The Right to Choose: Women, Consent and Marriage in Late Medieval England

Jeremy Goldberg examines three stories of disputed marriages and discusses definitions of consent and how they impinged on a medieval woman’s right to marry when and whom she chose.

From the late twelfth century the medieval Church had made consent the central plank of matrimony. This doctrine was codified by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and disseminated throughout the Catholic West. To wed, a man and a woman needed neither witnesses, nor a priest, nor a church, though the Church also taught that all three were desirable. Nor did couples require the goodwill of their parents, their lord, or anyone else. So long as they were both of sufficient age to exercise consent and were not otherwise contracted to anyone else, a couple could, like Romeo and Juliet, pledge themselves to one another in binding union merely by uttering the appropriate words.

The canon law – the codification of the Church’s teaching enforceable through the Church courts – distinguished between words of present and of future consent. ‘I would like to marry you’, ‘I will marry you when I finish my apprenticeship’ and many other such formulas constituted future consent. Such contracts were not considered binding unless the couple – as courting couples were wont – subsequently consummated their relationship. Words in the present tense – ‘I take you to be my wife’, ‘John, I plight you my troth’ – were, however, immediately binding. Once uttered, the couple were deemed to be married in the eyes of God and would have to answer for it at the Judgement Day if they reneged on their agreement. If any irate parent or jilted lover tried to obstruct such a union, the Church courts were there to uphold the marriage.

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