Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London

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University of Pennsylvania Press, Jun 8, 2006 - History - 291 pages

Awarded honorable mention for the 2007 Wallace K. Ferguson Prize sponsored by the Canadian Historical Association

How were marital and sexual relationships woven into the fabric of late medieval society, and what form did these relationships take? Using extensive documentary evidence from both the ecclesiastical court system and the records of city and royal government, as well as advice manuals, chronicles, moral tales, and liturgical texts, Shannon McSheffrey focuses her study on England's largest city in the second half of the fifteenth century.

Marriage was a religious union—one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and imbued with deep spiritual significance—but the marital unit of husband and wife was also the fundamental domestic, social, political, and economic unit of medieval society. As such, marriage created political alliances at all levels, from the arena of international politics to local neighborhoods. Sexual relationships outside marriage were even more complicated. McSheffrey notes that medieval Londoners saw them as variously attributable to female seduction or to male lustfulness, as irrelevant or deeply damaging to society and to the body politic, as economically productive or wasteful of resources. Yet, like marriage, sexual relationships were also subject to control and influence from parents, relatives, neighbors, civic officials, parish priests, and ecclesiastical judges.

Although by medieval canon law a marriage was irrevocable from the moment a man and a woman exchanged vows of consent before two witnesses, in practice marriage was usually a socially complicated process involving many people. McSheffrey looks more broadly at sex, governance, and civic morality to show how medieval patriarchy extended a far wider reach than a father's governance over his biological offspring. By focusing on a particular time and place, she not only elucidates the culture of England's metropolitan center but also contributes generally to our understanding of the social mechanisms through which premodern European people negotiated their lives.

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In March 1475 a young Londoner named William Rote appeared in the Consistory court of the diocese of London to be examined by an ecclesiastical judge. His appearance was prompted by a lawsuit that had been launched against him by Agnes Wellys, who alleged that he had refused to honor the marriage vows they had made together. In answer to Agnes''s charges, William told a story, which the court''s registrar translated into Latin and recorded in a deposition (or testimony) book. This is how the story goes. One afternoon the previous summer, on the day before the feast of the Assumption, William had gone for a social visit to the house of his older friend, John Wellys, bringing a jug of wine that William thought they would drink together. Instead of the friendly reception he had expected, William found John Wellys very angry. Wellys accused Rote of having "violated" Wellys''s daughter Agnes--whether he meant that William had raped or seduced her is not clear. Before a number of other people present at the time, including Agnes, Wellys threatened Rote: "You will marry her, even if I have to force you." William responded to Wellys''s accusation by saying that he certainly had never had sexual relations with Agnes and that he had no wish to marry her. John Wellys became even angrier and pulled out a knife. He would have stabbed William, as William testified, had not another man stepped between them and held Wellys''s arm back. In the ensuing scuffle William escaped from the house, running out into the street. Agnes and her mother gave chase, shouting after him, "Hold the thief!" They caught William and brought him back to the house, where John Wellys was waiting, still very angry. After that more threats followed, as William''s testimony detailed:Wellys said to him that unless this witness [William Rote] would contract marriage with his daughter Agnes, he or someone else in his name would give this witness a sign that he would take with him to his grave. Wellys also said that he would bring this witness before the mayor and alderman where he would be confounded by such embarrassment that the shame would compell him to contract marriage with Agnes. So, as much from fear of his body as from shame at appearing before the mayor and aldermen, this witness contracted marriage there with Agnes.By late medieval church law, a contract of marriage was the speaking, by the prospective husband and wife, of the words of consent to the union ("I William take you Agnes as my wife"; "I Agnes take you William as my husband"), words that in themselves made the sacrament of marriage, regardless of where they were spoken or whether or not a priest was present. William''s contract was not a promise or a betrothal, but a binding, indissoluble union--or at least, it would have been, had William spoken the words freely and without coercion. In order to make certain that William could not repudiate the vows he had made, John Wellys ensured that they were spoken in the presence of a number of important men whom he had summoned expressly for that purpose.

