The Medieval Idea of Marriage

by Christopher N.L. Brooke

Martin Ingram | Published in
  • The Medieval Idea of Marriage
    Christopher N.L. Brooke - Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989 - xviii + 325 pp.

‘There’s more to marriage’, said the old proverb, 'than four bare legs in a bed.' But what, precisely, was very much a live issue in the years around 1100. Was the essence of the union to he sought in consummation, or was it primarily a matter of words and intentions? In either case, what role was to he played by kinsfolk and neighbours? Where did the Church come in? And on what grounds, if any, could the union be dissolved?

The emergent idea of marriage was a compound of many ingredients – biblical precept (inspiring but ambiguous), Roman law, local custom, Christian theology, and the developing science of canon law. The debate intensified in the context of a powerful revival of asceticism, and we find the doctrine of marriage being shaped by men – women of course had little say – as extreme as Peter Damian, whose near-Manichean hatred of human sexuality inclined him to make entry into the married state as difficult as possible. The upshot was far more positive and creative, Professor Brooke argues convincingly, than might have been expected.

Potential conflicts between ecclesiastical and lay powers were tempered by the fact that the latter had a strong vested interest in stable rules of inheritance, which in turn depended on a firm yet flexible definition of marriage and the existence of an umpire (the reformed papacy) to pronounce on disputed cases. Pace Maitland's sour scepticism, it was no mean achievement of Alexander III and other pontiffs to square the circle of rigorous ideals and human needs to create a workable set of prescriptions.

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