Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.10.25, McDougall, Bigamy and Christian Identity

13.10.25, McDougall, Bigamy and Christian Identity

In this thought-provoking book, Sara McDougall examines some of the social consequences of the later medieval Church's insistence that marriage should be a sacramental, monogamous, and, ideally, indissoluble union. Her focus is on the policing and punishment of "bigamy" in the diocese of Troyes in the fifteenth century. While McDougall acknowledges that medieval definitions of bigamy do not correspond to modern ones, she is primarily interested in the prosecution of medieval men and women who remarried despite already being married to a living spouse--bigamy as we understand it today. Church officials regarded such behavior as an intolerable abuse of the marital sacrament and, in Troyes at least, they arranged an array of punishments and humiliations for its practitioners. McDougall's study thus details how canonical-legal principles were put into practice in one fifteenth-century diocese (47-48). In the process, she casts light on wider issues surrounding the place of marriage in later medieval society.

A short introduction and an incisive conclusion bookend five chapters. In the first, McDougall surveys the exaltation of monogamy and attitudes towards remarriage in later medieval western Europe. She provides a brief overview of the primary biblical models for marriage in the Christian tradition and then discusses the (somewhat sparse) evidence for the policing of bigamy in the fifteenth-century territories of England, Spain, and Italy. Compared with these regions, ecclesiastical officials in the diocese of Troyes were unusually proactive and unusually severe in their prosecutions of persons who remarried while their first spouse still lived. In chapters two and three, McDougall closely examines the extant records from Troyes and uncovers marked differences in the court's treatment of male and female bigamists. Male bigamy, she demonstrates, was regarded as a severe offense against the celestial order that merited spectacular public punishment; female bigamy, on the other hand, was dealt with quietly and privately, and often commuted into a different category of sin (such as adultery). The book's final chapters each revolve around a central question. In chapter four, McDougall attempts to decipher the motivations of the men and women who were investigated by the court, wondering: why commit bigamy? In chapter five, she turns her attention to the worldviews of ecclesiastical officials and asks: why prosecute bigamy?

McDougall's book offers a well-honed set of arguments that respond to the second of these questions. In the wake of the devastation wrought by decades of war in Champagne, she suggests, elite clerics with similar backgrounds and similar training in canon law strove to impose order and social reform in their communities (117-19). Indeed, the language of the sentences passed against bigamists in Troyes reveals how seriously the court regarded their transgressions of monogamous norms. The condemned were told that they had acted instigante dyabolo and that they had despoiled the ordo matrimonialis (126-29). One cannot help wondering, however, why the logic of this argument did not lead to vehement prosecution of those who committed concurrent marriages in other corners of late medieval Europe, no less stricken by war and natural hardship than was Troyes.

Building on the work of David d'Avray (Medieval Marriage: Symbolism and Society [Oxford, 2005], esp. 131-67), McDougall connects this judicial rhetoric to clerical anxieties and concerns about matrimonial symbolism. Since the institution of marriage was modeled on the perfect, indissoluble union of Christ and Church, it "was always ideally a singular and exclusive event" (19). Indeed, remarriage was permitted for widows and widowers, but was frowned upon from a theological perspective; officiating priests were enjoined to withhold the nuptial blessing (Genesis 1:28) from remarrying couples (26-27). Canonists regarded second marriages as lacking full sacramental value, and any man who remarried after the death of his first wife was barred from major orders based on the principle that he had received one sacrament defective in its resemblance to its ideal type (namely, Christ's marriage to the Church). For educated clerics attuned to the demands of sacramental symbolism, the practice of contracting a second marriage while one's first spouse still lived constituted a "criminal distortion of Christian identity" (59). The punishments imposed on convicted bigamists in Troyes mirrored those doled out to felonious clergy. McDougall explains: "To commit bigamy was to violate the most essential rules of the order of matrimony in a way not unrelated to the shedding of blood by a man sworn to renounce violence and serve God" (125).

