13.09.37, Karras, Unmarriages

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Walter Prevenier

The Medieval Review 13.09.37

Karras, Ruth Mazo. Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Pp. 304. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4420-5.

Reviewed by:
Walter Prevenier
University of Ghent
walter.prevenier@telenet.be

This book makes me happy for many reasons. For years I have admired Ruth Karras for the outstanding originality of her former studies, but this is certainly her most challenging. It has the sharpest analysis I have read on the complexity of the many forms of marriage and alternative companionship in the Middle Ages. Karras describes the phenomenon with a slightly ironical, convenient overarching term, "unmarriages." In the past many historians worked on formal marriages, others on clandestine unions, and others on concubinage and adultery. Here we get them all together in one global overview, and the variety is much broader than these four formats. Karras' thesis is that there was never one unique model of marriage, rather an impressive plurality of alternative forms of cohabitation, displaying a lot of individual creativity and some critical disrespect for the ecclesiastical rituals and the civic rules of the game. I appreciate that Karras, more than most historians in the past, does not hesitate to reveal that her observation of the contested nature of marriage in today's society was her source of inspiration. I also like her statement that looking into the mirror of the past is a challenge for all current ideological groups with opposing views on marriage, both those basing their claims on tradition and those claiming that cultural changes should provoke changes in the form of marriage: "only by historicizing marriage can we see the inherent illogic of claims that there is only one 'real' form" (1).

Secondly I appreciate Karras' fierce reaction against another false perception that considers medieval society as a monolithic repository of tradition. This study claims that medieval communities focused rather on adaptability, creativity, and flexibility. Many medieval women and men found indeed countless appropriate roads to escape all forms of interference in matters of marriage and sexual activities, and all ways to avoid calculations of parents related to family patrimony and dowry regulations. Their intended, often discouraged, formats varied from socially mixed marriages, clandestine marriages, quasi-marital unions, interreligious and international unions, concubinage, living apart together. Karras warns us from the beginning that she excluded two categories from a systematic analysis in this book: same-sex couples and spiritual unions with other persons or with Christ (chastity unions), because recent and exhaustive scholarship on these points is available, respectively by James Brundage and Dyan Elliott.

A third originality of this book is that it takes into account all the "powers" that had the ambition to regulate and influence human companionships in the direction of traditional and conservative marriages: the Church, civic authorities, urban elites, parents, and extended families.

How did Karras find the reverse side of the coin? For chapter 1 ("The Church and the Regulation of Unions between Women and Men"), chapter 2 ("Unequal Unions") and the first part of chapter 3 ("Priests and their Partners") she relies essentially on an impressive and well selected collection of specialized literature, secondary sources and printed primary sources. For the second part of chapter 3, on priests, and for the entire chapter 4, "On the Margins of Marriage," she turned to totally new and unexplored materials. She worked here in essence with the civil and the criminal registers of the Archdeaconry of Paris from 1483 to 1505, those of Brie from 1499 to 1505, and the register of the Officiality of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris from 1486 to 1498. I consider this a justifiable selection, limited in time but fair, because it is a set of unedited and virtually unexplored documentary materials, and because these sources are superbly contextualized with a rich collection of related secondary literature. The weakness of this choice, however, is double. All the material comes from ecclesiastical authorities and gives a limited and one-sided approach to the picture. More importantly, while the comparative focus is present, especially for France and England, it is not prominent enough for Germany, Mediterrenean Europe and the Low Countries, where a lot of solid analysis is available that would have allowed Karras to discover the specificity of the "unmarriage" sensibilities in the Parisian microcosm. The limited use of material from the Low Countries is especially unfortunate. One article by Monique Vleeschouwers Van Melkebeek has been used (249), but this author produced several other books and articles in which she develops exactly the same themes which are crucial in the Paris officiality registers. Some of these would have been wonderful in the comparative mood, such as: Monique Vleeschouwers-Van Melkebeek, "Aspects du lien matrimonial dans le Liber Sentenciarum de Bruxelles (1448-1459)," Revue de l'histoire du Droit 53 (1985): 49-67; and "Classical Canon Law on Marriage. The Making and Breaking of Households," in Myriam Carlier and Tim Soens, eds., The Household in Late Medieval Cities. Italy and Northwestern Europe Compared, Louvain and Apeldoorn, 2001, 15-23. A third article ("Bina matrimonia: matrimonium praesumptum versus matrimonium manifestum," in Serge Dauchy et al., eds., Auctoritates xenia R.C. Van Caenegem oblata, Iuris scripta historica 13 (1997): 245-55) would have been helpful for decoding the rather cryptic Parisian texts, such as the one on "presumed marriage" on p. 170. I give one other lacuna: the materials of the magnificent collection of marriage contracts from fifteenth-century Douai analysed by Martha Howell in The Marriage Exchange. Property, Social Place, and Gender in Cities of the Low Countries, 1300-1550 (Chicago and London, 1998). Douai shows a very typical variant of marriage conditions and couple relations, as it was a city with a preponderance of small family businesses and nuclear households, in which couples' common responsibilities were considerable, and greater than in most other cities. Interesting contrasts with the Ile de France have been developed by Philippe Godding in "La famille dans le droit urbain de l'Europe du Nord-Ouest au bas moyen-âge," in Myriam Carlier and Tim Soens, eds., The Household in Late Medieval Cities. Italy and Northwestern Europe Compared (Louvain and Apeldoorn, 2001). Anyway, I consider Karras's case study on the Parisian area a significant monograph that will be a cornerstone for a later synthesis within a broader European frame. Karras refers indeed to that future perspective, and very wisely warns us that the patterns of behavior in Paris are not necessarily typical for the rest of medieval Europe (172).

