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  • Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages by Ruth Mazo Karras
  • Ericka Swensson
Ruth Mazo Karras, Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2012) 304 pp.

In this monograph, historian Ruth Mazo Karras analyzes the phenomenon of “unmarriages” or sexual unions between heterosexual couples in the Middle Ages that, for a number of reasons, did not result in marriage. Although her focus is on “unmarriages”—a term she rarely uses, preferring to use the terms unions or “pair bonds”—Karras begins her study by examining legal and cultural notions of marriages in the medieval period. The central question posed by Karras is “Where and when did medieval people draw the line between what was, and what was not, marriage?” Her answer is that this depends largely on the cultural, religious, and political context in a particular time and place. Karras is quick to point out in her introduction that her study is not intended to be geographically or chronologically comprehensive. Rather, she examines a series of case studies from Western Europe beginning in the late antique period up through the sixteenth century. Examining a wide range of primary sources, including legal codes, literature, court records, and local registers, Karras persuasively argues that while the definition of marriage varied across time and place in the western European Middle Ages, there were a number of shared themes. One of the most prominent themes is that what constituted a legally or socially recognized marriage was directly impacted by the social or legal status of the partners and, in particular, the female partner. Thus, the lower the status of the female partner, the lower the expectation that the relationship would result in a recognized marital union.

In her introduction, Karras provides a welcome summary of the most recent work on the scholarship of marriage, deconstructing accepted narratives regarding [End Page 286] the origins and definition of marriage in the early Middle Ages. She particularly questions the persistence of the Germanic terms Muntehe (dowered marriage where guardianship of the bride was transferred to the husband) and Friedelehe (“lover’s marriage” without a dowry or transfer of guardianship) in discussions of medieval marriage. Karras argues that not only are these two terms anachronistic (because they do not appear in medieval legal texts or commentaries on marriage), but that there remains a great deal of uncertainty regarding the influence of pre-Christian Germanic customs on the evolution of marriage in the Middle Ages.

In her first chapter, Karras explores the increasing role of the Christian church in regulating the definition of marriage. Karras’s discussion of the relationship between Abelard and Heloise is particularly instructive, as she argues that Heloise’s anti-marriage position can be seen as an example of a medieval women who “could regard marriage as not the most desirable form of union” (51), while simultaneously acknowledging that marriage provided Heloise security that she would not have had otherwise. She concludes that the Christian church was instrumental in the creation of a fixed set of laws regulating marriage and, perhaps even more importantly, in the creation of an authority to whom medieval people could turn to when the validity of a union (marriage or otherwise) was disputed.

In chapter 2, “Unequal Unions,” Karras examines sexual unions between partners whose legal status made marriage difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. For example, Karras looks at relationships between masters and slaves, and between Christians, Jews and Muslims. In one of the more persistent themes of the book, Karras demonstrates how it was far more acceptable for a man to engage in a sexual relationship outside of marriage with a woman of lower social status, such as a slave. However, she also notes that increasingly, at least in the context of late medieval Italy, men were expected to provide financial support for the children of such relationships.

The theme of disparity between the statuses of male and female partners continues in Karras’s third chapter, in which she discusses prohibited unions between women and priests. As priests, male partners in such relationships occupied an entirely different status than that of their female partners...


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pp. 286-288
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