This week my beloved and I will celebrate thirty-six years of marriage, so, of course, marriage, all it entails, and how it has changed has occupied my thoughts.
Since I write romance and, thus, Happily-Ever After (HEA) endings, I’d love to say we spent those three decades plus wallowing in marital bliss. That would be a lie. Like everyone else, we’ve had our share of stratospheric highs and abysmal lows, but we’d committed (no, I didn’t say we were committed, although sometimes I think we should have been) to each other and stuck it out.
And we agree, despite it all, we’d do it again.
Mom liked to say, “There is no ME in wedding, only WE.”
WE bore the brunt of our mistakes regardless of who made them. WE struggled together and celebrated together. WE held each other up like an A-frame, sharing the load when times got tough and the credit when times were good.
Gram advised me, “It’s easier to starve with someone you love.”
Now, I’m not saying we ever starved, but we had our touch and go moments, times we did without essentials just to get by, and I have to agree, loving made it easier.
So how did this work in a time when noble marriages were contracted for dynastic reasons? When love never entered the equation? Power did. Alliances did. Duty to family did. But love wasn’t a consideration among the nobility.
First, one must remember that women and children were considered the property of men. Although we may find this concept appalling, it was the norm in many cultures for much of human history. Not all cultures, mind you, but with the proliferation of Christianity in Europe, and the escalating power of the Church, came the subjugation of women—women who, especially in some more matriarchal Celtic cultures, had once ruled and fought beside their men.
Feudalism, with its patriarchal foundation, aided the belief that women were weak, not terribly bright, and in need of male guidance and protection. That warriors donned about eighty pounds of armor to go into battle put women at a distinct disadvantage.
The Church’s control of literacy gave it immense power. Prior to the invention of the printing press in 1440, books were rare since all had to be painstakingly copied by scribes, most of whom were monks working in scriptoriums. The vast majority of lay people, regardless of social strata, couldn’t read, so the resident priest would be required to send or receive a written message. This strengthened the Church’s grip since almost all communications had to be routed through the clergy. Add the confessional and little transpired of which Rome was unaware.
Thus, Rome read the scriptures, interpreted them, and disseminated the information via the pulpit—often skewing things to its advantage. Among those things skewed was the value of women. Priests neglected the scriptures about a good wife buying and selling, being a pearl beyond price and more precious than rubies, and went right to a woman being subject to her husband. Remember, power meant a great deal to the nobility at this time, and the scriptures do say a man who cannot control his own family isn’t worthy of controlling more important things (yes, a very loose paraphrase, but you get the idea.)
In one of my books, I have the hero think about wedding the heroine to get “strong sons to protect his interests and lovely daughters, the coin with which to purchase future alliances.” Doesn’t sound very heroic, does it? Yet, it is true to the time.
Betrothals were often contracted while the betrothed couple still occupied the nursery. With the infant morality rate, some noble youngsters garnered several betrothals prior to puberty. Once a young girl matured enough to bear children, sometimes as early as ten or eleven, she could be wedded and bedded. Of course, today’s readers would be horrified if we wrote heroines that young, but that’s the truth of it. Considering life expectancy, discounting war, sickness, childbearing, etc., was about thirty-five years, the attainment of puberty meant 1/3 of one’s life had already passed.
Modern people tend to equate betrothal with engagement. It’s a faulty equation. Betrothals were binding. If anything, the wedding ceremony was superfluous.
Think of betrothal as making a purchase: You decide to buy, agree to the price, and sign the contract. Legally, the merchandise is now yours. The wedding is comparable to taking delivery of that merchandise: You don’t have to be home, but someone must be there to receive the delivery and sign for it.
As a result, the proxy wedding came into being. The bride could be an infant or toddler (although the infant mortality rate made this less common), or could find herself marrying a sword, a ring, or some other symbol of the groom, or a messenger who stood in the groom’s stead if said groom couldn’t—or chose not to—fetch his bride himself. The girl would be bundled off to her new husband, ofttimes a man she’d never met, to live among strangers, aware she might never see her home or family again.
A noblewoman had no recourse if her husband abused her. If her family held more power than the husband’s family, the husband might hesitate to harm her or her father might intervene, but with the girl now the property of her husband and travel so difficult, any intervention could take months; accidents killed unwanted or complaining spouses at an alarming rate. Wives could also fall victim of an unfortunate ‘accident’ if a rich dowery enticed a greedy, indebted, or unscrupulous husband.
Is that to say love didn’t exist among the nobility? No. I’m sure it did, but it was the exception. Young noblewomen were told they might come to care for their husbands, but there would be children for them to love. Husbands just wanted heirs. Their wives were a necessary inconvenience, an untried field to be plowed and harvested.
Husbands routinely cuffed their wives, and those wives expected to be cuffed. No one thought less of the man if his wife sported a black eye or bruised cheek.
In a future post, I will look at Courtly Love, a result of the human need for love and acceptance in a world of dynastic marriages, but suffice it to say, while most women, fearing for their souls if for no other reason, were chaste, most men had no such compunction. In fact, men weren’t expected to be faithful. Fidelity was the province of the wife in noble marriages lest she bear her lord an heir not of his blood. Husbands, however, could plant seed with impunity, hurting and/or humiliating their wives, giving rise to an attitude about bastardy that, in my opinion, punished innocent children born to sinning adults for centuries.
Marriage among medieval nobility bears little resemblance to what we know. Among the lower classes, however, while social and financial elevation sometimes played a role, and fathers still had the option of chosing their daughters’ mates, women had more choice in the matter. Women worked beside their men creating a more equitable union.
Because I write in the medieval time period, I’m sure it’s no surprise, as a child, I once longed to be a princess. Research has shown me the folly of that longing. I chose my beloved and he chose me. In an earlier time, because of his antecedents and mine, our marriage would never have been allowed. Since I can’t imagine being wed to anyone else, I’m certainly glad the times, and the rules, have changed.
How about you?