Marriage and Women in the Middle Ages

Caristiona nic Beathain The Concept of Woman Woman, in Medieval Britain meant many different things depending on what age is being examined, who is writing about the position of woman and what value is placed on women. In Anglo Saxon times women were valued in their own right, they held money and power and were given freedoms that were later denied to them as the influence of Norman leaders and the Church became predominant. As there was a change in the status of women there was also a change in what marriage was and what women were legally entitled to do. This article explores some of those changes and what they meant for women. Anglo Saxon England varied considerably from location to location and it is impossible to say that all laws were the same over the whole area but it is possible to generalise and give an overview of the value of women. In Anglo Saxon England women were able to hold land in their own right, they could walk out of a marriage that they didn't like and once they were widowed they were encouraged to stay that way for a period of 12 months before they considered taking on another husband (Fell 1984:58-61). Women in post Norman Conquest England had very few of the legal protections of their earlier sisters. Norman idea's of inheritance and the position of women were linked firstly to military obligations and the owning of land and increasingly to the ideals of the Church (Whitlock 2009:126). The law's surrounding women and the biggest influence on a woman's life were written and espoused by those who had the most to gain by their subjugation of women for example men of high status and rank who didn't want to divide up their property or give any of it away to house a wife, mother or daughter when the larger the land they had control over the higher their status and the more power they had (Power, E. 1995:1). The Church also had a vested interest in controlling women and of influencing the way they were written and thought about. The Church was mostly the domain of celibate men who had a vested interest in maintaining their own superiority. This was done through the presentation of women as evil and lower than man using the story of Eve's downfall to show that women could not be trusted and were manipulative (Power 1995:6). Further illustrating this concept through the use of the bible story of Eve being made from Adams rib (Power 1995:6). The Church seemed to see no conflict in the other concept of woman that held sway and increased as the Middle Ages progressed, that of the concept of woman as pure and divine. The Cult of Mary may well have been a way of combating the harsh view of women imposed by powerful men and the early church (Power 1995:7-8). Women and Marriage So how did these view's of women influence women's rights in marriage and the institution of marriage? To answer this we must also examine exactly what the institute of marriage is. We have a modern concept of marriage being a ritual where two people say prepared vows before a person who is registered to receive and record those vows. Even this has changed from an earlier, and often still current, concept of marriage as a sacrament that was performed in Church and witnessed and recorded, usually by a Priest. In the middle ages marriage was not so institutionalised. It didn't have to occur in a Church and although there had to be a witness there was no need for the witness to have any capacity, official or

On Friday the bishop sent for her and he spoke to her clearly and reminded her of her position in society and who were her friends. such as the marriage between Richard Calle and Margery Paston. And if she did not. The later marriage did not have to take place (Carson 2009:69). the drive for social betterment. Marriages became alliances and love or affection between the two parties played very little part (Gies 1999:209). to Margery's brother John. to induce her to accept his suit. On rare occasions.other wise. indicated that the couple were already married in the eyes of the law. Even in later medieval times it was not necessary for a couple to have the consent of their parents. This nebulous concept of marriage based on a couple of words that signified intent before a witness could bring down whole dynasties if the intent was later breached. Here is declared in this document the agreement which Godwine made with Brihtric when he wooed his daughter. who was valued in her own right. Edward IV was found to have made vows that were in fact considered a legal marriage (Carson 2009:69). had many rights in marriage. When Margery Paston married Richard Calle without permission the response of the family was to banish her from the family as illustrated in a letter written by Margery's mother Margaret. a couple would use the ease with which they could get married to ignore the wishes of the family. The contract of the marriage was also something that was drawn up with the total agreement of both partners to the marriage. And that she would have more friends if she followed their advice. And she said again what she had promised [to Richard Calle] and she said boldly that if these words did . In Anglo Saxon times a woman. and 150 acres at Burmarsh and in addition 30 oxen and 20 cows and 10 horses and 10 slaves. This payment was known as 'Morgengifu' or Morning Gift and it was given into her total control both during her marriage and after her husbands death if he should die before she did (Fell 1984:57). Later medieval marriage is dominated by the interests of the family. for land. This can be seen by the contract between Godwine and the daughter of Brithtric as shown below. if they were of marriageable age. In fact the payment was made by her husband to his wife to prove that he could support her and to make sure she had a way of supporting herself if he was to die. She was given the right to choose her husband and the payment of her dowry was given to her not to her husband. But the fact of the pre-contract. This was amply shown when Richard III was awarded the Crown of England rather than his nephew Edward V. money and status. The concept of marriage was based around consent between both parties and the exchange of words signifying a future intent of a life together (Whitlock 2009:129). As Norman culture and the Church become a progressively stronger influence in later medieval Britain the nature of marriage and the contract between the two parties changes. (Fell 1984:58) It is evident here that although the contract is drawn up between Godwine and Brihtric the benefits go to Brihtric's daughter and the inducement to accept Godwine is aimed at his future wife rather than her father. and he granted her the estate at Street with all that belongs to it. These vows meant that his son Edward V was illegitimate as he was born to a second wife that Edward IV had married whilst still married to his first wife. the son of the previous King Edward IV. especially if coupled with copulation. in the Church. Often these vows could be in the form of a pre-contract that would then conclude in a marriage at a later date. but this lack of respect for a parents wishes was rare. what rebuke and shame and loss she would suffer. In the first place he gave her a pound's weight of gold.

