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'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.

Transcripts and translations for manuscript items are also available for download:

Document 1: John Gower, ‘Traitié...pour essampler les amantz marietz’ (composed late 14th century, French) 

This short poem, written in the courtly French language by the English poet John Gower, deals with the sacrament of marriage and the damage that infidelity and deception will do to the union. In this extract Gower explains that when love and virtue are the reasons for the marriage, rather than avarice, then faithfulness is the 'by-product' of the union. Conversely, when a deceiver contracts a marriage, the appearance of the union and the reality of the relationship are deceptive and it is doomed from the start to be unhappy.

He uses the imagery of a single strand being quite different from the same material when it is worked at and made into a stronger cord. The word ‘girded' in the second verse may be following this notion.

The ‘thought’ or ‘intention’ which a person brought to church was considered very important in order to make a true or meaningful sacrament, and was much debated theologically. This concept is also discussed in relation to the sacrament of Penance.

Ref: WLC/LM/8, ff. 201r-v


Transcription and Translation
transcription and translation
 Transcription Translation

Ovesque amour qant loialte sequeinte lors sont les noeces bones et ioiouses mais lui guilers qant il se fait pluis queint 
Par falssemblant les fait souent doubtouses 
A loial qant pluis resemblont amerouses 
Cest en cy come de stouppes vn corde 
Qant le penser a son semblant descorde 

Celle espousaile est assetz forte et seinte
Damour v . sont les causes vertouses 
Si lespousaile est dauarice enceint 
Et qe les causes soient trucherouses 
Ja ne serront les noeces graciouses 
Car conscience toutdis se remorde 
Qant le penser a son semblant discorde 

Honeste amour qone loialte sa queinte 
Fait qe les noeces serront gloiouses 
Et qui son coer ad mys par tiel empeinte 
Nestoet doubter les chainiges perilouses 
Om dit qe noeces sont auenturouses 
Car la fortune en tiel lien ne sacorde 
Qant le penser a son semblant discorde

With love great faithfulness [will] follow,
Then, at that time, the wedding is good and joyful.
But when he, the deceiver, is knowingly more malicious,
[Then] by his cunning these unions are often made into something to be feared
When, to the eye, [it may seem] a loving [union].It is, thus, like [the difference between] tow and a piece of cord[1]
When thought and its image are opposed.

This union is strong and holy,
Where made of love[2], the reasons are virtuous.
If [however] the marriage is girded with avarice
The reasons may be based on trickery and lies.
[Then] never will the union be favoured or be blessed,
Because conscience always torments itself, 
When thought and its image are opposed.

When pure and virtuous love are brought together with fidelity
Then the union will be blessed with grace,
And he who, in his heart, accepts such a commitment
Will not be afraid of threatening changes.
They say that marriages are full of chance,
As [indeed] Fortune does not [act in] harmony in such a union
When thought and its image are opposed.

1. Tow = a strand. Cord = a number of strands twisted or woven together

2. An alternative translation is 'Of love five are the causes/reasons for marriage'.


Document 2: ‘Speculum Vitae’, lines 10991-11032 (composed mid-14th century, English) 

View image with transcript/translation

Marriage is described and explained in this devotional poem as a holy sacrament, invented by God, and necessary in order to prevent men from being sinful. It is also important as a symbol of the relationship between man and God.

Ref: WLC/LM/9, ff. 169r-v



Transcription and Translation
Transcription and Translation
 Transcription Translation

 De Statu Coniugatorum

¶ For spousayle is as men may se 
A state of gret autorite 
Of dignite and of holynes 
Þorow þese þre spousayle stabled es 
¶ Of gret autorite is it 
As bereth witnes holy writ 
For whi oure lord god rightwise 
Hit stabled first in paradyse 
In the state of obedience 
Or euer man synned þorow neclygence 
Þerfore men schuld þorow al her myght 
Þat state kepe clene bothe day and nyght 
As techeth and biddeth holy writ 
Be resoun of god þat stabled hit 
And be resoun of þe stede clene 
Þer it was first stabled sene 
¶ Also spousayle is an hey state 
Of gret dignite as clerkes wate
¶ For whi oure lord wold borne be 
Of a wedded womman þat was fre 
Þat was blestful mary mayden clene 
Þat Joseph wedded hir to mayntene
Gods sone before þe hey message 
Made hir þe mantel of mariage 
And wold be vnder þe mantel hem 
Conceyued and borne with oute wem 
¶ Vnder þe mantel as clerkes kan telle 
Was hid fro þe fend of helle 
Þe conseile of oure saluacioun 
And þe priuite of oure ransoun 
Þerfore men schold þat state worschepe 
And honestly and clene it kepe 
¶ Hit is also þer it is wemles 
A state of gret holynes 
For it is on of þe sacramentes 
Þat holy chirche myche tentes 
And betokeneþ þe spousayle 
Þat is knyt and neuer schal fayle 
Betwene ihesu crist and holy chirche 
Þorow whos counseile vs behoueth wirche 
And betwene god on þe same manere
And mannes soule þat boght dere

