Marriage: Secret and Clandestine Unions

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Marriage: Secret and Clandestine Unions


Informal Unions. Since the only requirement for a valid indissoluble union was the freely given consent of the man and woman, marriage could be contracted at anytime and anywhere. The possibilities and dangers presented by this consensual doctrine were recognized almost immediately. An avalanche of legislation aimed to minimize the impact followed in the wake of Pope Alexander Ill’s adoption of the consensual theory. The problem of clandestinity continued to preoccupy legal commentators and Church councils through the Middle Ages, ending only in the mid sixteenth century when the Council of Trent (1545–1563) prohibited such unions completely.

Legal and Religious Problems. Clandestine unions posed several problems. Secular society needed to know who was married in order to oversee property transfers and inheritance provisions for legal spouses and legitimate children. The Church, concerned with enforcing sexual morality, needed to know if a couple were married in order to enforce laws against fornication and adultery. Moreover, since marriage was a sacrament, the Church needed to know that no impediment barred the couple’s exchange of consent and that they appreciated fully the nature of their actions.

Defining Informal Marriages. Two types of unions were included under the category of clandestine marriage. One was a union that occurred informally, without the usual ecclesiastical solemnities and marriage liturgy. At this sort of wedding the couple was not necessarily alone. Clandestine marriages might occur at home, with friends and family gathered round, or even in the local tavern or at other public venues. Secret marriages, on the other hand, occurred without the knowledge and presence of others. Because of the absence of witnesses, these unions were the most difficult to prove in court.

Exchanging Consent. Although a marriage occurred clandestinely, it did not mean that the union was entered into thoughtlessly or casually. The evidence of some court cases reveals that couples used clandestine marriage as a means to evade disapproving parents or avoid arranged marriages. In other cases, however, the parents approved of the exchange of consent or were even involved in it—another indication that clandestine marriages were not always secret. Frequently, they were private unions achieved without formal recourse to the Church and its representatives but with the full participation and blessing of family and friends. There is evidence that couples took some care with their exchange of consent. Sometimes a senior man in the community, perhaps the employer of the bride or groom or an older relative, supervised the exchange of consent to ensure the couple used the correct formula and that the present consent was unambiguous. Court records indicate that a couple might have clasped hands as they repeated the words of consent. The man frequently reported that he had endowed the woman with some sort of small gift or token or placed a ring on her finger. There

is also an example of the couple kissing through a garland of flowers after they exchanged consent.

False Promises. Secret marriages made women vulnerable to men who sought sexual relations by making false promises of marriage and later denying them. Similarly, if a couple married legitimately in secret, and one subsequently married publicly, the public union, not the secret marriage, would stand. This unhappy situation was the result of the belief that, if an external witness could prove consent had been exchanged, this marriage must take precedence over a secret consent that was unprovable or ambiguous. In such cases, a person married without witnesses was condemned to live in perpetual aduitery because the secret union could not be proven.

Avoiding Control. With the option of clandestine marriage, people had a mechanism by which to avoid parental and feudal control and to marry the spouse of their choice. Surviving records for marriage cases brought before the ecclesiastical courts, especially in England, show that people most frequently brought suits to have their marriages declared valid or to have their conjugal rights restored. A significant proportion of the cases involved informal marriages in which present consent was alleged, but there was difficulty proving it had been exchanged.

Reasons for Clandestine Marriages. The consensual doctrine and valid clandestine marriages made the consent of one’s parents or lord unnecessary. This innovation was significant in a period when people believed that children should obey their parents and vassals should obey their lords. Furthermore, marriage had not only a sacramental aspect but also a social function. During the Middle Ages, at all levels of society, marriage had significant familial, feudal, and financial ramifications. At the highest levels of society it could also have political and military implications. Consequently, secular authorities considered the personal inclinations of either spouse to be subordinate to the wider considerations of land, lineage, and lord. Another reason for a clandestine marriage was the expense of a religious ceremony. Although the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) forbade priests to charge for performing ecclesiastical services such as marriage, in practice parishioners made voluntary donations for such liturgical functions. Consequently, for some couples, clandestine marriage may have been a more affordable alternative to the formal solemnization of their union.

Unintended Marriages. There was another danger involved in clandestine marriage. If people were joking and playacting, it was conceivable that they could marry one another without intending to do so. For example, one moralist warned that the marriage ceremony should “be decently celebrated, with reverence, not with laughter and ribaldry, not in taverns or at public drinkings and feastings. Let no man place a ring made of rushes or of any worthless or precious material on the hand of a woman in jest that he may more easily gain her favors lest, in thinking to jest, the bonds of marriage be tied. Henceforth let no pledge to contract marriage be given except in the presence of a priest, and of three or four respectable people called together for that purpose.” The moralists’ warnings notwithstanding, there are many examples of consent being exchanged in all manner of unlikely places including under an ash tree, in bed, in a garden, in a field, in a storeroom, in a blacksmith’s shop, and in a kitchen. Obviously, people exchanged consent where and when it was convenient.

Unchecked Practice. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church sought to strengthen and extend its control over the marriage ceremony. Part of this process was the unsuccessful attempt to eliminate private and secret marriages. Throughout the Middle Ages, however, couples continued to avail themselves of the autonomy offered to them by valid clandestine marriages.


Charles Donahue Jr., “The Canon Law on the Formation of Marriage and Social Practice in the Later Middle Ages,” Journal of Family History, 8 (1983): 144–158.

Donahue, “The Policy of Alexander III’s Consent Theory of Marriage,” Proceedings of the 4th Congress of Medieval Canon Law, edited by Stephan Kuttner (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1976), pp. 251–281.

A. J. Finch, “Parental Authority and the Problem of Clandestine Marriage in the Later Middle Ages,” Law and History Review, 8 (1990): 189–204.

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Marriage: Secret and Clandestine Unions

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