Attitudes to marriage, divorce and birth control were very different in medieval times - or were they? Peter Biller looks back
Cerisy in Normandy, November 12, 1317: Thomassie, daughter of William of Blanvilain, has brought a case for "divorce" against Thomas alias Osmeul, on the grounds of his impotence. The court has heard the evidence, consulted legal experts, and the sentence it is delivering in Thomassie's favour briefly records her position: "She is a virgin and wants to be a mother." Paris, three or four years earlier: in university lectures on a set text the theme is the sin of a poor man who uses the withdrawal method when making love to his wife to avoid conceiving more children than he can feed.
The Norman marriage court was a Church court, the Paris lecturer a Dominican friar in the theology faculty: marriage came under the Church. People got married "at church door" (like the Wife of Bath), and their marriages came under canon law and Church marriage courts. Exhortation about marriage and its moral regulation came in sermons and confession, and formal discussion of the theme "marriage" came in theologians' treatises. Now, in 1996, we look beyond a Divorce Bill to acres of modern text and thought behind it: anthropologists on marriage in primitive tribes, sociologists on urban marriage, demographers on the birth rate, sexologists on orgasms and lamentations on the decline of marriage from Melanie Phillips. What could be more remote from medieval discussions of marriage?
Perhaps. At first sight nothing looks more distant than the themes and vocabulary of the theological treatises. They begin with God's institution of marriage, then proceed through St Augustine's "goods" of marriage (faith, offspring, sacrament) and the definition of the formation of marriage that was evolved in the 12th century (based on the exchange of free consent by woman and man), and they conclude with complex canon law on degrees of relationship contracted by blood kinship or sexual relations, within which marriage was not permitted.
Shortly after 1100 these are tracts of only about 2,000 words, made up mainly of quotes from the Church fathers, especially St Augustine. But by the early 14th century, a theologian's treatment of marriage was often massive. Over 200 years there was a sea-change in these treatises.
The sources of the transformation were, firstly, intellectual. A profoundly historical view of marriage was developed in the first half of the 12th century - "marriage has various laws for various periods". In mid-century this was accepted into what became from the 1200s the most influential of the medieval textbooks, Peter Lombard's Four Books of the Sentences. As you read university commentaries you see natural law joining history in directing men's minds towards marriage as variable among different peoples. Then you see commentators' reading of Aristotle's (newly translated) works On Animals providing them with a lot of data on reproduction and focusing their minds on comparisons between animal and human coupling. And by 1300 you see their reading of books two and seven of Aristotle's (newly translated) Politics holding up examples of formal analysis of marriage and themes for debate such as "Why not a community of wives?" and "What are the best marriage ages?" A second source of this sea-change in theological treatment of marriage was growing awareness of diversity of marriage in different faiths. Knowledge had long been around about Jewish marriage, and there was discussion of such themes as the Old Testament emphasis on fertility and the bill of divorce. But now there were also the Muslims, whom the West was getting to know better, especially since its translation of the Koran in the 12th century. Muslim polygamy: "did it lead to greater population than Christian monogamy?" was the question being raised in Paris University about 1230 - the answer was "No". Then, in the wake of the first Crusade there grew up a counter-Church, that of the Cathars, who preached that marriage and procreation were evil and that touching a woman was evil, such that a woman who died while pregnant or in childbirth was irrevocably damned. Much polemic was provoked about marriage, the flesh and women.
A third source of changes was down to earth: priests observing the marriages, separations and sins of millions of lay men and women. In response to changes in their behaviour, might one need to adapt or even change the law? Take two modern themes, "divorce" and "birth control". A moralist reformer called Peter the Chanter, lecturing in late 12th-century Paris, is arguing that separation is too easy. He introduces the theme with an anecdote about a knight, who was about to marry, who told Peter, "It's okay by me, the dowry is large I but if I don't like her, I'll just get a separation". Peter was using his experience of the ways unscrupulous people exploited the rules on prohibited degrees of relationship. Peter's conclusion was that the marriage laws needed changing to reduce such easy marriage and divorce. They were changed in 1215.
Birth-control" was a sin parish priests and mendicant friars heard in confession. It looks as though they were hearing it confessed with increasing frequency in the closing years of the 13th century, coincidentally a period of increasing pressure of overpopulation. They reacted. Around 1300, confessors' pocket-books began to insist more strongly on this sin. They got more specific on methods about which priests should inquire - anti-conception potions, the woman moving around after sex, the man's withdrawal, "impediments" (pessaries) - and they echoed what was described in the section on preventing conception in medical textbooks.
In the 13th century parish priests were told to get up in the pulpit and hammer home various points. Now, with this crisis, there came an extraordinary addition. In a popular instruction manual, written in the 1320s, priests were told to add public warnings every Sunday against married people having sex in ways that avoided conception. At the same time another English pastoral expert wrote about the same crisis, saying people were worried about the abuse of sex in marriage and the resulting lack of children.
I could also have cited medieval theologicans on the infertile wife and her sister, who bears the husband's child. Does "surrogacy" sound too modern? How modern you make "medieval" sound is like tossing a coin. How far do you find all this medieval discussion remote from an Encyclopaedia Britannica article on comparative marriage-customs, the Divorce Bill and the agony column on birth-control. Or is it strangely close?
Peter Biller is senior lecturer in history, York University. His Medieval Demographic Thought will be published by Oxford University Press in 1998.