'Marriage is a high state, of great dignity’
The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a gift from God (a sacrament). Medieval religious writings such as ‘Speculum Vitae’ and ‘Mirur’ were clear that one of the reasons for marriage was to prevent sin. Sexual behaviour outside marriage was considered to be a mortal sin.
Even inside marriage there were limits on the types and timing of sexual behaviour that could be engaged in without risk to the soul. For example, intercourse during menstruation was forbidden (although the Wollaton Library Collection copy of ‘Speculum Vitae’ has had these 32 lines removed). For more on sexual misconduct and its consequences, see the themes on Advice and Behaviour and Dress, and Punishing Sin.
During the medieval period, weddings were increasingly performed in church rather than in private homes, although a marriage was valid simply through the agreement of the two parties.
Records from the court of the Archdeaconry of Nottingham show that in the 16th and 17th centuries the church authorities were prosecuting people for ‘clandestine marriage’ (that is, being married outside church, or without banns or licence). However, it was not until 1753 that Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act actually required a formal and public ceremony for a marriage to be lawful. Popular confusion over why a ‘common-law marriage’ is not valid still makes the news today.
The following extracts from literary and historical texts give some insights into marriage in medieval society.
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