Medieval and Renaissance
The Old and New testaments provided early church leaders with conflicting
views regarding marriage. Biblical writings had clearly indicated men and
women relationships outside the confines of marriage, multiple partner
marriages, and the use of concubines.
The Bible was also rampant with stories of lust as in the story of David
St Augustine defended this by writing that God said it pleased him that
certain individuals amongst the Patriarchs of the Bible have many wives,
specifically for the multiplication of their offspring. He further
suggested that the only reason women would need more than one husband
would be for lustful gratification.
To give the old guy his due, he also is credited with saying, "Let
everyone of you in particular so love his wife even as himself, and the
wife see that she reverence her husband." Augustine considered
marriage a sacrament, a permanent union of faith.
Now that marriage was declared a sacrament, the church leaders thusly made
a declaration that men and women should pursue marriage with only one
partner. They added that sexual relations with the confines of a marriage
should be for procreation and not for lust alone. Once marriage had become
a sacrament, it soon followed that the church needed legislative power
over marriage and that a priest should perform a nuptial blessing.
Something as important as deciding on a marriage partner was not left in
the hands of the bride and groom, for the bride and groom were usually
children. Parents arranged marriages in the Middle Ages when their
children were still very young. If love was involved at all, it came well
after the wedding had taken place. Girls were as young as twelve and boys
as young as 17. The arrangements were not considered complete until a
wedding notice was posted on the door of the church.
Marriages continued to be arranged during the Renaissance. Boys could
marry at age 14 and girls at 12, with their parent’s permission. The
families from the groom and brides side would come together and work out
In the middle ages, marriages were arranged to improve the socioeconomic
status of the parties involved. The brides family provided a dowry to the
boy she would marry. The dowry could be quite substantial, including cash,
lands, or other valuable assets. Her future husband would have complete
control over the dowry forever. In
Italian marriages during the Renaissance, the dowry was the most important
part of the pre-marriage ritual, but in Florence besides gifts from the
bride's family there were counter-gifts from her husband and his family.
The ritual would go back and forth, giving gifts to those who gave gifts
in response to previous gifts. The expense was so great that some men gave
up on marriage or married at a much later time in their life when they
could afford the expense.
Unlike the Medieval times, the Renaissance dowry remained with the bride
her entire life. If she was widowed, she could return to her family with
her dowry, but she would have to leave her children with her husband’s
In England, a marriage contract included provision both for the bride's
dowry and for a jointure, or settlement, in cash and property by the
husband's family, that guaranteed her welfare should her husband die
For the most part the church was involved in the ceremonies that took
place. The Council of Westminster had decreed in 1076 that no man should
give his daughter or female relative to anyone without priestly blessing.
Weddings during the middle ages were considered family and community
affairs. It was important that both parties consented to the marriage;
this could be substituted with the consent of the parents. The ceremony
was performed in church. Vows were exchanged outside the church before
everyone moved inside for mass.
There was a procession both from and to the bride’s home.
It was a custom in the Medieval time that if the groom was not from the
area he would buy a round of drinks for the local young men to make amends
for removing a local girl from the marriage market. Guests would often
bring cakes from home that would be stacked on top of each other. The
newly weds would have to try to kiss over the cakes without toppling them.
This is the origin of the modern multi-tiered wedding cake.
Formal consummation may or may not have taken place after the ceremony it
depending upon the age of the bride. After the ceremony she may have
retired with her parents to their home until she became of age.
The Renaissance wedding was also performed in a church. Prior to the
wedding it had to be announced in the church on three consecutive Sundays.
This allowed time for any objections to be raised before the wedding could
take place. The ceremony was probably performed before noon for luck, and
included a procession from the bride’s home to the church accompanied
with as much noise and revelry as in the medieval wedding ceremony.
Medieval wives were expected to produce male children, and submit to their
husband’s authority. They would be instructed from an early age that
their gender was weak and sinful and deceitful due to the first sin by Eve
against Adam. The Medieval wife was kept a recluse in her own home. The
only choice for women other than marriage was life in a nunnery.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign;
one that cares for thee, And for thy maintenance commits his body To
painful labour both by sea and land, To watch the night in storms, the day
in cold, Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe; And craves no
other tribute at thy hands But love, fair looks and true obedience; Too
little payment for so great a debt. (Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew
In Renaissance England married women held no political power. Married
women could not own property or make contracts; they were completely
subjected to the economic and physical power of their husbands.
Renaissance women were told to keep quiet, not discuss political matters
and to go about their duties in their husband’s households. The
submission of the wife was considered an important part of maintaining
household order and therefore order in the Commonwealth. Disobedient wives
were labeled shrews and could be subject to public punishment devised to
Within his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer writes of the Wife of the Bath’s
Prologue. She had met a good Samaritan while she was in the company of a
man after just burying her fifth husband.
The Good Samaritan questions her on having five husbands and being in the
company of a man not yet her husband. She answers him stating she had
first married at twelve years old and now after five husbands does not
mean to be “chaste at all costs”. Chaucer ends the tale with a
humorous excerpt from her...
And now to all us women may Christ send Submissive husbands full of youth
in bed, And grace to outlive all the men we wed. And I pray Jesus to cut
short the lives Of those who won’t be governed by their wives; And old
ill tempered niggards who hate expense, God promptly bring them down with
In the Medieval time if a woman was widowed and there was no children the
women would inherit her husband’s entire estate. In this case
Chaucer’s character in the Wife of the Bath’s Prologue would have been
a rich woman indeed.
Whereas Renaissance widows retained at least 1/3 of their husband’s
estates whether there were children or not. Her heirs might not be able to
marry until her death because the estate was tied up. If there were no
children, the wife would inherit the entire estate, just as in medieval
In conclusion there does not appear to be great differences in the state
of marriage between the middle ages and the Renaissance periods. A look
closer can find some similarities between these earlier eras and the
marriage practices of today. Couples no longer have to get their parents
permission, or provide a dowry. However, the announcement of the future
ceremony is done in the local paper rather than the church doors. Most
ceremonies are done in a religious setting in the presence of clergy.
There is still a ‘stacked’ wedding cake and the Grooms ritual of
buying drinks for the boys.
Fortunately for women the institution of marriage itself has changed a
great deal since the middle ages and the Renaissance. Although there is no
guarantee of equality in marriages of today, things are a lot better than
Copyright Reserved by Cyd Klein Enterprises
About the Author
Cyd Klein has 21 years experience sewing for others. Her vocation is
designing and manufacturing Costumes which are then marketed locally and
on-line at http://www.nbr-1-costumes.com. In addition she maintains a
Sewing Help site at http://www.sew-help-me.com