 [On the state of marriage]

The sacrament of marriage is, as men say,
a state of excellent authority,
of spiritual worth, and of holiness.
Through these three things marriage is
permanently ordained.
It is of excellent authority,
as Holy Writ bears witness,
because our good Lord God
established it in Paradise first,
in that state of obedience,
before man sinned through negligence.

Therefore, man should try to remain
in a pure state, both day and night,
as is taught and required in Holy Writ,
by God’s reason, who established it,
and because of the holy place
[Paradise, the Garden of Eden]
where it was first established and seen.

Also, marriage is a high state,
of great dignity, as learned men know,
because our Lord was born
of a married woman who was not in sin.
She was the blessed Mary, a maiden,
whom Joseph married to maintain her purity.
Under the mantle of that marriage,
God ordained that his Son would be
conceived and born without blemish.
Under that mantle’s disguise,
as learned men can tell,
He was protected from the Fiend of Hell,
he was the counsel of our salvation,
and the sacred mystery of our redemption.

Therefore man should worship that state
and keep it respectable and pure.
It is also blemish-free, a state of great holiness,
because it is one of the sacraments
that the Holy Church observes greatly.
And it is a sign of the marriage that unites,
and never shall be broken,
between Jesus Christ and the Holy Church –
through whose instruction
we are bidden to work –
and in the same way between God and
man’s souls that he redeemed at a high price.



Document 3: Robert of Gretham, 'Mirur', lines 2474-2517 (composed c.1250, Anglo-Norman) 

All of Robert’s teaching was based on the Gospels. Each sermon consisted of three parts:

  1. The Gospel text for that day, which was a translation from the Latin Vulgate Bible.
  2. An explanation of the underlying meaning or the deep sense hidden behind the text.
  3. A practical teaching, drawn from his explanation.

Robert did not allow himself to 'wander into the realms of fantasy' when choosing the material for his sermons. Passages from the Gospels formed the basis of a unified corpus of material used by preachers at the time. However, other writers, such as the author of ‘Le Manuel des Péchés’, also sourced their tales from elsewhere.

This sermon deals with the idea that marriage is for the ‘cure’ or salvation of fleshly corruption. Virginity was considered desirable, but it was recognised that not all could keep to a vow of chastity. In fact, it was believed that some women would suffer ill health through lack of sexual activity. To avoid these problems, God made the sacrament of marriage, which was endorsed by Jesus through his presence at the wedding at Cana.

Ref: WLC/LM/4, ff. 71v-72r



Transcription and Translation

Transcription and Translation
 Transcription Translation
A s espusailles fu marie. 
E iesus e sa compaignie. 
S achez grant est li sacremenz. 
V tant sunt de si seinte genz. 
E vus deuez tenir cher. 
L a rien ki deus uont tant amer. 
K ar tut ni seit il charnelment. 
V ncore est il en present. 
K ar quantquen seinte iglise est feit. 
E n sa presence tut esteit. 
E ki ken seit le seruitur. 
S ue est la force e le uigur. 
T ut ausi cum est de baptistire. 
E de espusaille est il sire.
A s espusailles uin faillit. 
K ar la uielz lei nert pas parfit. 
D espuser nest perfectiun. 
K i nest feit si pur faute nun. 
K i ne se poet pucelle guarder. 
S aluer se poet par espuser. 
P ur saluer charnel corrupture. 
F ist deus i ceste seinte cure. 
E lewe bien co signefie. 
K e en uin i fut conuertie. 
K ar ewe est chose esculuriable. 
E ia par sei nen ert estable. 
N un est la char kar ia ne fine. 
M ais tut dis en pis se decline. 
¶ I esus fist lewe mettre en pere. 
Q uant il estrainst tele manere. 
Q uant il estrainst nos charneltez. 
Q ue ne seium trop des-laiz. 
K e dur seium contre le mal. 
E ne seium trop comunal. 
¶ Mais nuls nen auerat guarisun. 
S en part feit bien . e en part nun. 
P ur co fist deus del ewe uin. 
P ur demustrer le dreit chemin. 
L i uin eschaufe si en yuere. 
E de cures le quor deliuere. 
S i feit la lei del espuser. 
L es quors eschauffe par amer. 
E en yure pur mals leisser. 
E cures tolt de fol penser.

