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Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages

By Ruth Mazo Karras

Publication Year: 2012

The Middle Ages are often viewed as a repository of tradition, yet what we think of as traditional marriage was far from the only available alternative to the single state in medieval Europe. Many people lived together in long-term, quasimarital heterosexual relationships, unable to marry if one was in holy orders or if the partners were of different religions. Social norms militated against the marriage of master to slave or between individuals of very different classes, or when the couple was so poor that they could not establish an independent household. Such unions, where the protections that medieval law furnished to wives (and their children) were absent, were fraught with danger for women in particular, but they also provided a degree of flexibility and demonstrate the adaptability of social customs in the face of slowly changing religious doctrine.

Unmarriages draws on a wide range of sources from across Europe and the entire medieval millennium in order to investigate structures and relations that medieval authors and record keepers did not address directly, either in order to minimize them or because they were so common as not to be worth mentioning. Author Ruth Mazo Karras pays particular attention to the ways women and men experienced forms of opposite-sex union differently and to the implications for power relations between the genders. She treats legal and theological discussions that applied to all of Europe and presents a vivid series of case studies of how unions operated in specific circumstances to illustrate concretely what we can conclude, how far we can speculate, and what we can never know.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Introduction: Marriage and Other Unions

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pp. 1-24

Histories of marriage are inevitably teleological: they put “marriage” as we know it at the center, and they evaluate all other forms of union in terms of that model. It is understandable, of course, that people want to know how an institution that is so important in contemporary society came to be the way it is. Given the contested nature of marriage today...

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1. The Church and the Regulation of Unions between Women and Men

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pp. 25-67

The traditions discussed in the Introduction took on new configurations as the Western church claimed control over marriage. The Hebrew Bible allowed one man to have several permanent partners, either several women with full wifely status or one woman as primary and the rest secondary but with all the children having inheritance rights. Ancient Roman law, however...

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2. Unequal Unions

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pp. 68-114

Many unions noted in the previous chapters were between partners of different social levels. Often an elite man formed a union other than marriage with a woman of lower status, either before marrying or while married to a woman who was selected for him for family, political, or economic reasons. This was especially true of monarchs and the highest aristocracy...

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3. Priests and Their Partners

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pp. 115-164

When I told people that I was working on a book on couples who lived together without being married, most non- medievalists (and many medievalists) immediately said, “Oh, priests.” The idea that some churchmen keep their vows of celibacy in the technical sense of being unmarried, but not in the more common sense of abstaining from...

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4. On the Margins of Marriage

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pp. 166-208

Priests and their partners did not have the choice of formalizing their union; neither did slaves or servants pressured or forced into relations by their employers. This chapter examines some couples who had a choice of types of union, and chose not to make a formal marriage. Either they preferred a temporary union, thought marriage was...

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pp. 209-213

This work has looked at the range and variety of pair bonds in which people engaged across the space of western Europe over a thousand- year period. It has attempted to bring to the fore alternatives to what medieval people considered marriage, or what we now consider marriage. Yet all these varieties of unions existed within a world in which marriage was...


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pp. 215-261


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pp. 263-270


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pp. 271-280

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pp. 281-282

I am very grateful for the support of research and writing provided by a sabbatical fellowship from the American Philosophical Society in 2004– 5 and an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship in 2010– 11. Both were supplemented by the College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota. Travel was also supported by the Provost’s Imagine Fund for...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206418
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244205

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 794700783
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Unmarriages

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Subject Headings

  • Unmarried couples -- Europe -- History -- To 1500.
  • Unmarried couples (Canon law) -- History -- To 1500.
  • Marriage -- Europe -- History -- To 1500
  • Marriage (Canon law) -- History -- To 1500.
  • Mate selection -- Europe -- History -- To 1500.
  • Man-woman relationships -- Europe -- History -- To 1500.
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