contributor.author: Philip Daileader

title.none: McSheffrey, Marriage Sex and Civic Culture (Philip Daileader)

identifier.other: baj9928.0706.016 07.06.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Philip Daileader, The College of William and Mary, phdail@wm.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: McSheffrey, Shannon. Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia, P.A.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Pp. 291. $55.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 0-8122-3938-5, ISBN-13: 978-0822-3938-6 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.06.16

McSheffrey, Shannon. Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia, P.A.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Pp. 291. $55.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 0-8122-3938-5, ISBN-13: 978-0822-3938-6 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Philip Daileader
The College of William and Mary
phdail@wm.edu

Next fall, I will assign Shannon McSheffrey's Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London in an undergraduate course on the premodern family. I expect that the course's students will come away from the book with a good understanding of how marriages formed in a late-medieval urban environment. I also expect that the students will come away with an appreciation of the book's readability, good sense, and evenhandedness.

Readers will hear echoes of Richard Helmholz's Marriage Litigation in Medieval Englan and Barbara Hanawalt's several books in McSheffrey's work, but Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture blends legal and social history so seamlessly that it achieves its own identity. Like Helmholz, McSheffrey studies court records, especially the records of the episcopal Consistory: "this study relies on about 950 examinations of parties and witness depositions offered in about 230 cases of marriage and defamation litigation in the diocese of London in the second half of the fifteenth century" (195). McSheffrey also uses the records of lower church courts, such as the Commissary court--later known as the "bawdy court"--and trawls civic and royal records, too, looking at materials as varied as wardmote inquest records and Chancery petitions. McSheffrey shares Helmholz's interest in determining whether and how English courts applied the laws governing marriage, but that is not her main concern. Rather, she (like Hanawalt) seeks to identify the social dynamics that shaped the creation and dissolution of marriages, without relying quite as heavily on statistical analysis as Hanawalt has sometimes done. McSheffrey quantifies sparingly and instead prefers to comment at length on individual cases.

McSheffrey divides her book into two parts. The title of Part I, "Law and Social Practice in the Making of Marriage in Late Medieval London," nicely summarizes the contents of its five chapters and roughly 130 pages. The first chapter lays out for the reader the basics of medieval canon law and marriage: future-tense and present- tense words of consent, witnesses, banns, solemnization, and divorce. Canon law made the legality of marriage depend upon the actions of only two people, namely, the man and the woman who spoke present-tense words of consent to one another. McSheffrey's court records suggest that most marriages were not so circumscribed, and that men and women were not equally active in the creation of marriages, as chapters two, three, and four discuss. Chapter two examines the differing roles played by men and women in courtship rituals, while chapters three and four examine the important role played by immediate family and by "friends" (a broad group including not just, or even primarily, the bride's and groom's companions, but also older and better-established individuals who were sometimes the bride's or groom's kin and sometimes not, sometimes the bride's or groom's employers and sometimes not, and sometimes just well-respected individuals with no personal responsibility for the bride or groom). These "friends" mediated marriage at every step of the process, from the initial inquiries about a man's or (more often) a woman's interest and availability, to the marriage ceremony itself and even beyond, should litigation subsequently arise concerning the marriage. Chapter five examines the extent to which male agency determined the location of marriages: most took place in a house with some connection to the relatively passive woman (usually the house belonged to her parents, but it might belong to her other relatives, and if the woman were widowed it might be her own house). Most often the wedding took place in the hall, the room where the largest number of witnesses and guests could be accommodated. Less popular venues for weddings were churches and taverns.

