Oh Grow Up!

About Arranged Marriages

Another common myth is that all marriages were arranged. Not at all. Hanawalt suggests about a third were not, for the English countryside. The incidence varied greatly according to economic circumstance and local demography.

It's significant that in cases where the woman paid her own merchet, she married outside the village 22% of the time but when the father paid the merchet the girl married within the village 40% of the time.

Similarly, 28% of the women paid to marry freemen but only 15% married a freeman when the father paid the merchet. It seems obvious that women were eager to leave the village. One must be careful of the sources, though. When a woman paid her own merchet, she may have done so from savings from time spent elsewhere as a servant, so she may well have been paying to marry a man she'd met while in that service.

The manor lord rarely intervened in marriage business, except to collect the fine. Sometimes he might encourage a single person to marry, or move to block a marriage that was obviously against his interests, but these occasions were quite rare. And, of course, ius primae noctis is simply a myth. First appears in literature as part of ancient past, but no evidence of the actual practice.

The Church insisted that marriage required the consent of both parties. This was a somewhat dangerous declaration because it gave tacit approval to secret marriages. If the man and woman were "in love" then they need only exchange vows and be blessed by a priest. This completely circumvented community controls and undermined family.

Note Romeo and Juliet, and note who was the witness and who performed the ceremony.

There were plenty of courting rituals and opportunities for flirting. Just because the marriage contract was negotiated between families doesn't mean the girl didn't consent, half- or whole-heartedly. But marriage wasn't supposed to be exciting. Hanawalt calls it a partnership and I agree. It was entered into and nurtured in that spirit. Lots of evidence for this. And, as with other forms of partnership, sometimes genuine affection developed.

It needs to be kept in mind that many people (more men than women) married more than once, and that these subsequent marriages were arranged largely by the couple themselves.

Other evidence that arranged marriage is not synonymous with forced marriage: "force and fear" was a legal grounds for divorce. Of 84 marriages in Ely, only three were on these grounds. Since only five bases for divorce existed, this is a significant count.

My favorite of the three divorce suits (not all were granted): the girl stated that the family had come to the ceremony for signing the marriage contract armed with staves. The family replied in court that they'd only brought the staves to help in crossing ditches.

The poor had no arranged marriages.

One important difference in tone and arrangement in medieval marriage: despite the manifestations of partnership, the man was clearly the superior to the woman. Both law and literature recognized the man as the head of the house and that he had the power and the duty to "correct" his wife. The fact that men were often older than their wives (not always!) helped reinforce the sentiment that the man was wiser and the woman must follow his lead. His role in the community and at law also bolstered this perception.

It still exists. I was reading a story about a man killed in a car crash. His widow said there were so many things he did, he was needed for. Who would fix the lawnmower? Well, I can't fix a lawnmower, but there's still a perception that there are things a man can do that a woman cannot.

If a man killed his wife it was homicide and a felony and he was hanged. If a woman killed her husband, it was treason, and she was burned.