 [The sermon alternates lines from scripture
with commentaries by the author Robert of

Scripture: At the marriage feast were Mary,
Jesus and his companions. 

Robert of Gretham: Know well that so great
is the Sacrament of marriage that there were
many saintly men there and that you must
cherish and hold dear this thing that God
loves so much.

Although he is not there in the flesh he is,
nevertheless, always present because when
something is done in the Holy Church
everything is known to him as he is always
present. To him who is there as a servant,
he [God] is the power and strength of all that
there is. As he is also at baptism, and of marriage he is Lord.

Scripture: At the wedding feast the wine ran out.

Robert of Gretham: 'For the old Law[1] was not
perfect', for marriage is not the way to 'perfection'.
However, for those who are unable to keep their
maidenhood and would otherwise be corrupted
by desires of the flesh, for them, God has made
this holy work[2]. And the water which was
turned into wine symbolises well this state.
For water is always flowing and moving and
(because of its nature) can never remain stable
by itself. Such is the flesh that is never satisfied
and thus, all say, it continues to degenerate,
always going from bad to worse.

Scripture: Jesus put the water into stone. Robert
of Gretham: When he restrained it in that manner
(it is like) when he restrains our desires of the
flesh, so that we are not overcome with evil and
can stand firm against it. And this means that all
men will be helped and none will be set apart: all
will recover their health if he is in part good but
in part is not. This is the reason that God
changed the water into wine, to show man the
true road and the right way. The wine heats in
this manner to intoxicate and by doing so the
cares and worries (carnal desire) of the heart
are released. If the law of marriage is kept, the
hearts are heated by love and the intoxication
of evil caused by such desires are left behind
and the heart is cured of all misguided thoughts.

1 'la viele lei' can also have the meaning of 'The
Old Testament'.
2. This could also translate as 'cure'.


Document 4: William of Waddington, ‘Le Manuel des Péchés’ (composed c.1220-1240, Anglo-Norman)   

Marriage in the late twelfth century was defined as a union which was 'made with the consent of the two contracting parties'. However, by the thirteenth century church authorities were becoming increasingly involved in marriage practices. Symbolising this changing view and 'take-over' by the church was the move to have marriages made openly and publicly. Before this period people traditionally got married in the domestic space of houses, but increasingly from the end of the twelfth century marriages took place at the door of the church. This open declaration outside the church was then followed by a priest's blessing and nuptial mass inside the church. ‘Secret’ or ‘clandestine’ marriages were still looked upon as legally valid and binding, even without this public event and subsequent blessing, but those partaking were warned about the danger to their soul.

This text was written during a time of change, and emphasises both the importance of free will and consent, and an open marriage at the church.

 Ref: WLC/LM/4, f. 34v



Transcription and Translation
Transcription and Translation
 Transcription Translation
 ¶ N e matrimoigne ne deit desturber 
K i uoldra estre sanz blamer. 
¶ Q uant home fiet pur uerite. 
K e a tort sunt alcuns espusee. 
S e il nel mustre a seint eglise. 
Q uite ne pot estre en nule guise. 
K i co ne feit est consentant. 
E malement pot peccher par tant. 
Kar ki a larrun ad consenti. 
V ele peine deit auer od li.
 Neither should anyone interfere with
marriage which is contracted sincerely
and truthfully if they themselves wish to
be without reproach. (It is said) that
some are illegally married in supposing
that he or she do not meet together at
the church, but if this does happen they
cannot in any way be discharged from
their legal obligation. Even so, if entering
into a marriage is not freely done then it
is evil and they sin. And, if the marriage
takes place in secret but nevertheless it is
freely done, they will suffer equally for this.

Next page: Marriage Arrangements

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