Back in the 1970s social historians started studying medieval marriage seriously, a topic which had until then mostly been the province of students of doctrine and the liturgy. These initial studies were either by or heavily influenced by Georges Duby, whose articles and two key books, Medieval Marriage (1978) and The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest (1981 in French, 1983 in English), are still widely cited. Duby assumed that society became increasingly patriarchal in the High Middle Ages, putting all the emphasis on the oldest son to the exclusion of younger sons and daughters, and that the ideal of marriage for the aristocracy clashed with the ideal of marriage for the church. In the last generation, however, these ideas have been heavily modified and nuanced, as it has become clear that there were no rigid rules either on marriage arrangements or on family structure.
In this book, Martin Aurell brings together twenty articles, in French and in English, by an international group of authors, coming out of a two-day conference on matrimonial strategies--he was quite deliberate in choosing a word with the military overtones of "strategies." Although it is not stated explicitly, the book seems intended to jumpstart scholarly conversations on marriage and the family in the same way as did the 1977 conference volume edited by Duby and Jacques LeGoff, Famille et parenté dans l'Occident médiéval. The majority of the articles here are on France or Spain, but there are also a few on Italy and England and one each on Greece and on Austria. The articles are divided into three roughly equal sections, on the political maneuvering involved in aristocratic marriages, on the exchange of women and land between lineages, and finally a somewhat mixed group of articles on civil and canonical legislation on marriage and how marriage was conceptualized.
The book as a whole is rather ambivalent about the extent to which historians should break with the models and paradigms of the 1970s. American authors, most recently Amy Livingstone, have been happy to reject Duby's rigid patriarchy and primogeniture. In her own studies of noble families of the Loire valley, she has found that younger sons, not just the oldest one, were encouraged to marry, and that women continued to play a role in their natal families even after they were married (Out of Love for My Kin, 2010). In her article in this volume, she begins with the Tree of Jesse--which showed the maternal, not paternal, ancestry of Jesus--to demonstrate the important place wives often took, acting as partners to their husbands while helping to promote them socially and politically.
French scholars, however, appear reluctant to argue openly with Duby, even when their own evidence suggests they should. For example, Martin Aurell attempts a balancing act, upending the simplistic conclusions of thirty-five years ago even while stressing their continued value. He begins his piece, which also serves as the book's Introduction, with a nicely nuanced discussion of how the imagery of the thirteenth-century Morgan illuminated Bible undercuts the idea that fathers made all the decisions for their children, for the young adult children of the images seem to have ideas of their own. He also suggests that Duby's assumption that younger sons did not marry may have been based on an anomalous situation in the Mâconnais and argues that one cannot essentialize a "church" position on marriage in opposition to the position of the aristocracy. But then he insists that one must continue to use the theories of structuralism, of basic requirements on which societies agreed, or else history will lose all explanatory force.
The book's final article, by Didier Lett, which also serves as the conclusion, is titled "Les règles du jeu," the rules of the game (349), and asserts that there actually were unwritten rules which aristocrats followed, as well as the church's written laws. Yet the volume's articles all demonstrate how differently marriage was contracted in different times and places--or even by different families in the same time and place. And Lett is much more ready to dismiss Duby than is Aurell and eventually undercuts his article's title by suggesting quite convincingly that if there were rules, then in practice many people maneuvered around them.
It appears then that European scholars are almost ready to follow the Americans and start constructing new paradigms about family and marriage to replace those of an earlier generation. Fabrice Lachaud, for example, concludes a study of the marriages of the lords of Craon in western France by arguing that these lords took the alliances that women in the family contracted as seriously as those directly connected with the (patrilinear) lineage--even though Lachaud recognizes that this goes against earlier received opinion. Ana Rodríguez finds that women of the royal families had a great deal of political power in Castille-Léon in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, more than, she suggests, one would have expected on the basis of earlier studies.
The diversity of the articles in this book indicates how far these scholars are from coming up with anything as tidy as the old paradigms--but that is good! There is a certain amount of discussion about whether medieval history should be more sociological or anthropological, and how far one can stray from Cartesian rationality, none of which will seem particularly urgent to an American, but all of the articles present intriguing case studies, based on close reading of the primary sources.
The topics covered are more wide-ranging in time than the book's subtitle suggests. The earliest articles chronologically are Jean-Pierre Poly's, which starts with a genealogical confection of the eleventh century but which then doubles back to the fifth century, and Chloé Maillet's on the Alexis story of holy divorce, which starts in the fifth century before moving briskly to the twelfth. The latest is Cyrille Debris's article on Hapsburg marriages, which goes up to the end of the Middle Ages. Topics covered are also highly variable, including both a close genealogical examination of marriages among the Carolingian-era aristocracy in Christian Settipani's article and an analysis of vernacular romance in Catalina Girbea's.
Some of the conclusions the authors reach are what one might have expected if one had been paying any attention to recent studies of medieval noble families, but are demonstrated using previously neglected sources. For example, Thierry Stasser concludes that the marriages of princely families in the south of Italy in the eighth through eleventh centuries were often carried out to consolidate position or cement a truce. Carol Avignon's article on the early Capetians' efforts to avoid consanguinity through their marriage alliances covers many of the same issues I discussed in 1981 (Speculum 56), although her treatment is much more detailed, especially on the vagaries of canonical pronouncements.
The role of the church in marriage arrangements seems somewhat downplayed, given that marriage was well on its way to being a recognized sacrament by the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Megan McLaughlin discusses the treatment of the church as Bride of Christ in eleventh-century England. Michel Rouche adds a brief note on the views on marriage of Hincmar of Reims. And one of the book's most novel articles is that by Olivier Hanne, on twelfth-century monastic efforts to understand Muslim marriage. But overall the focus is on the negotiations and goals of noble families.
Perhaps the greatest gap in the book, given all the authors' laudable efforts to bring the history of the family up to date, is the positivist approach to the primary sources. With only a few exceptions, none of the authors discuss the reasons why a particular source might have been written or the author's intentions in doing so. Manuel Angel Bermejo, for example, just describes the marriage law of medieval Castile without any real attempt to come to terms with how or why it was written. Jean-Pierre Poly's piece on a late antique family group would have been strengthened if he could have done more with why an eleventh-century author would have wanted to present this group and how the group supported or conflicted with the author's own assumptions about what a family was like.
There is a great deal of detailed and complex material in this book, and anyone writing on medieval family and marriage for the next few decades will want to consult it. The footnotes alone would be worth it even if nothing else. The notes have a very full historiography of works in French on the topic and a substantial selection of works in English, although German-language works have generally been bypassed--even in Debris's piece on the Hapsburgs (most of the notes there are to primary sources).