Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Medieval Idea of Marriage

Christopher Brooke’s The Medieval Idea of Marriage is a highly readable inquiry which includes a very sensible consideration of the nature of historical sources and an engagement with the phenomena of marriage itself.

Brooke has a strong sense of having to be careful about motives in looking at sources – particularly in what people put into records of sex and tax. This is nicely put – Brooke notes that people tend to live in fantasy worlds regarding sex and love (p.21). After all, documents are often, at best, just frozen memory. Even more difficult, it is often the most fundamental customs which are the most difficult to trace, since their very ubiquity makes recording them seem pointless at the time (p.251).

There is, of course, no single medieval idea of marriage. Brooke sets out very clearly how ideas evolved and how customs of marriage varied. What The Medieval Idea of Marriage is mostly about is the Church take-over of marriage law and the development of the medieval Christian view of language.

This was a two-element process: the process of this authority moving to the Church and the Church evolving a set of legally workable doctrines. The latter involved lots of boundary decisions, such as that marriages between slaves and with heathens were legitimate (p.52). St Augustine’s definition of the good(s) of marriage was an important source of doctrine: those goods being being fides, proles, sacrumentum (fidelity, children and a binding union broken only by death: p.276).

Brooke manages a nice irony on St Augustine
In Augustine’s capacious mind it was possible to hold together the notion of woman as temptress, inferior to man
with children being the first good of marriage (p.55).

St Augustine’s dislike of the carnal element in such unions was very influential. He also wrestled with the fundamental question of doctrinal dispute on marriage—was consent alone enough or did marriages have to consummated?
Basic to the Church take over was the C11-12th revolution in celibacy, legitimacy and sacraments (p.57). As Brooke notes, celibacy served the anti-simony reform (p.70). St Augustine’s antipathy to the carnal was given further boost by St Peter Damian's horror of sexuality (Pp71,135).

Brooke engages in a long discussion of authenticity of letters of Heloise & Abelard and of their content. He notes evidence that a canon could have concubines but not marry (p.107).

Brooke is clear on the need to explain Church takeover of law of marriage (p.126). This was in opposition to self-regulation of marriage (p.127). The result was an evolving concept of marriage (Pp129-30) with local custom being moulded into common rules (p.130). The Church provided clarifying commonality in a situation where primogeniture was evolving as a solution to maintaining family power and status, so the Church's legal takeover was highly desirable if it made hereditary transfer of property work more clearly and definitely (Pp.142,154).

Brooke takes us through the interaction between doctrine, doctrinal dispute and popular pressures (p.131). Impotence and consanguinity—given the amazingly restrictive definition of what counted as “incest”—were the main grounds for annulment. In the C11 and C12th, the marriage ritual coheres (p.139). The now-defined sacrament of marriage was performed by the couple (p.141), typically not inside the church but on the church doorstep or porch. There is lots of evidence that the church door or porch as the normal place of a marriage (p.248). (Brooke spends a chapter on the architecture of marriage.) Again custom could vary: notary weddings were apparently common in Toulouse, for example (p.253).

Brooke also notes that the Inquisition arises in the wake of rising church legal power. Brooke is good at ironic perception. Such as the lengthy nature (taking years) of Catherine of Aragon's divorce made execution a much more expedient method for Henry VIII for getting rid of later unwanted wives (p.169).

The consent-only or requiring-consummation-as-well issue bedevilled Church decisions on marriage. Was marriage a current promise or future intent completed by consummation (p.171)? Brooke provides a nice summary of later theology of marriage (p.195).

Brooke also uses literary sources—considering very intelligently their limitations and advantages: as he says, great literature is not the domain of naturalism or realism (p.229). Nevertheless, it does expose what contours of thinking were operating. I was particularly struck by the couplet (p.207) from the converted heathen queen Giburic in Wolfram’s Willehalm urging against the slaughter of defeated heathens:
Hoert eins tumben wibes rat,
Schont der gotes hantgetat

Hear the counsel of a simple woman,
And spare God’s handiwork
Brooke’s discussion of literary sources concludes with Shakespeare. Including the sensible observation that Shakespeare's women are typical more mature than his men (p.239).

Brooke notes that the Papal recognition of slave marriages (in 1155) undermined slavery (Pp264-5) and the continuing importance of the “one flesh” doctrine from the Gospel expression. Brooke then revisits the defining of the sacrament in the C12th (Pp273-4), noting marriage’s odd status as the non-universal sacrament (p.274).

His discussion of some particular cases finishes with Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage, seeing the painting as a statement over time about marriage, not a “frozen moment”. Brooke concludes by bringing together the various themes in his book, after making some quite personal observations about the nature of marriage.

I found The Medieval Idea of Marriage to be an engaging and informative work of history.

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