- Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne by Sara McDougall
Scholars have traditionally argued that a rise in “clandestine marriage” during the late Middle Ages created a crisis for the Christian institution of marriage. During this period, Western Christians could legally enter into marriage without parental permission, the participation of a priest, or any public announcement. Despite some efforts by the church to prohibit “consensualist marriage,” canon law made clear that the mutual consent of would-be spouses was all that was needed to make amarriagevalid.
In her study of court records from fifteenth-century Champagne, Sara McDougall argues that what the church saw as most threatening to the institution of marriage was not clandestine marriage, but bigamy, heretofore largely neglected by scholars. In the diocese of Troyes, McDougall has found over one hundred investigations of alleged bigamy, in which a man or woman married to a living spouse attempted to marry again. In most of these cases, the second (bigamous) marriage was not clandestine, but publicly announced and performed by a priest. McDougall suggests that in northern France the marriage crisis of the late Middle Ages was “a crisis about the legal requirement that marriage must be a monogamous and indissoluble bond (2).” She argues that the conflict over bigamy, which pitted church officials against the laity, reflects the ways marriage was central to late medieval Christians’ identity and status as Christians.
After an opening chapter on marriage and remarriage practices in the later Middle Ages, McDougall turns to the subject of bigamous husbands. She demonstrates that most men prosecuted for bigamy were in their 40s and 50s and had been married for many years before entering into a second marriage. One of McDougall’s central observations is that even though bigamous men and women largely acted in the same way, church courts punished male bigamists much more harshly. Courts had “higher standards for husbands’ conduct” (65), and bigamy seems to have been associated with men and considered a public crime. Thus, [End Page 476] whereas female bigamists faced fines, bigamous husbands were more often sentenced to public exposure (spending a painful and humiliating day with their wrists tied to the rungs of a ladder leading up to the scaffold in front of the church) as well as prison terms. McDougall argues that ecclesiastical courts regarded female bigamists, the subject of Chapter Three, as less culpable because their behavior reflected on their husband’s failure to control them. From the perspective of the courts, what was problematic about bigamy was not cohabitation or sexual morality, but the way it undermined Christian marriage, which was understood as the responsibility of husbands.
Chapter Four tries to make sense of why some men and women committed bigamy in the first place. In most cases, the practice of bigamy represented a kind of “self-divorce,” an alternative to seeking an annulment from a court after a marriage broke up. Various fictions and fabrications were created to erase a first marriage—denying that it ever existed or claiming that the spouse had died—thereby making a new marriage possible. But McDougall claims that far from reflecting the “church’s failure to instill the ideal of monogamous marriage” (99), bigamy was actually a form of “serial monogamy” and showed that Christian monogamous marriage “had become a desirable commodity for which people would pay a high price” (100). While the laity who entered into bigamous marriages challenged the church doctrine that marriage be monogamous and indissoluble, these bigamists took great risks in having their illegal marriages announced publicly and blessed by the church.
Chapter Five asks why the courts of northern France prosecuted bigamy. Part of the answer lies in the fact that the bishop of Troyes had “an exceptionally regulatory court” (121), one whose members tended to be local and unusually learned in the law. The court may have intensified its efforts to impose order during the social upheaval caused by the Hundreds Years War, which itself probably contributed to social dislocation, the abandonment of spouses, and the...