Wednesday, 10 May 2017

On Anglo-Saxon Marriage

Tradition has it that it wasn't much fun being a married woman in medieval times. Novels and films often lead us to believe that men were entitled to beat their wives, that women had no say in whom they married, that all their property belonged to their husbands etc etc... Was this true, and more pertinently, was it true for the Anglo-Saxon period?

A document, Concerning the betrothal of  a woman, suggests that it was not.
"If a man wishes to betroth a maiden or a widow, and it so pleases her and her kinsmen..."
It seems that the woman herself had to accept the suitor before the betrothal can proceed. Furthermore:
"The bridegroom is to announce what he grants her in return for her acceptance of his suit, and what he grants her if she should live longer than he... then it is right that she should be entitled to half the goods - and to all, if they have a child together - unless she marries again... he is to strengthen what he promises with a pledge, and his friends are to stand surety for it."
Clearly, whatever she is granted is guaranteed, and is hers to keep if they have a child together. It seems like quite a civilised arrangement, affording her a little bit of financial security.

The document bears no date, but it has been suggested that it probably dates from somewhere between 975 and 1030.

What other sources can shed light on the property rights of married women?

A marriage agreement between Wulfric and Archbishop Wulfstan's sister, dated somewhere between 1014-16, seems to confirm the guaranteed grants.
"He gave her the land at Alton to give and to grant to whomsoever she pleased during her lifetime or after her death."

An Old English agreement from Kent, dated between 1016-20, explains that, when Godwine wooed Brihtic's daughter,
"He gave her a pound's weight of gold in return for her acceptance of his suit, and he granted her the land at Street with everything that belongs to it, and 150 acres at Burmarsh and in addition 30 oxen,  and 20 cows, and 10 horses and 10 slaves."
and makes clear that: 
"Every trustworthy man in Kent and Sussex, thegn or ceorl, is aware of these terms."
These are agreements between families. What can the lawcodes tell us?

The laws of Ethelbert of Kent 602-603 decree that: 
"If anyone lies with a maiden belonging to the king, he is to pay 50 shillings compensation. If it is a grinding slave, he is to pay 25 shillings; if a slave of the third class, 12 shillings."
So, not too helpful, except to tell us that slaves had varying value. Although later in the same code we learn that:
"If a freeman lies with the wife of another freeman, he is to atone with his wergild*, and to obtain another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other's home." 
Oh dear; definitely a case of 'spoil my property, bring me a new one.'

And yet, we read that,  
"If anyone buys a maiden, she is to be bought with a bride payment." 
And that, 
"If she bears a living child, she is to have half the goods, if the husband dies first. If she wishes to go away with the children, she is to have half the goods." 
But, if anyone,
"carries off a maiden by force, he is to pay to the owner 50 shillings."

The later laws of Kent (673-685) dictate that:
"If a husband dies leaving wife and child, it is right that the child should accompany the mother, and he is to be given one of his paternal kinsman as a willing protector."

Wihtred of Kent's laws (695) declare that: 
"foreigners, if they will not regularise their marriages, are to depart from the land with their good and their sins."
No doubt this is a reference to religion and law, rather than any protective prescription for women.

Alfred's laws in the ninth-century seem to suggest that any affront to women is actually an insult to the men who 'own' them: 
"And a man may fight without incurring a vendetta if he finds another man with his wedded wife, within closed doors or under the same blanket, or with his legitimate daughter or his legitimate sister, or with his mother who was given as a lawful wife to his father."
But his laws also place special emphasis on the pregnant woman: 
"If a woman with child is slain when she is bearing the child, the woman is to be paid for with full payment  and the child at half payment  according to the wergild of the father's kin."
"If anyone rapes a girl not of age, that is to be the same compensation as for an adult."

King Æthelred the Unready's code of 1008 mentions that:
"Each widow is to remain unmarried for twelve months; she is then to choose what she herself will."
This suggests that a woman had a fair amount of choice, dispelling the notion that women were married off for monetary or political gain.

It's fair to say that the codes are mainly concerned with law, property, punishment, thievery, murder and rules of trade, as well as observance of holy law. But these women do get a mention. They are at least considered, and they do have rights.

Although, in the laws of Cnut, a man committing adultery is to pay compensation for it, according to the deed,  but if a woman commits adultery during her husband's lifetime  she becomes a public disgrace, forfeits her goods, and loses her nose and ears. So there's a little disparity there...

But if any man dies intestate, the property  is to be: 
"Very justly divided among the wife, the children and the close kinsmen, each in the proportion that belongs to them."
Cnut's laws also expand on Æthelred's, concerning the widow who remains unmarried for twelve months, decreeing that if she remarries, she forfeits the morning-gift and other possessions obtained through her first marriage. But,
"A widow is never to be consecrated as a nun too hastily" 
"neither a widow nor a maiden is ever to be forced to marry a man whom she herself dislikes, nor to be given for money, unless he chooses to give anything of his own freewill."
So, by the 1020s at least, women could be safe in the knowledge that they could not be forced into marriage, or into a convent.

