Marriage in England in the fourteenth century

Lawful marriage 

We should be wary of generalisations about medieval marriage. The term ‘medieval' covers a lengthy period (from about 500 to 1500) and theories, laws and Christian exhortations and guidance may or may not describe satisfactorily the state of any particular relationship. 

Conditions of marriage

Ecclesiastical law held jurisdiction over the bond of marriage. However, secular law ruled over the property or money transfers which related to the marriage bond. Since the twelfth century, the Church taught that:

  • A marriage was validated simply by the consent of the couple. A marriage based on words like ‘I plight thee my troth' could not be dissolved, despite, for example, parental objections
  • Girls could be legally married at age 12
  • Consent must have been freely given
  • The couple should not be related
  • Marriage vows could be clandestine, or might be exchanged in public, and might be made in front of a priest
  • The ‘chirche dore' referred to by the Wife of Bath was often the site where financial and property arrangements were confirmed. 

Marriage and money

Medieval marriageAs in other periods, it was difficult to marry without enough money to establish a viable household. In this aspect, the church's consensual model of marriage sometimes conflicted with property and wider family interests. Considerations of property and the alliance of families might be very important in the families of the nobility and the wealthy gentry. This sometimes led to early betrothals to secure an alliance, so that the child would not become the ward of a lord who could then sell marriage rights. 

Married women, money and property 

The conditions of medieval marriage were not as clear, or as wholly detrimental to women, as is often suggested:

  • Authority over property was vested in the husband and he could dispose of it as he wished. However, if he died before his wife, she could recover land that he had given to others without her permission
  • English bishops passed legislation to prevent husbands from controlling their wives' will-making
  • Married women may have held property of their own in a way similar to that of the modern trust fund
  • Notice that the Wife of Bath in her Prologue claims that she does manage to get control over her husbands' land l. 212-4. She also explains that having done so, there is absolutely no need for her to set out to please them thereafter!
More on medieval marriage: Marriage in Medieval England, Conor McCarthy (2004), The Boydell Press, UK is a useful source of information about the tensions and changes in fourteenth century England relating to the rights of married men and women to hold and pass on their money and propertydetails on this subject.     


Today the term bigamy refers to someone who unlawfully marries a second spouse whilst still being legally married to his/her first spouse. However, in medieval times, bigamy was the word used to refer to a man's second marriage after the death of his first wife. 

Important rules about bigamy related to whether or not a remarried man could become a priest in later life (priests were required to be celibate). For example, if a man had been widowed twice, or his deceased wife had been a widow, he could not become a priest. A minor cleric could have been married once, if his wife had been a virgin. The reasoning behind these prohibitions related to the concept of the priest's relationship to Christ and the Church as being a kind of mystical marriage. 

This rule would have been significant for Jankin (clerk and the Wife's fifth husband), in The Wife of Bath's Prologue. Marriage to a widow of four husbands would bar him from the priesthood. Understanding this may account for why the Wife was so keen to justify the validity of her marital status in the first sixty lines of her Prologue. Her listeners would understand implications that no longer resonate with modern readers. 


Shorter life expectancy in the Middle Ages (see Social / political context > The reality of death) meant that widows were important figures in medieval society:

  • Wealthy widows, unlike married women, were both legally and financially independent
  • Poor widows could present a difficulty about how they might be supported and protected
  • Widows were sometimes regarded with suspicion because they were sexually experienced yet unmarried. 

Widows and sex

On a scale of moral superiority:

  • Chaste widowhood was not as commendable as virginity
  • The Church regarded chaste widowhood as preferable to remarriage
  • However, remarriage was seen as preferable to fornication (sex outside marriage). 

Sermons on marriage 

The Wife's Prologue reflects the extensive teaching that the Church devoted to the subject of marriage. As she later points out, all this was delivered by celibate men within a patriarchal society which often distorted Bible teaching to serve its own purposes!

The significance of the Wedding at Cana 

Traditionally, the gospel passage from John 2:1-12 about the marriage feast at Cana was read every year during a period following the week after Epiphany. Its major significance is that it is the first recorded miracle of Jesus

Priests used the Cana wedding as a platform for a sermon on marriage as:

  • A religious metaphor or symbol
  • A union between a man and a woman. 

Wedding at CanaThe story of Christ producing wine for the wedding guests is important because it is taken to indicate Christ's approval of marriage, and because Christ said very little about marriage elsewhere. However, it appears that the point of the account was distorted to teach the Wife that no-one should marry more than once, because Jesus only went to one wedding – not at all the intention of the original Gospel writer!

Most of the Christian teaching on marriage in the texts relating to the Wife of Bath derive from Pauline doctrine, such as that found in 1 Timothy 5:9-15 and 1 Corinthians 7:1-36.

More on marriage and the Wife of Bath: For details of fourteenth century marriage and a discussion of the Wife of Bath look at:
  • Lee Patterson's article, ‘Experience woot well it is noght so': Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale in Beidler P G ed. (1996) Geoffrey Chaucer The Wife of Bath, Bedford Books, Boston and New York, USA
  • Marriage in Medieval England, Conor McCarthy (2004), The Boydell Press, UK.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.