Once upon a time in a far away grad school, I considered becoming a medievalist. I eventually decided to go in a different direction with my focus and my dissertation, but the culture of the medieval world is still near and dear to my heart. Of late, I’ve been thinking about medieval marriage. The general consensus today seems to be that it was an institution predicated on male power and that it was inherently unfair to women. However, I think that analysis is incomplete at best and inaccurate at worst. In fact, I believe that it’s safe to say that medieval marriage between nobles was not particularly fair to anyone involved, and that’s because it was more about alliances than it was about the participants themselves.
First, I want to make it clear that I’m referring to marriage between members of the nobility here. Peasants may have been freer to marry who they wanted, but they were also far more likely to die young of plague, pestilence, and starvation. Members of the nobility were able to live much more elaborate and extravagant lives. However, with those better lives came a great deal of responsibilities. Part of those responsibilities was the responsibility to marry whomever the head of your household dictated. Both men and women had to deal with arranged marriages. These were not marriages in the modern sense—they were essentially contracted alliances.
It might make more sense to reduce medieval marriage amongst the nobility to something resembling a math problem. We’ll begin with House A and House B. House A and House B are at odds, but they want peace. They decide to seal the alliance with a wedding. Daughter A marries Son B and hopefully bears Baby AB. Baby AB is essentially the signature on the contract. House A won’t invade because Baby AB is their relative. This is also the reason that female infidelity was such a big deal back then. If Daughter A is unfaithful to her husband, then Baby AB might actually be Baby AC. If that happens, the treaty is off, and there may be war. Additionally, death in childbirth was not at all uncommon (even amongst the nobility). Daughter A could easily die giving birth to Baby AC, and then there would never be a Baby AB with all of the consequences of that lack. It was different if the husband decided to stray. If Son B is unfaithful to his wife, House A may be annoyed; but everything is ok as long as there is a Baby AB.
We are talking dynastic alliances and contracts here. Romantic notions need not apply. Daughters and sons who tried to escape arranged marriages are betraying their families. Marriage on this level has nothing to do with affection, and it certainly has nothing to do with love. Courtly love (as between a knight and his lady) gives people a chance to engage in platonic, but loving relationships; but infidelity will throw the entire system out of whack. I think the most important thing to remember is that marriage then and marriage now are two very different things, and we would do well to remember that.