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07.10.17, Reynolds, To Have and To Hold

The Medieval Review

07.10.17, Reynolds, To Have and To Hold

This book sets out to examine the function of documentation in the process of marrying and what the surviving documents say about how contemporaries understood it (ix). Given the limitations this imposes, most of the authors look at property contracts surrounding marriage, with excursions into some legal material, such as Roman law codes or the records of ecclesiastical courts. The editors argue that these documents bring us "closer to the actual practice of marrying than the normative literature of pre-modern theology and canon law" (x). The book is not intended as a comprehensive survey, but tries to provide a representative sampling of the activities surrounding marriage, and the range of scholarly analysis that can be applied to the surviving documentation--it is at least partly a methodological handbook, and most of the articles include representative documents as appendices.

In an attempt to reduce overlap and give a common background for the material being covered, the first chapter, by Reynolds, looks at the growth in importance of marital consent, the variety of marital liturgies and various systems of marital property. Chapters two through four deal with material from the imperial period through the eleventh century. Judith Evans-Grubbs surveys the changing Roman law of marriage up to the sixth century, but she supplements this with a discussion of the content and role of Roman tabulae nuptiales from across the empire, arguing that the changing role of property transactions in marriage was a reflection of imperial concern with concubinage and thus the tabulae became "more than records of financial transactions; they had become indicators of morality" (94). David Hunter's article also focuses on tabulae nuptiales, looking at North Africa at the time of Augustine, and arguing that while we have virtually no information on liturgical practices, the tabulae give us an insight into what Augustine expected his audiences to know, and the ways in which the practical expectations of the legal documents informed both his ideas and their expression. Philip Reynolds maintains the tie between dotal charters and liturgical practice by examining 30 charters from Merovingian and Carolingian Gaul, arguing that while they continued to function primarily as legal documents, their preambles demonstrate an evolution of marital theology which reflects the place of marriage in the social sphere, but also connects the individual marriage to the first institution of marriage and to creation, thus performing a pedagogic role.

All of these articles point out that marriage was a process which began with bethrothal and ended with the man and woman living together as husband and wife. The process could be quite lengthy, and the various stages in it were not clearly defined; in many cases a valid marriage required no documentation or proof other than the consent of the couple (or their parents) and the recognition of their community that they were indeed married. The dowry documents which form the core of these articles played a central role in the social and economic function of marriage: the establishment of a new family and the cementing of social or political ties. Nevertheless, as all the authors make clear, it played no role in the actual formation of the marriage, though it could stand as evidence of intent: if a man lived with a woman of significantly lower status, for example, evidence of a dowry demonstrated that he thought of her as his wife rather than his concubine, with the accompanying consequences for the legitimacy of their offspring.

What is perhaps most striking about these articles is the similarity of outlook from the early Christian emperors to tenth century France, what Reynolds describes as "a robust, domestic, commonsensical theology of marriage" (146). All demonstrate the practical assumption that marriage was intended for procreation and approved of by God, together with a growing concern that dowries be properly documented, not to establish the validity of marriage per se, or to put it in the hands of the church, but to reduced the role and the appeal of concubinage and define legitimate heirs more clearly. This is an aim we would expect to see from the church, but the church is strikingly absent from these pages, with the exception of the occasional nuptial blessing, and Pope Nicholas' letter to Khan Boris. Instead, these concerns come from the mouths of Christian emperors and Frankish noblemen.

Many of these same points recur in the later papers. Laurent Morelle examines five dower charters from late twelfth-century Laon and suggests, as did Reynolds, that the dower charters were intended to be read as part of the marriage ceremony, and that the preambles thus played a pastoral role. He further argues that these charters suggest a concern with refuting heretical arguments against marriage, and connects them to Bishop Walter of Mortagne, suggesting that he may have been responsible for this "documentary upsurge" in both diplomatic and pastoral terms (181). Cynthia John looks at Occitan charters during much the same period. While she finds that dowries had much the same variety of roles as in other times and places, she argues that here women were more likely to provide their own dowry, and that women entered into the possession of their marital goods as soon as the marriage was finalized, rather than upon their widowhood.