The court's punishments, however, were not applied uniformly to both genders. The Troyes officiality (as the bishop's court was called, 43- 44) investigated thirty-three women on suspicions of bigamy, but only one received time in prison (71). Most were compelled to pay fines and to separate from their illegal spouses. By contrast, men convicted of bigamy were typically subject to public exhibition on the ladder leading up to the scaffold and to lengthy prison sentences. Through close attention to her sources, McDougall demonstrates that the vast majority of the convicts were mature men, mostly immigrants who had lived in Troyes for some time and were presumably well integrated into the community (52-59). She argues convincingly that these older male bigamists were punished most severely not simply because they were foreigners but because court officials considered them particularly deficient in their roles as husbands and as heads of household. On the other hand, the women investigated by the court were more likely to be viewed as "irresponsible and foolish abandoned wives" than as willful criminals (73). In fifteenth-century Troyes, at least, bigamy, though committed by people of either sex (6), was understood as an overwhelmingly male crime: men outnumbered women 2 to 1 among those investigated, and 20 to 1 among those convicted for it. The fracture lines McDougall ably documents appear to have run primarily through masculinity, even if the sphere in which they manifested themselves was that of matrimony.

While McDougall offers convincing and well-substantiated explications of the court's priorities and its rationales, her arguments about the motivations of the individuals in its crosshairs, more speculative in nature, are less persuasive. In her efforts to explain why men and women in Troyes remarried while their first spouse was still alive, McDougall does not attribute their behavior to an insufficient internalization of Christian doctrine, nor does she regard the laity as possessing attitudes towards marriage substantially different from those of episcopal officials (6, 112, 137-38). Instead, she suggests that the laity of Troyes placed a high value on Christian marriage and were overeager to partake in its rites. Bigamists, in McDougall's view, were aware of their transgressions, but nevertheless excited to participate in Church ceremonies, hoping perhaps "that the [marriage] ritual might bless their union, even if the law did not" (107). Her primary evidence for this contention is the fact that most of the illegal second marriages described in the registers from Troyes were apparently solemnized publicly and celebrated in facie ecclesiae. Even if this information is accurate, however, it scarcely permits us access, in the absence of other sources, to specific motivations and desires. These men's and women's decisions to wed no doubt stemmed from a constellation of factors; their participation in a public marriage ritual does not ipso facto mean that they endorsed the attendant dogmas. The occasional detail, moreover, undermines the notion that bigamists took the Church's marital teachings fully onboard. One bigamist visited his first wife and slept with her for a week before returning to his new family (61). Even more remarkably, a first husband who returned from a long absence was amiably hosted by his wife and her new husband ("Certainly we can find no evidence of any acrimony or conflict at all, on either side," 79). Such cases suggest that some, at least, in the laity must have had notions of marriage radically divergent from those of their ecclesiastical overseers.

The book repeatedly invokes a late medieval "epidemic" (3) or "crisis" (2, 17, 43, 137) of remarriages. Evidence for any such plague of bigamists is quite thin, however. McDougall does an often heroic job of squeezing out every last drop of data from her laconic sources (58- 59, 77-78). Still, in the half-century or so she surveys, she finds about 100 allegations of bigamy, only a fifth of which resulted in conviction. (Precise date ranges remain regrettably vague [e.g., 44, 49, 76, 118, 124], as do overall numbers [45, cf. 72], and even the line distinguishing suspected cases from convictions [e.g., 71-72].) Furthermore, by her own admission, Troyes seems highly unusual, if not indeed unique, among pre-Reformation dioceses--though McDougall does usefully and provocatively make the case that incomplete records and blind spots in the research may hide from our view similar cases elsewhere (34-41). The subtext of her research question is future- oriented: where did the sixteenth-century (and later) obsession with bigamy begin (16-18, 138-42)? This focus may explain her decision to set aside the more expansive medieval conceptions of bigamy (21-24), but it comes with a high price tag--anachronism--which further undercuts the analytical purchase of her efforts to get into the minds of her medieval subjects.

At 152 pages--including a highly recommended ten-page appendix with selected transcriptions from relevant judicial sentences--McDougall's book is a swift and enjoyable read, though with a few rough patches. Section divisions within each chapter would have improved the overall organization and flow (e.g., 64-67), and the presentation of the raw data in tabular form would have made for easier reference and more rigorous argumentation (cf. 106). Moreover, a firmer editorial hand should have eliminated many tedious repetitions (see, e.g., 71-74, 95- 99). For all these infelicities, McDougall demonstrates convincingly that officials' fears about illegal remarriage have been severely underappreciated in their fifteenth-century contexts, and she opens up exciting doorways for others to walk through in the future. Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne will repay close attention from social and religious historians, as well as anyone interested in the subject of medieval marriage.