Book Reviews Conference Papers
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Ed. David Crystal The Unspeakable Act in the Miller's Tale
The Matter of Scotland, James Goldstein Medieval Child Marriage
Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray Fiddling in the Poconos: Survival or Revival
The Age of Spiritual Machines..., Ray Kurzweil  
The Religion of Technology.... David F. Noble  
Images of Salvation, CD-ROM, Gen. Ed. Dr. Dee Dyas
The Position of Magic in Selected Medieval Spanish Texts. Francis Robienne, Jr.
Michael Murphy’s Reader-Friendly Editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: and Michael Murphy, with James Clawson, Companion to Medieval Literature.


Paper delivered at Plymouth State College, Plymouth, NH
Conference on Medieval Studies, April, 1997

John McLaughlin, PhD

English Department, East Stroudsburg University, Now Emeritus

In the unlikely event of the survival of the English monarchy into the 21st century -- with the helpful loan of the Stone of Scone from her ever- courteous neighbors to the north -- it is just conceivable that the future king might wish to consolidate his grasp upon the family billions by announcing his engagement to a future Duchess of Glasgow in order for there to be a royal wedding to keep American devotees of the throne up until 4 AM to join voyeuristically in the festivities. But if said Duchess should turn out to be seven years of age, there would be a barely stifled shriek of horror from every television station in the land that would otherwise have joined in the celebration, and there would be an immediate rush to denial on the front pages of the Star and Globe Weekly, which would also be salivating as they have not done since the discovery of the body of little Jo-Benet Ramsay. The spectre of pedophilia -- that last taboo, which has threatened to close down sections of the Internet to scholars in our day -- would immediately rear its dreadful head. The future king would be whisked away for extended treatment in an exclusive sanatorium at an un-named location. The Queen Mum would have a heart attack on the spot. Fergie would snigger.

And yet it is the case that in 1396, Richard II of England was joined in marriage to young Isabel of France, who had been 7 years old when their engagement was announced the previous year in Paris. Not only was there no uproar; there was considerable happiness expressed over the assumed probability that this marriage would end the Hundred Years War then in one of its periodic states of truce between the two kingdoms. Peace was to be ensured by joining together this man and this little girl in marriage. If some scholars are correct, Geoffrey Chaucer even celebrated the arrival of the little queen in England, in the formal but funny balade, "To Rosemond," remarking her "chekes round," clowning for the child, like "a pike, walwed in galantyne," possibly inducing thereby merry giggles and yet another pension. [See *The Riverside Chaucer* (Houghton Miflin, 1987) ed. Larry D. Benson et al, pp. 649 and 1082 -- where there is, however, note of disagreement among readers, Robbins endorsing Rickert's "conjecture" that the poem was addressed to "Richard II's child-bride," but Edward Vasta being willing to put the poem much earlier, around 1369-70, despite its formal polish.] If it is indeed addressed to Isabel in this way and for this purpose, then it could be argued that Chaucer was just one more profiteer from this bargain, joining in the happy welcome of the little girl to her marriage bed.

The difference between these responses to the prospect of child marriage is one of the clearest markers of the Otherness of the Middle Ages from the 20th century. The very idea of child marriage -- the use of a child as a bargaining chip, a counter in the game of family politics and inheritance -- is as abhorrent to us as it was apparently completely non-exceptionable in the 14th century. A social practice which entered the written record in the 12th century, but which seems to have had roots in the barbaric past, that extended from the royal abattoirs down to the lives of neighboring fishmongers and shop-keepers in medieval London, yet that seems to have received little more than passing notice in canon law beyond exhortation to limit it to age seven and ensure mutual consent of the parties, is now regarded with horror and disgust by decent- minded people from every point along the political and social spectrum. But still it is not even indexed in most contemporary discussions of medieval marriage and family life, from Barbara Hanawalt to James Brundage, GL Brooke to Frances & Joseph Giese, Ian MacFarlane to Georges Duby. It is not exactly passed over in their texts, when you read closely; but it is definitely subordinated in discussion to other matters of canon law and social history. The child who has recently been re-discovered, countering Philip Aries' assertion of her non-existence in the Middle Ages [See for example the Gieses' discussion of this debate, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (Harper & Row, 1987), p.5; it might be argued that Barbara Hanawalt's work has been devoted to countering Aries; see her "Narratives of a Nurturing Culture: Parents and Neighbors in Medieval England,"( ) Essays in Medieval Studies, Vol 12 (1995): Proceedings of the Illinois Medieval Association: Children and the Family in the Middle Ages.] is still not fully recognized as being thus casually abused and used for the ends of other people; there is not a single book, not a single article, on the separate topic of medieval child marriage in contemporary scholarship, even where there are passing references in the middle of other discussions of medieval childhood, as in problems of medieval wardship. The sole work devoted to child marriage in or near our area is F.J.Furnivall's edition of 16th century child divorce depositions from the Bishop's Court in Chester, 1561-66 (EETS, 1897), and it is of course open to the possible argument that post-Reformation practice diverged significantly from that of medieval society (itself admittedly sundered by geographical and class differences in this area as in any other).

