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Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne

By Sara McDougall

Publication Year: 2012

The institution of marriage is commonly thought to have fallen into crisis in late medieval northern France. While prior scholarship has identified the pervasiveness of clandestine marriage as the cause, Sara McDougall contends that the pressure came overwhelmingly from the prevalence of remarriage in violation of the Christian ban on divorce, a practice we might call "bigamy." Throughout the fifteenth century in Christian Europe, husbands and wives married to absent or distant spouses found new spouses to wed. In the church courts of northern France, many of the individuals so married were criminally prosecuted.

In Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne, McDougall traces the history of this conflict in the diocese of Troyes and places it in the larger context of Christian theology and culture. Multiple marriage was both inevitable and repugnant in a Christian world that forbade divorce and associated bigamy with the unchristian practices of Islam or Judaism. The prevalence of bigamy might seem to suggest a failure of Christianization in late medieval northern France, but careful study of the sources shows otherwise: Clergy and laity alike valued marriage highly. Indeed, some members of the laity placed such a high value on the institution that they were willing to risk criminal punishment by entering into illegal remarriage. The risk was great: the Bishop of Troyes's judicial court prosecuted bigamy with unprecedented severity, although this prosecution broke down along gender lines. The court treated male bigamy, and only male bigamy, as a grave crime, while female bigamy was almost completely excluded from harsh punishment. As this suggests, the Church was primarily concerned with imposing a high standard on men as heads of Christian households, responsible for their own behavior and also that of their wives.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. 1-8

In the course of the final three centuries of the thousand-year period known as the European Middle Ages, between the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the early decades of the sixteenth century, the Christian institution of marriage became at the same time an object of veneration and a source of deep ...

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Chapter 1. Marriage and Remarriage in the Later Middle Ages: Law, Theology, and Culture

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pp. 9-48

The fifteenth-century registers of the Bishop of Troyes’s judicial court tell a strange story.1 Amid the destruction and chaos of the Hundred Years’ War, in the Champagne region of northeastern France people were marrying more often than the law permitted. More curious still, in the course of concerted ...

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Chapter 2. Bigamous Husbands

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pp. 49-70

Between 1423 and 1468, the officiality of Troyes convicted twenty men including one Franciscan friar for the crime of willfully marrying “de facto, cum de jure non posset”; in fact only, as not legally permissible. Who were these men, and why did the court in Troyes prosecute them? The second half of that question ...

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Chapter 3. Abandoned Wives

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pp. 71-94

In 1448, the official of Troyes found that Perrette, the wife of Jean “le Gros” Jehan, had remarried “de facto” despite knowing her husband still lived.1 For this crime Perrette was sentenced to one year in prison. She was the only woman, out of all the thirty-three women investigated on suspicion of bigamy, ...

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Chapter 4. Why Commit Bigamy?

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pp. 95-112

Men and women alike committed bigamy in late medieval Troyes. Whether abandoned or abandoning, separated by circumstance or design, by mutual consent or a unilateral desertion, men and women who found themselves at some distance from their spouses found new spouses to marry. Subsequently, ...

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Chapter 5. Why Prosecute Bigamy?

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pp. 113-134

In September 1448 the officiality of Troyes condemned two men to the same punishments: public exposure on the ladder of a scaffold in front of the cathedral one Sunday and six months’ confinement in the bishop’s prison.1 The first man, a Dominican friar, had been convicted of brigandage. He had taken ...

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Conclusion: Christian Identity at the End of the Middle Ages

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pp. 135-142

Some thirty years ago Natalie Davis first enthralled the world with the story of Martin Guerre; his abandoned wife, Bertrande de Rols; the impostor Arnaud du Tilh, who assumed Martin’s identity; and the great Protestant jurist Jean de Coras, who judged the case. For Davis, the story brought to life the central ...

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Appendix: Selected Transcriptions from a Register of the Officiality of Troyes

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pp. 143-152

G4171fols.2r–3r [Thursday, 2 September, 1423]: Eadem die lata fuit presens sententia ad promotionem Nicolay Huyardi. In Dei nomine amen. Auditis confessionibus vestrorum Felisoti dicti Naalot et Colete, relicte defuncti Johannis de Feignis, qui libere et vestris spontaneis voluntatibus confessi fuistis et in jure recognovistis, quod vos decem annis elapsis vel circiter de facto matrimonium ...


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pp. 153-188


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pp. 189-210


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pp. 211-214


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pp. 215-216

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206548
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243987

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 794700786
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne

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Subject Headings

  • Marriage (Canon law) -- History -- To 1500.
  • Bigamy -- France -- Champagne-Ardenne -- History -- To 1500.
  • Bigamy (Canon law) -- History -- To 1500.
  • Marriage -- France -- Champagne-Ardenne -- History -- To 1500.
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