William Rote''s story about his shotgun (dagger?) wedding is illustrative of a number of themes I explore in this book. Some elements of William''s story seem familiar to the average twenty-first-century Western reader: even if we no longer expect fathers to try to force the seducers of their daughters to marry them, we recognize the basic plot elements of damaged honor and redemption through married respectability. Other elements are more unexpected: we might anticipate that marriage vows in the Middle Ages would be exchanged in a church rather than a house, and we might expect a priest to be present. As we will see, however, although William''s situation--being forced at dagger-point--was unusual, the location where he and Agnes made their vows of marriage, the bride''s father''s house, was not. Nonetheless, despite the domestic setting and the absence of a priest, the influence of the medieval Catholic Church is nonetheless unmistakable in this case: Agnes, probably with the help of her father, took her case to a church court when William refused to recognize the marriage they had made in her father''s house that August afternoon. Marriage, as a sacrament, was under the jurisdiction of canon (or church) law and the ecclesiastical courts. Likewise, William''s defense was drawn from one of the main pillars of the late medieval Catholic theology of marriage, that the sacramental bond of marriage could be made only through the freely given consent of both parties. William may have said the words, but he did so only out of fear for his life and his reputation, or so he claimed; thus, William argued, no bond was created, and there was no marriage.

Yet while each of the parties could use theology, canon law, and the church courts and neither of the parties could easily disregard them, other forces were also at work. Paternal authority, most forcefully represented in the person of John Wellys, could and often did over-ride ecclesiastical theories of individual consent. The collective authority of older men of substantial position was also hard to resist: the men whom John Wellys summoned to witness the marriage were a draper and two grocers, both high-status merchant occupations. Their word, both in the parish and neighborhood during that summer and the following spring in the ecclesiastical court, was likely to carry a good deal of weight. More explicitly, William told the Consistory court judge that he had been coerced into marrying Agnes because he wanted to avoid the shame of being summoned before the mayor and aldermen. This threat was vague, yet obviously powerful--for William it ranked high enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the danger to his life. It is not clear if John Wellys implied that he would accuse William there of rape, fornication, or some other offense, perhaps even one he would simply invent as leverage. Nonetheless, John Wellys saw the highest officials of his city as extensions of his paternal authority: if William would not do what John said, the mayor and aldermen would make him do it. William''s response is no less revealing: he needed to take care to avoid public embarrassment, anything that would detract from his reputation. His name as a man of honor and credibility, essential to his success in whatever career path he was pursuing, depended not only on his honesty and reliability in business dealings but also on his ability to keep his sexual urges in check. A man who seduced another man''s daughter offended at least as much against the father as he did against the woman; he lacked respect for the integrity of another man''s household and would probably be perceived as deceptive, disorderly, and dishonest in other ways as well. William was right to fear being hauled before the mayor and aldermen, whether or not he had seduced Agnes.

Apart from the various witness statements offered in this case--some of which largely corroborated William''s version of events, some of which denied it--we know nothing more about what happened on that summer day in 1474. Nor do we know how the judge in the Consistory court decided the case: he may have chosen to uphold the marriage, forcing William to recognize Agnes as his wife and to take her into his home and share "bed and board" with her, as the medieval formulation put it. Or he may have agreed with William and two of his witnesses that the marriage had been coerced and declared the marriage annulled, leaving each of them free to marry again. I have not been able to trace William Rote, John Wellys, or Agnes Wellys in any further records, so we do not know what happened to them. Yet this brief story about a dramatic afternoon--which may have been completely invented by William to escape a marriage he did not desire--tells us a good deal about marriage, sex, and civic culture in late medieval London.

Sex and marriage were tightly woven into the fabric of medieval English society. Marriage was one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, imbued with deep spiritual significance; while sexual congress within marriage was (at least sometimes) seen as pleasing to God, outside marriage it carried the weight of deadly sin. The marital unit of the husband and wife was also the central core of the household, the fundamental social, political, and economic unit. Marriages created political alliances at all levels, from the arena of international politics to the local neighborhood; allowed the transfer of property, goods, and labor from one family to another; initiated or deepened ties of friendship and love not only between the couple but also among the couple''s family and friends; and helped forge gender identities, the husband''s and wife''s roles forming two of the main constituents of conceptualizations of masculinity and femininity. Sexual relationships outside marriage were, if anything, more complicated: medieval Londoners variously saw them as irrelevant, as deeply damaging to society and to the body politic, as economically productive or as wasteful of resources, as mainly due to female seduction or to male lustfulness. This book studies both how people went about forming marital and sexual relationships and how other people--parents, relatives, friends, neighbors, civic officials, parish priests, ecclesiastical judges--sought to influence, control, or prevent them. My fundamental argument is that bonds of marriage and sex were simultaneously intimate, deeply personal ties and matters of public concern, subject to intervention by everyone from a woman''s or man''s family, friends, and employers to the mayor of London himself.

This is a book about a particular place and time--London in the second half of the fifteenth century. It is conventional for historians to point out the limitations of their local studies, and conventionally I make no claim here that the

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