Consent, Coercion, and Conditions to Marriage in Geneva

Marriage certificate

“In Calvin’s Geneva, as much as today, marriage was a contract between a fit man and a fit woman of the age of consent.  It was, of course, much more than a contract: it was a spiritual, social, natural, and economic relationship that could involve many other parties besides the couple. But marriage was never less than a contract. It could not be created unless both the man and woman consented voluntarily to this union.”

So begins Witte and Kingdon’s fourth chapter on marriage in Geneva. In this chapter the authors explore how Geneva dealt with coerced marriages or false promises of marriage that were never fulfilled.

First, they offer this summary,

Like the medieval canonists, Calvin treated marriage as a “sacred contract” that depends in its essence on mutual consent. Calvin repeated this teaching many times. “While all contracts ought to be voluntary, freedom ought to prevail especially in marriage, so that no one may pledge his faith against his will.” When a woman wishes to marry, she must not ” be thrust into it reluctantly or compelled to marry against her will, but left to her own free choice.” When a man “is going to marry and he takes a wife, let him take her of his own free will, knowing that where there is not a true and pure love, there is nothing but disorder, and one can expect no grace from God”…The doctrine of mutual consent was so commonplace and uncontroversial in his day that Calvin offered little sustained theological analysis.

As background to what follows, remember a public promise to marry someone said before witnesses was binding. You couldn’t promise to marry and then back out tomorrow. As you can imagine many couples made public promises they later regretted. And because promises were held in such high regard unscrupulous suitors would try to coerce a girl to promise marriage when under normal circumstances she would have ignored his advances.

Because promises were taken seriously coercion was a constant problem. Geneva worked hard to make sure both the man and women freely agreed to a marriage. When a person was “physically threatened or coerced into marriage, or they were seduced, tricked, blackmailed, or fraudulently induced into giving their consent, the Consistory annulled their engagement or their marriage and often punished the coercing party quite severely.”

What were some of the situations that qualified as a coerced promise of marriage? Getting a girl drunk and then having her agree to marriage or both parties being drunk. Frivolous promises, such as promising marriage after just meeting someone, could also be considered coercive. Getting a girl who was not yet of age to promise marriage without her parents’ consent.  In one case, a man asked a girl to marry him if he arranged to get her out of prison. She agreed, but later wanted to back out. The Consistory allowed her to back out because the man had coerced her. A similar situation arose with a girl fleeing persecution. A man promised to pay for her escape to Geneva if she married him. She wanted to back out after arriving in Geneva. The Consistory allowed her to because the promise could not be made freely when she was under duress. In one case, a mother had tricked her daughter into marrying. Calvin said that the marriage should be annulled and that all parties involved in the deceit, mother, witnesses, and the minister should be punished severely. Any contracts where one of the parties, usually the woman, were “physically threatened or psychologically coerced into marriage could be annulled.”

Sometimes men were forced to keep their promises of marriage. As has been true throughout history, men often want women, but don’t want marriage. A man would say to a woman, “Have sex with me and I will marry you.” The woman obliges and the man then refuses to marry. The girl would often get pregnant in such situations and be left without support or future prospects. The Consistory would punish both parties for fornication and then force the man to keep his promise.

Finally, conditions were a big part of Medieval marriage contracts. A man would say something like, “I will marry you if your father gives us the house he promised you.” Prior to the Reformation there were complex laws to address the conditions people used to arrange marriage contracts. Geneva simplified things. They divided conditions up into two types: ancillary and essential. Most conditions, like the example above, were ancillary and often involved the promise of a possession or money, such as a ring or dowry. Even if an ancillary promise wasn’t fulfilled the couple still had to marry, which was in contrast to Medieval practice.  An example of an essential condition would be  “I will marry you if your divorce goes through.” This condition struck at the essence of marriage. A failure to meet this condition would lead to an engagement or marriage being annulled. This might seem odd to us, but in Geneva the promise to marry was to be freely given without conditions except those essential to a proper marriage. Property, rings, dowries, living quarters, etc. were not considered of the essence of marriage. Thus to force a potential spouse to give something like this before you marry was a form of coercion. Geneva was fine with conditions being attached to the marriage contract by mutual consent. But if the condition was ancillary its fulfillment could not be made a criteria for marriage.

In conclusion:

The Consistory and Council thus annulled engagement or marriage contracts where they found no full or free consent on both sides…Where the parties gave their mutual consent to engagement but then later changed their minds, however, the Consistory held them to their promises…If it had been properly formed, the engagement contract could not be dissolved even by mutual consent.

Just a couple of short thoughts from this history lesson.

It is astonishing how seriously people took spoken vows and promises. Often our promises, even major ones, are broken for the slightest reason. That was unheard of in Geneva. A promise spoken was assumed to be a promise kept.

Second, marriage required full and free consent of both parties. Note Calvin’s phrase in the earlier quote, “where there is not a true and pure love, there is nothing but disorder, and one can expect no grace from God.”  We often view our fathers in the faith as dictators who cared nothing for the feelings of their children. “Daughter, I know you love John, but you will marry Steve because I said so.” The reality was far removed from this. The caricature of hard fathers forcing daughters to marry against their will for money or position and getting away with it is unfounded, at least in Geneva.  The feelings and desires of the child could not be overthrown by the father. Love for a potential spouse, while not the only or primary consideration, was not ignored.

Third, most of the laws and rulings of the Consistory were designed to protect young women. The more history I read the more sure I am that women in America are some of the least protected either by law or societal norms of all women throughout the history of Western civilization.

One thought on “Consent, Coercion, and Conditions to Marriage in Geneva

  1. Pingback: Parental Consent to Marriage in Geneva | Singing & Slaying

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