Couples did not need to marry in a church–they could get married down the pub, round at a friend’s house or even in bed!
The literature of the Middle Ages is full of praise and condemnation of marriage, and a heavy dose of the same cynicism we see today.
In the Medieval times, marriage differed greatly from today. Women didn’t have a choice who they would marry and, most of the time, women didn’t even know the man before they wed.
The arrangement of marriage was done by the bride and groom’s parents. In the middle ages, girls were typically in their teens when they married, and boys were in their early twenties. They based the arrangement of the marriage on monetary worth. The family of the girl to be married would give a dowry, or donation, to the boy she was to marry. They would present the dowry to the groom at the time of the marriage.
Getting married was extremely simple. Some practices and customs that depicted marriages at the time are still present now. What was more difficult, though, was evidencing your marriage. There were so many ways to marry someone, it wasn’t unusual to find yourself married to someone without your knowledge.
While it was the church that created and enforced marriage law and you could get married anywhere you wanted. In a pub, in bed, or at an acquaintance’s house. The choice was yours.
People still married each other on the porch of a church, or in front of its doors. But that was to give it spiritual weight only. In reality, not even a priest was needed to preside over the ceremony. You could get married as soon as you hit puberty–and parental consent was not required.
In medieval England, the establishment of marriage was the only satisfactory place where two people could have sex in peace. This allowed Christians to marry as soon as they reached puberty, which was 14 for males and 12 for females.
People also didn’t need their parent’s consent to marry. Even after this law was abolished in England, disobedient couples crossed the border to Gretna Green, Scotland, where they could still marry without their parent’s permission.
Marriage was so easy in medieval England that couples had a wide range of actions they could use to form a marriage. Consent to marry could be given verbally, or in the form of a gift called a wed, (usually a ring). It was called a ‘present consent.’
The ‘present content’ marriage didn’t have to be consummated for it to count. But if a couple had married at some point in the future, then had sex in the meantime, that meant they were married. Sex was a physical form of ‘present consent.’
Occasionally, even couples couldn’t decide among themselves if they were married or not. Since the procedures to marry were so many and so varied, mix-ups were bound to happen.
This bothered the clergy so much in the 12th century. After an intense discussion, they decided it that marriage was a holy ceremony. This meant that the union of a man and a woman symbolised the union of Christ and the Church, and was not to be taken lightly.
Marriage was a self-contained matter with only one witness: God. Though it was highly encouraged to have people witness the wedding to avoid any doubt.
Church services were also available, but only a minority of people had them. Once it’s become law to marry in Church, most couples who stood before the priest were already married either verbally or by deed.
Divorce as it is today did not exist in medieval times. There were few reasons the wedding could be dissolved. One reason was if either the man or woman were not of legal age, 12 for girls and 14 for boys. If the husband or wife had previously made a religious or monastic vow or were not Christian, it would dissolve the marriage.
The only way to end a marriage was to prove it didn’t exist. Medieval England was a committed society that valued the institution of marriage.
Besides being single and vow-free, you also had to be marrying a fellow Christian. To invalidate a marriage, one had to prove one of these criteria was broken.
The description of the family was vague in medieval England. You could be considered a relation of someone, even if you only had a distant relative in common. Marrying inside the same family was seriously frowned upon, and illegal.
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