern era of comforts, one may find it difficult to understand how basic a role material goods played in demonstrating love. Other medievals people besides the English took it for granted that love would pour itself out in materials; one Italian visitor in 1497 criticized the English for “lavishing all their love on their wives” and by extension neglecting their children. He called the “severe” inheritance law by which women automatically owned the property of their husbands “impious and profane.”[59] His comment not only fleshes out the status marriage afforded women in England, but also demonstrates quite clearly how men could demonstrate love by providing economically for their wives. In a courtship, a man would illustrate his love by proving his financial fitness.

The acceptance of communal safeguards and the concern for financial support meant that not only did a couple have affection for each other, but that they had the willingness to prove that the beloved could bank on the lover's loyalty. Perhaps, then, couples saw love as war not only in the traditional sense that they had to fight society for each other, but perhaps because they felt they had to fight the complexities and uncertainties within themselves to get to each other. Sex, material goods, words—all these would fight for a place in the courtship, and lovers had to decide whether they would take primary place as motivators, or whether love would use them as expressions throughout the relationship. The struggle to balance intellectual consent and sexual attraction can easily speak to modern couples looking for permanence, in some ways experiencing the same tensions. Hopefully a better appreciation of these tensions promotes an understanding of medieval culture that contains more clarity if not less harsh judgments. Perhaps, through this discussion of medieval England, modern readers can see modern ideas that took root in the medieval era. Perhaps, for all the things in medieval culture modern readers feel should stay in medieval times, they can find some things in the spiritualistic, communal experience to benefit us all today.

[1] P.J.P. Goldberg, Ed. “Women in England c . 1275-1525” (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press, 1995), 127

[2] Ibid., 129

[3] Ibid., 121

[4] Ibid., 234

[5] Jennifer Ward, Ed. Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 1066-1500” (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995) 18

[6] Ibid., 41,42

[7] Women in England, 122

[8] Compton Reeves. Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England” (UK: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1995) 157-158

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 40

[12] Charles Panati. “Sacred Origins of Profound Things” (New York: Penguin Group, 1996),329

[13] Panati, 320

[14] Reeves, 136

[15] Ibid., 134

[16] Ibid, 331

[17] Reeves, 205

[18] Reeves, 156

[19] Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter. “Western Europe in the Middle Ages: 300-1475, Sixth Edition” (United States: McGraw-Hill Companies, 1999) 170

[20] Women in England, 122

[21] Ibid., 110

[22] Ibid, 140

[23] Reeves, 157-158

[24] Women in England., 120, 121

[25] Ibid., 118

[26] Ibid., 128

[27] Ibid., 118

[28] Ibid., 120

[29] Ibid., 104

[30] Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 6

[31] Women in England, 114

[32] Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 44

[33] Ibid., 19-20

[34] Women in England, 119

[35] Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 38

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 26

[38] Ibid., 16

[39] Reeves, 46

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., 2

[42] Ibid., 83

[43] Ibid., 1

[44] Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 45

[45] Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 21

[46] Ibid., 28

[47] Ibid., 20

[48] Women in England, 103

[49] Reeves, 157-158

[50] Ibid.

[51] Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 22

[52] Women in England, 34

[53] Reeves., 58

[54] Ibid., 58

[55] Ibid., 61

[56] Ibid., 56

[57] Ibid., 71

[58] Ibid., 70

[59] Women in England, 173

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