But I'll close with this last little nugget. If a man brings stolen property into the house, unless it is under the wife's lock and key, she is not deemed guilty. But, 
"she must look after the keys of the following: namely  her store-room, her chest  and her coffer." 
If the stolen property is found in any of these, she's guilty.

Imagine the eleventh-century housewife's frustration, though, that: 
"No wife can forbid  her husband to place inside his cottage  what he pleases."
After the equivalent of a late-night drunken internet shopping spree:-

"Wulfgar, tidy up that 'bargain second-hand shield, one careless owner, slight spear damage'. And no, you can't put it in my coffer."

"Well, it'll just have to stay on the table, right next to the relic of St John the Baptist's foot, 'only three left in stock'. And there's nothing you can do about it." 

*Wergild - essentially a 'man-price': the value of a life, depending on rank

Other related posts:
Anglo-Saxon Names
Wulfric Spott: A Mercian Man of Means
A Brother Receives a Letter - and a Telling-Off


  1. I would say this was not the case in the Later Middle Ages, either, after the Church made free consent the basis for a legal marriage. Indeed, there are a number of cases in the courts of women and girls who married people other then who their guardian wanted, or widows who remarried without permission.

    1. I'm not so clued up about the later medieval period, so that's interesting, thank you. I wonder if the notion of helpless/powerless women stems from the early days of the Norman rule?

    2. I'm not sure. To be honest, there were some rather forceful women from the period of the Norman and Angevin Kings (the Empress Maud, Isabel of Conches etc) so I am rather inclined to think it might be a post Medieval myth.

    3. Quite possibly. And whilst Maud had her difficulties establishing her right to rule, it doesn't detract from her achievements or the fact that she was, to use your word, forceful. Interestingly, a lot of comments on FB about this article have been of the 'women were downtrodden, full stop' variety, so it is definitely a persistent myth. I wonder where it stems from... I might revisit this topic and look into it further.

  2. I suspect if you look into her coffer, you'll find a pair of fancy shoes with pearl emboridery which she bought from the household money and 'forgot' to tell her husband about. :-)

    Interesting article. I found the same to be true about Roman women. Sure, they had less rights than Roman men, and less rights than a modern woman, but that doesn't mean they had no rights at all. Also, in Roman society, the ideal of virtus sometimes put a stop to mistreating a wife/ daughter (or a slave) since it was considered dishonourble. Such concepts had a much stronger influence on peoples' behaviour than today.

    1. Gabriele, I love the idea of secret ca change!
      Glad you enjoyed the article. I didn't know that about the Romans.

  3. Very nice. Thank you. Always good to see historical law codes sited in articles like this.

  4. Perhaps it's wrong to say "woman" who married in premodern society, they were "girls" often at the age of 12-14 years of age (Wife of Bath, Chaucher), thus puts everything in a different perspective.

    1. Possibly, although we cannot be sure if pre-conquest practice was the same as post-conquest in this regard. Certainly a lot of these laws apply to widows, but this shouldn't be inferred as pertaining to older women, necessarily.

  5. Replies
    1. Thanks so much Lisa, I'm glad you enjoyed it :-)

  6. All the above may be true, but there is one notorious forced marriage in 12th century France - that of Abelard & Heloise. You will recall that Abelard seduced the (willing) Heloise while he was tutoring her and while they were both living under the roof of Canon Fulbert of Paris, Heloise's guardian & uncle. Abelard's actions were dishonourable on about four counts. When Heloise became pregnant, Abelard whisked her off to his family castle to have the baby and meanwhile tried to mend matters with Uncle Fulbert. These two men came to an agreement for Abelard & Heloise to marry but when Abelard told Heloise of this arrangement - made without consulting her - she was furious, claiming (rightly) that a marriage would wreck Abelard's promotion prospects in a clerical society where celibacy was the norm if not yet mandatory. Her protests were ignored and the marriage took place with disastrous consequences as Heloise predicted. I agree this is a special case, but without support from her kinsman, Heloise was helpless..

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, it's an awful story but whether it's a special case or typical, I wouldn't be qualified to say. I do know though that marriage laws were different in England before the Norman Conquest and that Anglo-Saxon women, in law but perhaps not always in practice, had many more rights in this regard than their European and later medieval counterparts. I often say that the line drawn in 1066 was a huge and significant one which brought many more alterations besides a regime change.

  7. I enjoyed this informative article about the codes and regulations applied to betrothals and marriage. Quite different from the weak and useless woman stories!

    1. Thanks so much Cynthia - yes, this period is full of surprises; often good ones :)