- Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages by Ruth Mazo Karras
Ruth Mazo Karras has been steadily exploring and mapping out the gender identities and sexual activities of medieval people with acuteness and sensitivity, and her latest foray into the multifarious sexual partnerships that occupied [End Page 336] the thick gray area of illicit domesticated relationships that could not meet the canonical criteria for marriage is arguably her best work yet. Even though many medievalist readers may know some of its more familiar cases quite well, the entirety of the book is marked by a freshness and humane sympathy for the many medieval people whose sexual arrangements failed to meet the requirements of canon law, as well as nuanced analysis of the implicit interests and wishes motivating irregular semimarriages, that make the work an original synthesis, not a survey. What I particularly appreciated was the way that Karras’s medieval people are not reduced to ideograms of “medievalness” or submissive conformity to ecclesiastical doctrine; we are shown recognizable people who happened to live centuries ago under a particularly stringent legal regime governing sexual unions and made the best of things when their lives slid out of the boundaries of legal decorum. The deliberately awkward unword, “unmarriages,” that titles Karras’s book may not make its way into the common vocabulary of medievalists, but it works well to sweep together the amorphous variety of irregularly formed but often long-term sexual unions that men and women constructed in the gray areas bordering canonically correct marriage. This liminal behavior, so persistent and pervasive that it almost seems to reduce licit marriage to a minority practice, is the subject of the book, which is kept in order by the author’s acute and unrelenting attention to all the ways that the asymmetrical status of partners to an “unmarriage” affected women.
The interpretive focus, brought out clearly in the introduction, is status, or rather the disparities of status between men and women who got together in unions whose legal repercussions and permanence were a function of the status of the woman. In antiquity, from biblical to Roman imperial eras, procedures and rituals of marriage formation were traditional and therefore of little or no legal consequence, but the status of the woman determined where her union fit into the social hierarchy. Whether describing the relationships of Roman citizen men who took concubines, slave-holders and slaves, householder-employers who had sexual relations with their servants, or Christian priests and housekeeper-wives, Karras is carefully and precisely pragmatic in detailing all the real-life constraints on freedom of choice, movement, and negotiating ability encountered by lower-status persons, almost invariably female, in all their relations with socially superior males. A familiar person, usually termed Augustine’s “concubine,” is here called “the anonymous mother of Adeodatus,” a more respectful designation for the nameless person Augustine himself referred to as his “woman,” the one with whom he slept. As well as we think we know this story, Karras’s version is enlightening as she walks through the cost-benefit analysis the girl and her family must have made in letting her connect herself to a man unlikely ever to offer her marriage, as of course he did not. There are several more such accounts, detailed and sensitive, reconstructing the wishes and possible range of calculations open to women (such as Ingeborg of Denmark [End Page 337] and Heloise) whose sexual/marital unions were exceptionally complicated; Karras achieves fresh perspectives and human immediacy for each, making these well-known women less familiar and more real.
The legal context for marriage formation in medieval Europe is laid out in chapter 1, which explores the “consent theory” underlying the canon law of marriage that was worked out as part of the larger papal reform movement of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. In spite of authoritative writings by Augustine on marriage and various early conciliar canons, the church was only minimally involved in marriage before...