Forced marriage. Probably one of the most commonly used- and accepted screen tropes about the Middle Ages. How many Medieval movies or TV shows feature a girl or young woman stuck in an unhappy marriage with a man much older than her, or in any way unpleasant. How often is the unfortunate female depicted as having had no choice, as her unappealing spouse was chosen by her family, or she was forced to wed, or sold to him like so much chattel?
The seller and the bartered bride. Isabella and her brother Guy the 2009 BBC Series, Robin Hood.
One example would be the character of Isabella from series three of the BBC’s Robin Hood (2009), who in the story was sold into marriage by her brother Guy of Gisborne and the age of 13 to an abusive man. His main justification being that he offered ‘a good price’.
Many seem to accept this as an accurate, factual representation of the situation of many women, especially high -born women, throughout the Medieval Era. Those unenlightened Medieval folk, it may be thought, just accepted such situations, considered them right, and the unfortunate ladies were expected to put up and shut up.
My regular readers will know, however, that I tend to regard fictionalised screen depictions of history with particular suspicion. Hollywood is the source of so much misinformation and distortion that it is hard to take it seriously, but once more the screen poses a relevant question. Does the depiction of uncountable of females regularly being sold into the lifelong misery of unhappy matrimony reflect the reality of what life was ‘on the ground’ for the women and girls of Medieval Europe?
As is usually the case the truth is more complicated- and in some ways- more interesting than fiction. A law code of King Canute (who ruled in England from 1016-1035) stated thus: “neither a widow nor a maiden is ever to be forced to marry a man whom she herself dislikes, nor to be given for money, unless he (presumably the husband to be) chooses to give everything of his own free will”.[i] The existence of this law may well demonstrate that such marriages were indeed taking place- but it does serve to demonstrate that such practices were, as least officially, frowned upon. So Richard Armitage’s Guy of Gisborne would likely have fallen foul of the law in this respect.
Yet even if the civil authorities theoretically disapproved of such practices, surely the church, that supposedly hopelessly corrupt institution that was only out for money would have been willing to turn a blind eye? They were the ones who performed many marriages after all. They were also, it appears, largely behind the initiative to prevent forced marriage, and “by at least the eleventh century consent was regarded as necessary for marriage by both church and state”. [ii] Indeed, if a woman could prove that she had been marred without giving her free consent she could at least in theory seek legal redress law and go before a church court to obtain an annulment or divorce.
Yet in the following centuries, it seemed, people were still ignoring the proper customs and laws regarding marriage, as William Langland author of the commentary on 14th century English society English society Piers the Ploughman lambasted his contemporaries who contracted ‘unions purely out of greed to get hold of property’ and expressed disgust at ‘a young girl paired with a weak, worn out old man’[iii]. For Langland the proper marriage truly in accordance with the will of God ought to ‘begin with the consent of the couple’s fathers, and advice of their families, followed by the mutual willingness of the pair themselves’.[iv]
Readers may wish that he had no objection to arranged marriage per se as many Westerners do now. Perhaps the problem in the case of the latter is the tendency to equate arranged marriage with forced marriage, when, as this short post has shown, the two were not necessarily the same. Applying modern standards and attitudes to the past is seldom helpful, and it seems modern views of marriage have resulted many misconceptions about the matrimonial customs and norms of Medieval Europe.
[i] Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages (Harper Row, 1987), p106.
[iii] William Langland, Piers Ploughman, edited and translated by A.V.C Schmidt (Oxford, 2000), p91.
[iv] Ibid, p92.