Impediments to Marriage in Calvin’s Geneva

denied-stampI am continuing to work through Kingdon and Witte’s book on marriage in Geneva.

A new concept to me in this book was that of impediments to marriage. It means exactly what it sounds like: reasons that prevent someone from getting married or can be used to annul an engagement or marriage. Chapters 6-9 cover various impediments to marriage. Here they are in my own words:

1. Children who have not reached puberty could not marry.
2. The insane or mentally impaired could not marry.
3. Someone engaged to one person could not marry another.  This was polygamy.
4. Lack of presumed virginity could prevent a marriage.
5. Contagious & incurable disease that would be passed on to the spouse and children could prevent marriage.
6. Men or women incapable of having sex could not marry.
7. Wide disparity in age could also prevent marriage.
8. People too closely related (incest) could not marry.

I am not going to work through all of the material in the book, but I wanted to bring up a few points from the reading.

First, impediments to marriage were taken very seriously.  Our criteria for who can marry who is lazily thought out. All you need is love. Whatever that is. But for Calvin marriage required certain things. Without those you could not get married. In our age, what, other than lack of consent, is an impediment to marriage?

Second, a physical, sexual relationship that was expected to produce children was necessary to contract marriage. #1, #5, and #6 are all grounded in this idea. #2 and #7 could sometimes be grounded on this same idea. Children could not marry because they could not have sex and produce children. There was no such thing as a marriage of the heart where sex and the possibility of children were not included. Sexual dysfunction was a serious issue. If it was discovered after marriage that the person (usually the man) lied about their ability to have sex, the marriage could be annulled. However, if the reason for the dysfunction occurred after marriage, such as a man being castrated in battle while married, then the marriage could not be annulled. What is meant here, by the way, is the ability to have sex, not the guarantee of producing children. If a couple could have sex, but ended up not being able to have children there was nothing to be done about that.

Third, lying about your virginity or losing your virginity while engaged was a serious issue. People married non-virgins all the time. However, claiming to be a virgin and not actually being one, was considered a breach of contract. Losing your virginity to someone other than who you were engaged to while engaged was adultery and could result in death. A marriage could be annulled if a spouse found out after marriage that their partner had claimed to be a virgin and was not. However, an engaged couple losing their virginity to each other was fornication, not adultery. Geneva was not a huge town by today’s standards. Gossip got around, even from neighboring states and communities. If a man had slept with a woman prior to marriage it was best for him to tell his potential wife than have it come up after they were married.

Fourth, the disease impediment is interesting. A disease that was contagious and incurable prevented a person from marrying. However, if the disease was contracted after marriage the marriage could not be annulled. If there was a serious and repulsive physical problem contracted during engagement, but not contagious the couple could still marry. However, the engagement could also be broken. Often, this involved men coming back from war greatly disfigured or men who were seriously injured in an accident. Simply being hurt, even severely, such as blindness, did not guarantee that an engagement could be annulled. The Consistory and Geneva’s courts had to approve it. Despite the detailed laws governing this, it was rarely an issue in Geneva.

Fifth, disparity of age was a hotly contested impediment. Understand that by disparity of age we are talking about at least ten years difference and in many cases, much more. For example, Farel, a fellow pastor of Calvin’s, married someone forty years younger. Calvin felt for various reasons that those much older should not be allowed to marry those much younger. Younger men would often marry a wealthy, older widow. Calvin felt this situation would keep the young man from leading his household. An older man marrying a young woman, Calvin felt, was driven by lust instead of by what was good for the young lady. However, Geneva did not entirely agree with Calvin on this. Age disparity alone was usually not enough to call off an engagement for the Consistory, though it would have been enough for Calvin. Another problem, usually involving money, had to be raised before the marriage was called off.

Sixth, notice that the period of engagement was essentially like marriage. An engaged person who tried to get engaged to a second person was accused of polygamy. If a person did end up marrying someone else while engaged to another party this was adultery and could end in death. Sleeping with someone other than the one you were engaged to was not fornication, but adultery. Here is why engagements were limited to six weeks in Geneva. Beyond that period the couple was called in to account for the delay.

Finally, the laws governing who could marry were remarkably unromantic. Love, that is a warm feeling for someone else, was not enough to get married.  In our day, if you love someone, anyone, (several someones?) then marriage is a right. In Geneva, it was not because there were Biblical and natural laws which fenced in marriage. You could not get through the gate without certain boxes being checked. For example, if you were physically attracted to a man and got engage, but he went off to war and his face was disfigured you could call off the engagement. To us this sounds mean.  However, Geneva’s laws seem to face reality with less of flinch than we do. Geneva knew that without physical attraction the marriage would be difficult to hold together. Romantic notions of love conquering all were not part of Geneva’s decision making process. They did think love was necessary. But so were many other things, such as normal sex and physical attraction.