Marriage: Impediments to Christian Unions

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Marriage: Impediments to Christian Unions


Invalidating Marriages. The medieval Church identified two types of impediments to marriage. Diriment impediments blocked the creation of the marriage bond. If two people exchanged consent and a diriment impediment were discovered, the couple was required to separate immediately because no valid marriage bond existed—nor could ever exist—between them. The second type was the prohibitive impediment. Though this second impediment forbade a marriage between two individuals, if they married anyway, their union was considered valid and indissoluble.

Consanguinity. Consanguinity, or blood relationship, was the most significant and most ancient reason for prohibiting a union. Most societies throughout history have forbidden marriage between siblings or relatives in the direct line, such as grandfather and granddaughter. In ancient Rome, aunts and uncles could not marry their nieces and nephews, but first cousins were permitted to marry. The Christian Church, however, sought to extend the degrees of relationship that were considered to prevent incestuous marriages. As early as the sixth century, at the Council of Agde (506), the Church extended the prohibitions to marriages between first cousins and between their children (second cousins).

Degrees of Relationship. A far more dramatic extension of prohibited kinship ties occurred in the first half of the eighth century.

Until then, the Church had used the Roman system to compute the degrees of relationship between two people. According to this method, every degrees of relationship was counted from one becauseit of the couple, through their common ancestor, to the other spouse. According to this system the furthest relationships that were considered to be within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity were first cousins (the fourth degree of kinship). In the year 747, however, the English missionary Boniface convinced the Pope that the prohibited degrees be extended to seven. This change meant that second, third, and fourth cousins were also forbidden to marry.

Germanic Consanguinity. In the early ninth century, another innovation occurred that extended the degrees of consanguinity even further. The Roman method of counting from one person back to the common ancestor, and then forward to the other person was replaced by a method of Germanic origin. In this system of calculation, degrees were counted back to the common ancestor only. Thus, in the Roman system, first cousins were related in the fourth degree; in the Germanic system they were related in the second degree. The result of this change was to extend the prohibited degrees of relationship to a sixth cousin, a descendant of one’s great-great-great-great-great grandparents. This regulation was unenforceable because it was virtually impossible for a medieval European to trace his or her lineage that far back. Furthermore, even if it had been possible, the practical result would have left people in some social ranks, or in geographic areas with small populations, without any permissible marriage partner at all.

Affinity. Affinity, a tie formed through marriage, was another impediment, which was designed to encourage the practice of exogamy. St. Augustine had argued that marriage should expand the circle of relatives to whom one was tied through bonds of affection and charity. Consequently, people were prohibited from marrying their close affines, or in-laws. For example, a widow was forbidden to marry her deceased husband’s brother. In the eighth century, as part of his reforms prohibitions relating to degrees of consanguinity, Boniface introduced an innovation that extended the concept of affinity significantly. He argued that an impediment to marriage was created if a man and woman had sexual relations outside of marriage. Such people became affines and were forbidden to marry one another. If one did so, the marriage was considered invalid, and lifelong penance was necessary. This


The Romans calculated kinship only to the fourth degree. In the eighth century the Church extended the Roman system to seven degrees, as follows:


  1. Father and Mother
  2. Brother and Sister, Grandfather and Grandmother
  3. Uncle and Aunt
  4. First Cousin
  5. Second Cousin
  6. First Cousin
  7. Second Cousin

In the ninth century the Church adopted the Germanic system of determining kinship:


  1. Father and Mother, Brother and Sister, Uncle and Aunt
  2. Grandfather and Grandmother, First Cousin
  3. Second Cousin
  4. Third Cousin
  5. Fouth Cousin
  6. Fifth Cousin
  7. Sixth Cousin

impediment had widespread implications. For example, a man who frequented a prostitute would be forbidden to marry the sister of any of her other clients. It was difficult to know that such an impediment existed, but ignorance did not change the situation.

Spiritual Kinship. The prohibition based on spiritual kinship, a bond formed between people through the sacraments of baptism or confirmation, was another innovation of the eighth century. People who had participated together in the sacrament of baptism or confirmation were considered already bound in a familial relationship, so marriage between two such related individuals was inappropriate. Thus, a godparent was forbidden to marry a godchild, and, prior to the imposition of clerical celibacy, a priest could not marry a woman he had baptized or confirmed.

Consent. Several other factors that were considered diriment impediments to marriage centered on a person’s ability to render valid and informed consent. If a person had previously taken vows as a monk or nun, he or she was forbidden to contract marriage because the vow of celibacy took precedence. People who were considered to be insane were not permitted to marry because they could not appreciate the nature of consent that spouses exchanged. The canonists were quick to point out, however, that if a person oscillated between moments of sanity and insanity, consent exchanged while sane created an indissoluble and valid union.

The Age of Majority. For a marriage to be valid both parties had to have reached the age of majority, twelve for girls and fourteen for boys, roughly the onset of puberty. At these ages people were considered sufficiently mature to give informed consent to marry. They were also thought old enough to appreciate the nature of the marriage commitment, to be able to consent to sexual relations, and to have the physical capacity to consummate the marriage. Prior to coming of age, however, children above the age of seven could be betrothed by their families. In such cases, however, the betrothed had to ratify the compact on reaching the age of majority in order for it to remain binding. Either person was able legally to reject a union arranged by their parents, but in practice familial and social pressures made such a decision difficult to implement.

Freedom of Consent. Consent to marry had to be given freely. Consequently, consent that was coerced by threats of death, bodily harm, or other frightening consequences was considered to be invalid. While children were encouraged to accept their elders’ advice and to obey their commands, friends, relatives, and lords were not allowed to force an unwilling person to marry someone against his or her will. The spouse who had been coerced into marriage was expected to give outward signs of unwillingness, such as weeping, and to leave the situation as soon as possible.

Consummation. Since marriage was the only legitimate outlet for sexual desire, the inability to consummate a union was also an impediment to the formation of the conjugal bonds. This condition put the Church in the awkward situation of having to pass judgment on the sexual abilities of a married person whose spouse sued for an annulment on the grounds of nonconsummation. Such cases almost always involved a woman alleging that her husband was impotent and seeking an annulment so she could be permitted to marry another man and have children. If sexual disability could be proven, the spouse who had been found impotent was required to remain single while the other spouse Was permitted to marry again.

Minor Impediments. A minor impediment to marriage was dictated by the Church calendar. Marriages should not be contracted during Lent, Advent, or other penitential seasons. Similarly, all marriages were forbidden in a region that was under an ecclesiastical interdict. However, if the couple went ahead and exchanged consent, their union was considered to be valid.


Christopher N. L. Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford &New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

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Marriage: Impediments to Christian Unions

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