Marriage in Medieval Canon Law

Warrior and his LadyThis is the second in a series of posts on Kingdon and Witte’s excellent book Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Vol 1.

In an earlier post I mentioned some general findings from the book Courtship, Engagement and Marriage in Geneva. Now I will work through the different chapters of the book. I find these studies fascinating for two main reasons: it puts the Reformation in context and it forces me to go back to the Scriptures to evaluate why I believe what I believe.

In the first chapter, the authors give an introduction to Roman Catholic theology of marriage and then use Geneva’s Marriage Ordinance of 1546 to show how Geneva changed prevailing theology and practice. This post will briefly look at the Roman Catholic view on marriage prior to the Reformation.

The Marriage Tradition at the Time of the Reformation
Here are some of the key ideas which dominated Roman Catholic marital theology and practice of the time. As we move through the book we will see that some of these ideas carried over into the Reformation, some were modified, and some rejected altogether.

Marriage was inferior to celibacy. Here is a longer quote from the book, which elaborates on this point.

Free consent was absolutely essential. Marriage brought about “by force, fear, or fraud, or through inducement of parents, masters, or feudal or manorial lords were thus not binding.”

Marriage was a sacrament. Thus it “caused and conferred grace upon those who put no obstacle in its way.” This had practical consequences, such as properly consummated marriages could never be broken just like a proper baptism could never be undone.

“A private voluntary exchange of promises between a fit man and fit woman of the age of consent was a valid and enforceable marriage.” This was one of the great changes that occurred in Geneva. Private vows of marriage were not valid. Witnesses had to be present.

There were numerous impediments recognized by Roman Catholics that could prevent a marriage. These were to be brought up during the engagement period. These included: being below the age of consent, being promised or already married to someone else, incest, disease or deformity that impacted the person’s ability for intercourse, physical desertion, failure of a condition that went to the essence of marriage,  expiration of agreed upon date to get married, cruelty, bodily fornication, spiritual fornication, entry of the man into the clergy, entry of either party into religious orders, and the mutual consent of both parties to dissolve the engagement.

There were also ways to get a consummated marriage annulled.  This involved other impediments including incest, rape of the engaged woman, the man had killed his former wife, the person was a former nun or monk and numerous others. These, if brought to the attention of the authorities, could annul an existing marriage. Why annul and not divorce? Because “absolute divorce, with a subsequent right to remarry, was not permitted by canon law.” A ruling of annulment meant the marriage never really happened. This created a loophole of sorts to get out of a marriage. The reformers often mocked this particular set up, though they still annulled marriages for various reasons

In canon law, there was no absolute divorce, but there was separation. A man and woman could go to court to sue for separation. The court could then rule that the man and woman would live separately and often they would make rulings on children and alimony as well. But neither party was free to remarry. That was bigamy, a mortal sin and capital crime. “Even remarriage of widows and widowers was frowned upon; many medieval canonists regarded it as serial polygamy.”

These basic ideas sum up Roman Catholic marriage theology at the time of the Reformation. If marriage is a sacrament it is indissoluble, thus creating downstream consequences, such as no divorce for any reason. The Reformers rejected the idea that marriage is a sacrament. Many of the general ideas, such as impediments, were carried over by the Reformers, but with modifications, in some cases drastic. Free consent remained a cornerstone of marriage theology for the Reformers, as it did for Catholics. Engagements were more easily broken in Roman Catholic theology and annulments were more easily obtained than they were in Reformed theology. The exaltation of celibacy was a major pillar of Catholic thought. Perhaps no other idea had such practical consequences on the average Christian’s view of marriage and the home as this one. The Reformers rejected celibacy as superior to marriage. They emphasized in practice, preaching, and writing that marriage was honorable and was to pursued by a large majority of men and women. One could argue that just as the exaltation of celibacy had a great impact on the Medieval church so the exaltation of marriage has left one of the largest footprints on the post-Reformation world.