Richard Helmholz and Frederik Pederson both examine property agreements and ecclesiastical court records to try to bring together the secular and spiritual approaches to marriage in England. Helmholz again finds that in most cases the marriage process opened with property negotiations on the part of the families and was followed by the agreement to marry between the couple, sometimes followed by a public ceremony. He outlines problems that could arise in practice, and conditions that could be imposed in both sets of agreements, but concludes, with some surprise, that while there was a clear growth in the laity's understanding of the church's rules concerning valid marriages between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, there was little change in the marriage contracts themselves. Frederik Pederson pursues the relationship between the ecclesiastical and secular courts, arguing that the laity recognized that both had a role in managing the legalities of marriage, and that they might choose to pursue their rights in whichever one seemed more likely to yield the desired outcome.

Next we move to the edge of medieval Europe. Both Art Cosgrove's piece on Ireland and Agnes Arnorsdottir's on Iceland introduce us to societies where the church had to grapple with deeply entrenched native customs which ran contrary to the church's: in Ireland concubinage, divorce at will and marriages within the prohibited bounds of consanguinity and affinity remained common through the Middle Ages, while in Iceland the strong emphasis on family connections meant that marriage was based on an economic alliance that could be cancelled. Neither society was quick to give up its native customs, but both Cosgrove and Arnorsdottir document a slow process by which the two were integrated. In Ireland many of the offending practices continued, but Cosgrove points out that those involved often went to great trouble and expense to get dispensations, demonstrating that they had some desire to adhere to canonical rules. In Iceland there seems to have been greater acceptance of church standards, which Arnorsdottir sees most clearly in more statements of consent on the part of the bride, but the emphasis on the consent and financial support of the families (though not necessarily the father) remained crucial.

The last three articles move into the later period and look at distinctive urban communities. Thomas Kuehn takes the famous "marriage" of Giovanni and Lusanna as the starting point for his examination of marriage in renaissance Florence, and asks why, if the couple exchanged consent and a ring in the presence of witnesses, one of whom was a friar, the union was later judged to be invalid. Martha Howell looks at the community property regime of late-medieval Douai and the ways in which the property-owning elite moved away from the traditional model to develop marriage contracts in which the property of each party was carefully specified, along with the rights of any children from previous marriages and the rights of kin. While their sources and contexts are quite different, both demonstrate the ways in which local needs and assumptions allowed each community to modulate the ecclesiastical and legal structures governing marriage. Kuehn, for example, argues that while the "marriage" ceremony appeared to fulfill the requirements of the church, it did not fulfill those of the Florentine elite, who required the public exchange of property, written documents and the public introduction of the bride into the groom's house to demonstrate that the union was a marriage and not concubinage, as Giovanni and Lusanna's relationship was ultimately judged to be.

The last article is John Witte's treatment of marriage in Reformation Geneva. This is a fitting conclusion for the book, as it demonstrates the ways in which the Reformation re-conceptualized much of medieval theory and practice. Witte demonstrates how Calvin replaced the medieval sacrament and the Catholic church's insistence that the present tense consent of the couple was the only requirement for legal marriage with a clearly defined and clearly communicated requirement for formal betrothal, property agreements, banns, and marriage ceremony which outlined clearly the rights and responsibilities of the couple, the families, the pastor and the congregation. The previous authors demonstrated that these were all part of the normal expectations of families and communities across Europe through the entire period, but with Calvin's conception of marriage as a spiritual estate which required the active involvement of the whole secular community, the implied contradiction between "secular" and "spiritual" models of marriage becomes irrelevant.

Unlike many collections of essays, this book is both unified in its focus and uniformly strong. Its unity and uniformity, however, also make it a somewhat frustrating read. There is a good deal of repetition between the articles, whether on historiographical points such as Duby's model of marriage, or on terminological points such as the definition of dowry and dower. All of the authors have obviously read the other articles in the book and most make some reference to them, but in a fairly cursory way. Reynold's introductory piece is obviously an attempt to cover some of the basic ground and reduce this repetition, and the idea was a good one, but some greater interaction between the authors could have made this into a really interesting hybrid between a monograph and a collection of essays. Many readers will probably choose only to look at the chapters of particular interest to them, so the repetition may be necessary. Reading the volume as a whole is instructive, however. The sheer paucity of documentary material dealing with a topic of such enormous social and economic importance is striking, as is the continuity of marriage practice over 1500 years. The canonical and theological activity of the twelfth and thirteenth century which usually plays such a large role in the discussion of medieval marriage had remarkably little effect, according to this volume, with the exception of a growing recognition of the need for the consent of the couple. The range of articles included also suggests how local issues affected this broadly similar picture: thus Florence's concern with concubinage or Douai's needs to balance the aspirations of the mercantile elite with the realities of more modest business activity. This is a rich and suggestive collection of articles which has much to offer both the specialist and the student.