However erudite and solidly professionally documented it may be, this marvelous book reads like an exciting novel. It is full of unexpected and challenging information and wonderful anecdotes. I quote a few of them. The long chapter on "unequal unions" (68-114) reveals the fact that socially mixed marriages were not such an exceptional phenomenon as many historians presumed in the past, but it also displays the incredible variety of mixed conditions. Especially unions including concubines present the most sophisticated forms of statutes and of dowry regulations. The sexual use of servants, and even more of slaves, was regular conduct for men of the master class; especially for their younger family members it was an appealing and cheap alternative for the relatively impersonal visits to prostitutes (90). Marriage by members of the elites with their servants was, however, another story; most families found servants unsuitable as partners. Those mixed unions were mostly considered as "shameful, infamous and vile" (97). In all these conditions one could never escape the notion of honor. A lower-class free man marrying a former slave might not lose much honor, but an upper-class man certainly would. The adultery of a wife, especially with a slave or a person of low status, was considered a much bigger dishonor for her family than similar activities by her husband (98). Don't miss the statement "sans façons" of Pierrette Flatret about her partner Aimery de Beauvais, who had left her fourteen years earlier, nevertheless maintained Pierrette for twelve of those fourteen years during which they had five children together. All this time he promised to marry her, but refrained. In Pierrette's complaint about this failure before the official of Paris, apparently in a rather indecent terminology, she used one unforgettable expression of perfect female self-consciousness: "that no man would be the master of her cunt and that she would do what she wanted with it" (206).

A well developed section in this book is the rich chapter on the behavior of "priests and their partners" (115-164). I fully agree with the remark: "the church did not speak with a unified voice" (25). There was indeed no one behavior within the clergy. The general theory was one of celibacy and sexual abstinence. The practice was a lot of cohabitation and de facto marriage of priests. Since the Councils of 1123 and 1139 declared clerical marriages invalid, these unions became automatically concubinage, a situation that was welcomed by many parishioners, but perceived with hostility by others. The fifteenth-century Parisian theologian Jean Gerson declared that clerical concubinage should be tolerated for the same reasons as public prostitution. Protestants, in later times, equally showed tolerance for marriages of priests as a lesser evil. Karras makes here an interesting comparison with the contrasting reactions to gay couples in many parts of the United States in the twenty-first century (116). In theory adult priests' sons were denied access to holy orders, as was generally the case for all illegitimate children; but for both categories escape was possible, by papal dispensation and by intervention of lay patrons (140-141). The rich variety of terms for priests' wives or former wives (servant, hearthmaid or handmaid to whore, domestic, prostitute or concubine) are a perfect mirror of a dominant negative public opinion about these women (134-135). Karras rightly insists on the legal insecurity of priests' partners: they risked being repudiated at any time (164). But I would add that even greater was the social handicap of a former priest's concubine on the marriage market as a result of a stigma that is well documented by sources from the Low Countries.

A table on page 154 presents interesting statistics on the different types of clerical sexual offenses in the register of the Archdeacon of Paris between 1483 and 1505: 299 cases in 22 years. I regret that a systematic comparative approach is omitted here, and that no effort is made to confront the amount of offenses for each type of misbehavior with similar lists available for Tournai (and Cambrai) and Canterbury for the same period, mentioned on pages 151-152. That approach would have shown if the methods and norms for repression of clerical offenses in the Parisian area were specific to that region or not. I regret a second omission: Karras brings the crucial question to the table of how these clerical offenses came to the attention of the episcopal authorities (151-2), followed by a very short comment on realistic and false reports by parishioners to bishops. In fact a very formal and effective structure had been active in these matters in several parts of Europe, the parochial synod (Sendgericht in the German areas), a local institution composed of the parish priest (at least if he was not accused himself) and a group of "honorable" burghers, acting as a watchdog and a moral commission. It existed since the Merovingian period, and it remained active in most parts of Europe, at least until the end of the Middle Ages. For the later Middle Ages there is an excellent monograph by Daniel Lambrecht, De parochiale synode in het oude bisdom Doornik gesitueerd in de Europese ontwikkeling, 11de eeuw-1559 (Brussels, 1984) with a well developed international overview and discussion of the Archdeaconry of Paris on pages 272-273. This ecclesiastical technique of denunciation is close to that of some civil institutions, like the Onestà, active in Florence since 1403 (Richard C. Trexler, "La prostitution florentine au XVe siècle," Annales: économies, Sociétiés, Civlisations 36 (1981): 983-1015). We should also refer to a systematic analysis of the repression of moral transgressions by episcopal courts in France and in the Burgundian Netherlands: Véronique Beaulande, Le malheur d'être exclu? : excommunication, réconciliation et société à la fin du Moyen Âge (Paris, 2006), especially on pages 107-128.

Karras has a fine empathy for the use by contemporaries of psychological arguments, as in the case before the Archdeaconry of Paris in which the judge strangely fined two partners, although living together in the same conditions under one roof, for different offenses. The woman was fined for clandestine marriage, her husband for carnal knowledge. Karras suggests that the court fined them in essence for what each had confessed, and that the court apparently did not care about and did not make a decision regarding the type of companionship the couple had (170). We should not be amazed. So many formats of living together were available in the fifteenth century that not only simple contemporaries but even well-educated judges completely lost the scent in this imbroglio, and had doubts about how to determine the exact quality of the cohabitation. Very often the line of marriage was not clearly drawn and the formal rules were not applied, particularly if no dowry or financial arrangements were on the table (201). This magnificent book explains perfectly well why between concubinage and clandestine marriage there was often no more than a very fine line.

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Walter Prevenier

University of Ghent