Ruth Mazo Karras coins the term unmarriage to denote heterosexual partnerships that did not amount to legitimate marriage. She prefers that term to quasi-marital union, because the latter “assumes marriage as the model that other unions only approached, an assumption I did not wish to make” (p.8). Nevertheless, most of the book is devoted to normative issues and to contemporaneous perceptions of the differences between legitimate and illegitimate unions.
The book is organized thematically, albeit with a chronological drift. Discussion of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages occurs mainly in the first two of the four chapters, whereas the last two focus on the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In chapter 1, Karras considers ecclesiastical efforts to demarcate between valid and invalid unions, which she traces from the heightened sense of marriage as a religious institution in the fourth century to the full articulation of a canon law of marriage emphasizing consent in the twelfth. In chapter 2, Karras considers unequal partnerships, especially those between a free man and a slave, but including those in which a class disparity was not a fatal impediment in law yet fulfilled cultural expectations for premarital or extramarital unions. Karras reviews sexual relationships in the various forms of slavery that persisted in various parts of Europe during the central Middle Ages. It was a surprise not to find Pope Hadrian IV’s decretal Dignum est (1155) mentioned in Karras’s brief survey of servility in the canon law of marriage (pp. 81–82). It was the culmination of a canonical effort based on Galatians 3:28 to make status irrelevant to the sacrament of marriage. In chapter 3, Karras focuses on priests’ sexual partnerships, which were necessarily invalid after holy orders had become a diriment impediment in the twelfth century. Just as a servile concubine was not a mulier honesta in late antiquity, so a priest’s concubine was despised as his whore in medieval polemics. In the final chapter, Karras considers couples who could have married but chose not to do so. Here, as also in some sections of chapter 3, Karras draws extensively on records of the archdeacon’s officiality in Paris during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Karras aims throughout the book to consider unmarriages from the woman’s point of view, although she concedes in conclusion “how little we know” about it (p. 210). Every chapter includes vignettes of particular women in relation to the chapter’s themes. For example, in chapter 3, on “Priests and Their Partners,” Karras writes about Katharina Shütz Zell, the wife of a Lutheran priest who wrote a pamphlet defending her husband’s decision to marry. In the same chapter, Karras reviews a convoluted legal opinion by the [End Page 329] French civil jurist Gui Pape (d. 1487), which centered on the rights of a priest’s concubine or mistress, Antonia, and of their son after the priest’s death. Karras says little about the legal instability of invalid unions, in contrast to the permanence of marriage in Western theology and canon law. The term matrimonium ratum connoted permanence as well as validity, and the insecurity of invalid unions was surely their chief disadvantage for women.
The book is salutary insofar as it reminds us that celibacy and marriage were de facto not the only alternatives in the Middle Ages, but does it amount to more than the sum of its parts? Karras proposes “to analyze pair bonds without privileging marriage, while still recognizing that medieval people did, in fact, privilege marriage” (p. 5). But can one examine how marriage was privileged without privileging marriage? And is a merely privative category, such as unmarriage, a fit subject for coherent study and argument?