Marriage and love in the Middle Ages

Marriage and love in the Middle Ages

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Thewedding is one of the oldest social institutions, usually enshrined in law, uniting a man and a woman in a special form of mutual dependence, often for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family. From the middle of Middle Ages, the Church has endeavored to govern very strictly the union of the spouses with the establishment from 1181 of the sacrament of marriage, codifying conjugal life from the publication of banns to the carnal act. But what was actually going on behind the scenes at the said wedding?

The Church formalizes marriage

In the eleventh century, for the Gregorian reform, the church seeks to impose a rigid demarcation between clerics and laity. The former, responsible for ensuring the spirituality of society, must remain celibate, while the latter ensure the biological reproduction of the species and must marry according to increasingly strict rules which are identical for all. Marriage therefore becomes a sacrament that rests on four central pillars: indissolubility, monogamy, consensualism and exogamy.

The union between a man and a woman must be unique, never be broken during the lifetime of the spouses. The publication of the banns is mandatory to ensure greater publicity for the union. Severe sanctions threaten clandestine marriages. The prior of St Eloi recalls: man is formed in the image of God (made for himself), woman is made in the likeness of man (created to help man) that is why she is submitted to him!

At the end of the medieval period, women married around 17 and 18 and men aged about ten years older, an age difference which reinforced male domination. Le Ménagier de Paris, a treatise on ethics and domestic economy, is intended for young wives. Obedience is imperative for women, but this does not prevent them from playing an important domestic role. The wife brings to the family her dowry plus a capital of culinary, horticultural and educational know-how.

The wife who exercises authority over her husband is unnatural; A beaten or cuckolded husband is the sign of a scandalous reversal attracting a dishonorable hullabaloo: the ridiculed man must ride an upside down donkey through the streets of the city!

Beat his wife or celebrate her

The husband has over his wife a right of correction that an Italian proverb confirms: "Good wife or slut, every woman wants a stick". Any master of the house can chastise woman and family without anyone putting an obstacle in it !! It is when he goes beyond what is "admitted" that he can be condemned. Such violent examples are nevertheless rare, murder between spouses in 1380-1422 represented less than one homicide case in a hundred.

The strong hierarchy within the couple does not prevent the expression of feelings. There can be a real attachment between the spouses. This conjugal affection can be seen in the rare epistolary sources from the end of the Middle Ages.

Out of wedlock

At the end of the Middle Ages not all heterosexual couples were married. Before the Council of Trent (1545-1563) there are other forms of temporary or definitive cohabitation between men and women, even if they are condemned by the Church: adulterous relationships, bigamy, concubinage, second union after separation. It is the infidelity of the married woman and not that of the man who founds adultery because of the illegitimate children brought into the home. The term "adultery" is used for women. Cohabitation is widespread: clerics live in the company of a concubine as "husband and wife" with also children! For many young people from underprivileged backgrounds this may be a temporary choice while waiting for a 'real marriage'.

A calendar for love

The carnal act is presented by the Church as a conjugal debt that the spouses owe each other, but it must only be accomplished in the case of procreation, at certain times of the year because the spouses must abstain: Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, during the great youth periods preceding Easter, Christmas, and during many feasts of the saints. The couple must abstain when the woman has her periods, when she is pregnant, in the 40 days following childbirth, before the relevailles ceremony.

But it is advisable to take note of the reality of the behaviors, because if its prohibitions had been observed the frequency of the reports of the couple would have been from one to three days per month.

The prohibited positions

The position of the woman on the man is forbidden by the church, as well as that where the man stands behind his companion because this lowers him to the rank of animal. Canonical texts and medical works assure Christians that if they adopt his positions or if they copulate in periods not prescribed by the church, they will give birth to crippled, leprous and counterfeit children.

But the historian cannot expand his knowledge of these prohibitions. Was the intimacy of the medieval couple limited? All that is revealed to us is the restraint of the men and women of the Middle Ages who preferred to cast a modest veil over lovemaking forever lost.


- Sex and love in the Middle Ages, by Bernard Ribémont. Klincksieck, 2007.

- Living with the family in the Middle Ages, by Chiara Frugon. Les Belles Lettres, 2017.

- Daily life in the Middle Ages, by Justine Delfrance. New World, 2020.

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