For a woman who held large amount of land and was of high status the choice to remarry or not to remarry would often be taken out of their hands by a male family member or overlord (Power 1995:11). These women would often become partners in their husband business or take up their husbands craft and upon the death of their husband they would operate the business or carry on the craft (Mortimer 2009:56). In a post Norman Conquest marriage a woman could not hold land or money in their own right. was that because a woman was considered to be the property of her husband she was considered to be unaccountable for any crime that was committed while she was married as she could claim that she was under her husbands orders. Even if he were to die at this very hour. Although a woman in post Norman conquest England had very little power in law. So the woman was responsible for her own actions and decisions and if a crime was committed by either party the other could not be blamed for the crime of one if they did not participate in that crime. This freedom and power was available until the woman remarried. For if she had been good. A woman was unable to leave her husband and if she did she was unable to keep her dowry and she had no access to her children unless her husband let her have access to them (Mortimer 2009:58). So what was the role of a woman in the marriage? Once married the role of a woman is very hard to determine. I ordered my servants that she should be banned from my house. this would never have happened. All property was considered to be the joint property of the couple not to belong to one or the other of them (Fell 1984:58).not make it final then she would make it quite clear before she left! These shameless words shocked me and her grandmother. unlike the Anglo-Saxon woman. If they did participate through hiding objects or helping in any way both parties were complicit and both could be punished (Fell 1984:59). that all we have lost is a worthless person. For a woman who had few male relatives or who did not own land or have high status they may decide never to remarry.. Women could walk out of a marriage with the finances that had been given to them on their marriage.. it was totally under the control of their husband (Power 1995:11).. In a post Norman conquest medieval England the role and rights of women were very different. I beg you that you do not take this too badly. they could also take any children from the union (Fell 1984:58) If a woman committed adultery she would have to give that money back. One positive thing. This was particularly the case for those who had been married to merchants and craftsmen. Women did have the right to leave a marriage but if they did then. The woman was now seen as property rather than a partner in a marriage. A woman was allowed to beaten if she was lazy or disobedient (Whitlock 198:127).. In earlier times if a couple committed a crime then both could be punished equally if they both shared in the . A woman did have recourse to canon law if she was beaten too much but it was difficult to know what the church would consider too much (Mortimer 2009:56). I would not take her back. if you consider it that. she had no right to any property even the money that was paid by her family to her husband as her dowry (Mortimer 2009:53). But remember. All her money became the property of her husband (Whitlock 2009:126). the reality was that at times women could own land. For the wealthy in particular this right was held by the family or by an overlord (Mortimer 2009:53). They also did not have the right to choose another husband if their first husband died. In Anglo Saxon times it was to be a partner in the life and business of her husband. For I know well that it goes to your heart and it is the same to me and to others. (Whitlock 2009:125-126) Unlike the Anglo-Saxon marriage the power that a woman wielded both in the determining of their marriage and in what happened after they were married was very limited. amass money and act on their own behalf. as I do.

C. British Museum Publications. F and Gies. Mortimer. 1984. T. 2009 'Richard III: The Maligned King. . Bibliography Baynard. Incorrect understanding of exactly what constituted a marriage could even make or break a monarch and did. (Ed and Translator) 1991. 1995 (1st Ed 1975). E. A. USA. Carson. He also advised her to be loving and cherishing of her husband and to care for him. Fell. UK. London. . E. To be a woman in the middle ages could mean you were a respected member of the community or it could mean that you were someone's property with no rights and means of escape if a marriage went wrong.' The History Press. 'The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England'. I. In later times only the woman's husband could be punished (Mortimer 2009:58).' Cambridge University Press. UK. 2009. 'Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the impact of 1066'. UK.responsibility of the crime. 'Women in Anglo-Saxon England' in Fell. Practically it was possible for women to have good marriages and loving families just like it is in the twenty first century. Whitlock. 'Medieval Women. This gentleman seems to have been very understanding of his youthful wife but it is easy to see how this would not have always been the case. New York. 'A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages. 'A Medieval Family: The Pastons of 15th Century England' Harper Perennial. USA. For example an elderly Parisian gentleman known only as Le Mesnagier de Paris translated as 'The Householder of Paris' wrote an extensive book to his 15 year old wife to explain how she should behave and how she should run her household (Baynard 1991:21). Once married even the role of women in marriage changed significantly over the medieval period. 2009.' Running Press Book Publishers PA. Marriage was also a very different institution to the one we have today the concept of marriage changed according to when a couple were married and according to how they were married. C. Clark. J. keep the peace and preserve his love and goodwill and be not quarrelsome (Baynard 1991:56-64). M. NY. In his book the gentleman advises his wife to remain continent and to live chastely (Baynard 1991:45). London. 'A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century.' HaprerPerenial. But the reality is that this was not always the case and that having a successful and happy marriage could depend on luck just as much as good fortune. 1984. How all of this worked practically depended upon the couple in later times. Vintage Books. and Williams. C. The gentleman also believed that a man should hide any folly of their wives to preserve appearances (Baynard 1991:56). Power. UK. USA. Gloucestershire. Gies.

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