Marriage: Spousal Choice

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Marriage: Spousal Choice


Increased Autonomy. The freedom to choose one’s spouse was closely related to the consensual theory of marriage and the principle that clandestine marriages, although illegal, were valid. The impediment of coercion was a logical extension of the doctrine that marriage required only the freely given consent of the couple. Forced consent through threats to kill or injure them or members of their families could hardly be considered free consent to marry. Consequently, the promotion by the Church of consensual marriage gave increased autonomy to individuals who had hitherto been little more than pawns in dynastic, economic, or political negotiations.

An Unwilling Bride. In his Decretum (circa 1140), Gratian recorded a case that had been referred to Urban II, who was Pope from 1088 until 1099, for resolution. Jourdain I, the ruler of Capua, had been compelled to give his daughter in marriage to the duke of Gaeta. The daughter, whose name is unknown, was described as “unwilling, weeping, and resisting as much as she was able.” The case had little to do with the desires of the daughter, and Urban’s decision rested on the father’s unwillingness, but Gratian interpreted the ruling to mean that a father could not compel his daughter to marry someone she did not want to wed. In a similar case, Urban had explained that those who would be united in one body ought also to be of one spirit. If they were not, there was a risk of desertion, fornication, or other evils.

Invalidating Forced Marriages. Gratian tended to ignore authorities such as St. Jerome, who argued that every marriage, coerced or not, was binding. Jerome believed that a marriage remained valid even if it had been contracted through violent abduction, paternal coercion, or direct threats. In an 866 letter to Boris I, King of the Bulgarians, Pope Nicholas I instructed that marriage was to be celebrated with the consent of the people to be married and their parents or guardians. Gratian, however, overlooked the stipulation of parental consent and focused only on the consent of the couple. Moreover, Gratian chose to word his opinion so that it highlighted a daughter’s freedom to choose a spouse: “no woman should be joined to anyone except by her free will.” By focusing on the woman—the person most vulnerable to parental compulsion—he used the strongest example available to ensure there was no interpretive ambiguity in his opinion.

Promoting Free Choice. Gratian’s interest in promoting free choice in marriage may have been linked to the gradual extension of the jurisdiction of the Church over marriage. As secular concerns were made subordinate to religious considerations, the individual’s power was concomitantly increased, as well, at the expense of secular society. This freedom to choose at the expense of familial and feudal considerations was further reinforced by other marriage regulations. For example, by requiring that children must have reached the age of consent, the Church ensured that people were in a position to make a knowledgeable choice of a spouse.

Secular Pressures. Canon law, however adamant it was in establishing individual freedom of choice in marriage, could not abolish the social or psychological pressure that might be placed on a person to acquiesce to a marriage arranged by a lord or by parents. Since lords and parents were not punished for coercion—the only result of such a claim was the nullification of the marriage—there was little to prevent pressure being brought to bear on vassals or children. Nevertheless, as the Church refined the doctrine of marriage, especially as a sacrament that the couple administered to one another, freedom of choice became an increasingly important component in the process.

Increasing Freedom. Over time the freedom of choice doctrine influenced how medieval people approached marriage. The idea was disseminated from the Church to the laity by means of preaching and confession. Cases from ecclesiastical courts and other evidence suggest that the laity understood the rules of marriage, in particular those governing clandestine marriages and consent. There are several recorded incidents of couples marrying against the wishes of their families and lords and insisting on the validity of their secret marriages despite opposition. Indeed, it can be argued that throughout its legislation on marriage the Church minimized the role of the family. For example, during the reading of the banns, it was the community, not the family, that was consulted about the suitability of the union. Therefore, Church legislation helped the individual move toward a more autonomous view of marriage and choosing a spouse.


Jacqueline Murray, “Individualism and Consensual Marriage: Some Evidence from Medieval England,” in Women, Marriage, and Family in Medieval Christendom: Essays in Memory of Michael M. Sheehan, C.S.B., edited by Constance M. Rousseau and Joel T. Rosenthal (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998), pp. 121–151.

John T. Noonan, “Power to Choose,” Viator, 4 (1973): 419–434.

Michael M. Sheehan, “Choice of Marriage Partner in the Middle Ages: Development and Mode of Application of a Theory of Marriage,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 1 (1978): 1–33.

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Marriage: Spousal Choice

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