Part II, "Governance, Sex, and Civic Morality," comprises two chapters and roughly 60 pages. Chapter six, "Governance," examines how the cultural expectation that husbands were to govern, wives were to be governed, shaped marriage. Violence against a wife was acceptable to the extent to which it allowed a husband to govern her, but became unacceptable when it reached levels suggesting that the husband could not govern himself. The antitheses of the good husband were the adulterer, who lacked self-control, and the "strumpetmonger," who pimped his wife and thereby abused his powers over her. But the expectation of governance extended beyond the nuclear family. Older males could govern the behavior of others, both husbands and wives, through direct confrontation or through recourse to various institutions: the parish with its priest, churchwardens, and devotional fraternities; the ward with its beadles, constables, and wardmote inquest juries; or the craft guild. Chapter seven, "Gender, Sex, and Reputation," argues that the expectation that husbands should govern not just their wives, but also themselves, created a distinctively urban, even bourgeois, morality, which regarded male marital fidelity as an essential attribute of the good husband--an idea that was not shared in aristocratic circles where the infidelity of the husband was assumed. The number of cases involving bourgeois male infidelity shows that it existed. Even more significant, though, is the large number of disapproving people who intervened in various ways when such infidelity was known or even merely suspected. The urban male, like the urban female, had to be concerned about his reputation, even if a bad reputation was likely to disadvantage a woman far more than a man during negotiations leading to marriage.

McSheffrey's book offers something to readers of many different types. In some ways, the book seems to be geared toward undergraduate students and general readers. Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture emphasizes results, not methodology. The precise set-up and functioning of London's ecclesiastical court system--indeed, even the actual number of cases that McSheffrey has examined--is discussed in a concluding appendix, not in the book's introduction (which does, however, address the methodological problems posed by court records). That no priest needed to officiate at a wedding; that men were more active than women in the marriage process; that medieval courts dealt most frequently with clandestine marriage and the determination of whether marriages existed, rather than with divorce and the termination of marriages whose existence all parties acknowledged; that intimate behaviors regarded today as "private," i.e., as beyond legal and societal regulation, were not regarded similarly in the Middle Ages: I expect that nearly all medieval historians already understand these points. Yet historians who find themselves nodding along with Part I of the book should certainly continue on to Part II. There, McSheffrey's analysis of how the concept of "governance" shaped marital expectation and behavior is as fresh as it is compelling.

Whatever shortcomings this book might have are minor. Individuals ranging from house servants to wealthy merchants parade through the London court cases, and while McSheffrey does take differences of social status into account from time to time, some historians will be surprised, rightly or wrongly, that these differences do not loom larger in her analysis. Chapter four is underdeveloped, especially compared to the book's other chapters. It is less than a dozen pages long, and on page 116 the author uses "probably," "apparently," "almost certainly," "could have," and other similar hedges more than twelve times when discussing the case of Rose Langtoft. The use of so many qualifiers in such a short space suggests that the author is, in this one rare instance, pushing the evidence further than it ought to be pushed. On page 32, McSheffrey disagrees with Helmholz's contention that present-tense marriage contracts loom larger in court records than do future-tense contracts because the former were, by their conclusive and absolute nature, more likely to lead to lawsuits. Instead, McSheffrey posits that there were simply more present-tense than future-tense marriage contracts, and that the court records reflect their actual numbers. That is certainly possible, but despite McSheffrey's declaration that her "reading, which I argue is the more probable," ought to be preferred, she in fact offers no argument as to why her explanation is more likely than Helmholz's. McSheffrey's minimalist approach to statistics can occasion some mild frustration, as when one checks the footnote following the statement that "While the home of the woman's parents was the most common locus for the exchange of consent, in a substantial number of other cases, contracts were made in the home of the woman's employer" (122). One might expect the accompanying footnote to explain just how many cases constitute a "substantial number" and what percentage of the total number of contracts these cases represent. Instead, the footnote tells the reader "E.g., LMA, DL/C/205, fols. 19r-20r, 42r-43r, 49v, 57v, 96v-97r, 131v-132v, 134r, 168r; GL, 9065, fols. 10r, 55r-56v, 270r, 277v-279v," which suffices to show that such cases exist, but does not necessarily back the text's claim of substantiality of number (236 at note 8). A chart showing how many weddings took place in which locations would help here.

All in all, though, Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London is a fine achievement. It wears its considerable scholarship lightly and keeps its focus on the men and women who lived in London during the second half of the fifteenth century. McSheffrey largely avoids the preening first-person references and wholly avoids the obscurantism that bedevil modish academic writing; yet, at the same time, McSheffrey engages fruitfully with recent historiographical developments regarding the histories of space and of masculinity, to take two examples. Such a trick is difficult to pull off, and readers should admire just how easy McSheffrey makes the trick look.