Marriage in England in the fourteenth century
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
As 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.
The 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.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 3When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, They have no wine. 4And Jesus said to her, Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come. 5His mother said to the servants, Do whatever he tells you. 6Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to the servants, Fill the jars with water. And they filled them up to the brim. 8And he said to them, Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast. So they took it. 9When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10and said to him, Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now. 11This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. 12After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days. 13The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16And he told those who sold the pigeons, Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade. 17His disciples remembered that it was written, Zeal for your house will consume me. 18So the Jews said to him, What sign do you show us for doing these things? 19Jesus answered them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. 20The Jews then said, It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days? 21But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. 23Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
1And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: 2And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. 3And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. 4Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. 5His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. 6And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. 7Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. 8And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it. 9When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, 10And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. 11This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him. 12After this he went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples: and they continued there not many days. 13And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: 15And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables; 16And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise. 17And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up. 18Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? 19Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. 20Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? 21But he spake of the temple of his body. 22When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said. 23Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. 24But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, 25And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, 2older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. 3Honor widows who are truly widows. 4But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. 5She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, 6but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. 7Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. 8But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 9Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. 11But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry 12and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. 13Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. 14So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. 15For some have already strayed after Satan. 16If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. 17Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18For the Scripture says, You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain, and, The laborer deserves his wages. 19Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. 22Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23(No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) 24The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 25So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.
1Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; 2The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity. 3Honour widows that are widows indeed. 4But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God. 5Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day. 6But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth. 7And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless. 8But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. 9Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man. 10Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work. 11But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; 12Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith. 13And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not. 14I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. 15For some are already turned aside after Satan. 16If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed. 17Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. 18For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward. 19Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. 20Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. 21I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality. 22Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men's sins: keep thyself pure. 23Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities. 24Some men's sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after. 25Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. 2But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 8To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 10To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11(but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. 12To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? 17Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. 25Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. 26I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 32I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. 36If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry - it is no sin. 37But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 39A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
1Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. 3Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. 4The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. 5Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. 6But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. 7For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. 8I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. 9But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. 10And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: 11But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. 12But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. 13And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. 14For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. 15But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. 16For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? 17But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. 18Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. 19Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. 20Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. 21Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. 22For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant. 23Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. 24Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God. 25Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful. 26I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be. 27Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife. 28But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you. 29But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; 30And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; 31And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away. 32But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: 33But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. 34There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction. 36But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry. 37Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. 38So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better. 39The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord. 40But she is happier if she so abide, after my judgment: and I think also that I have the Spirit of God.
Belonging to the Middle Ages.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
Belonging to or related to Christianity or its clergy.
1. Term for a worshipping community of Christians.
2. The building in which Christians traditionally meet for worship.
3. The worldwide community of Christian believers.
In certain Christian denominations leader of the Christian community within a geographical area.
A person whose role is to carry out religious functions.
A commitment to remaining unmarried and abstaining from sexual intercourse. Required of monks and nuns, and of priests in the Roman Catholic church.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
The period of European history broadly between 1000AD-1500AD.
Gospel - Literally 'good news' - used of the message preached by Jesus recorded in the New Testament.
1. The central message of the Christian faith
2. Title given to the four New Testament books which describe the life of Jesus Christ
Jewish village where Jesus' first recorded miracle took place, when the Bible says he turned water into wine at a wedding feast.
In Western Christianity the festival of Epiphany, observed on the sixth of January, celebrates the showing of Christ to the Gentiles, in the coming of the Magi to see the child Jesus.
An event evoking wonder, believed to be the result of supernatural intervention.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
The 'Apostle to the Gentiles' (d. c. CE 65). Paul had a major role in setting up the Early Church and is believed to be the author of several letters in the Bible.
The teaching on the beliefs of a religion, usually taught by theologians or teachers appointed by their church.