It is therefore, of course, my duty to rectify this situation, by bringing together scattered references to child marriage from a variety of sources, and to begin to lay the groundwork for the new book or dissertation-length study which, I hope, awaits this initial foray into the field. If in the process I stimulate some younger, better scholar to continue this discussion, to bring this curiously neglected topic to the foreground -- to center the presently marginalized married child of the Middle Ages -- "Thine be the thank, and mine be the travail."

By "child" in this context is meant a male or female human being above the age of 7 -- for either gender -- and below the age of 14 for males, and 12 for females. This follows medieval canon law, in recognizing these as the limits of infancy and puberty, below which the infant could not give meaningful consent, and above which the person was no longer a child. [See Frances and Joseph Giese Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, pp. 139-40; Christopher Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford, 1991), p.138; James Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago, 1987), p.238.] Thus, for example, when the Wife of Bath boasts of having had five husbands since the age of 12, she is not casting herself in the role of child bride, technically speaking, at least not in medieval terms. Lee Patterson's discussion of child marriage in Peter Beidler's lovely new edition of The Wife of Bath, is thus irrelevant to the present discussion, except as it relates to Richard and Isabel; Christine de Pisan, for example, was already aged 15 when she was "given" to her husband, and therefore according to medieval definition an adult woman. [Lee Patterson, "'Experience wot well it is noght so': Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale," in The Wife of Bath, ed. Peter G. Beidler (St. Martin's, 1996), p.145; at the bottom of this and on the following page, Prof. Patterson goes on to make precisely this point.] This means that when the age is unspecified, it is not always easy to tell from context whether there is a true child (up to age 12) or a child by rhetorical exaggeration (below the age of legal majority, which might go as high as 21, or 18 or 16, depending on the context). Thus when Robert Mannyng of Brunne in Handlying Synne denounces parents for what GC Homans calls "child marriage": 3if pou dedyst euer swyche outrage/ To wedde chyldren or pey hadde age, /Pare-of may come grete folye/ 3yf pey so 3unge to-gedyr lye" [II, 1663-1666: cited in GC Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century (Harvard, 1940, repr. Russell & Russell, 1960, p. 163.] it is not clear that Mannyng is truly speaking about what I would here call child marriage, any more than when Phillip Stubbes, some two hundred years later, attacked the practice whereby 'little infants, in swaddling clouts, are often married by their ambitious friends, when they know neither good nor evil, and this is the origins of much wickedness'" [The Anatomie of Abuses (1585), cited -- and characterized as Stubbes' "typical rhetorical exaggeration" -- in Ian MacFarlane, Marriage and Love in England, 1300-1840 (Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 134.] It is, of course, easy enough to boost the statistics on "child marriage" by using the looser definition of the term, but I would have preferred to restrict myself to the smaller sub-group of clearly-defined cases of child marriage, as canon law recognizes it, if that had always been possible. In Furnivall's Child-Marriages, of course, the ages of the partners is carefully specified, as part of the divorce pleas being made in the Bishop's Court.

Literature, however, is not confined to the factual truth; but then, as some of us may know from personal experience, neither is every case in divorce court. But where it is not afterwards opposed or appealed, by definition medieval child marriage does not enter into the records of the ecclesiastical courts; and more than one scholar -- Christopher Brooke comes to mind at once -- has remarked on how difficult it is to find out the ages of parties entering into matrimony, simply going by village records, with namesakes and relatives crowding the pages of the parish registers, making it nearly impossible, except in well-documented cases of appeal to the courts, to track anything like a representative demographic sample in this matter. [Brooke, pp. 3-19] on the difficulties for demographers in tracking medieval marriages below the ranks of the aristocracy.] Still the Church had its limits, and refused -- except for special affairs of state, involving the peace -- to sanction marriages contracted before seven years of age, below which it considered the child as truly an infant, incapable of giving consent to marriage. Thus, when Bishop Hugh of Lincoln intervened in the multiple marriages of Grace of Saleby, it was, among other reasons, because she had been married at age 4; it was this, combined with the other fraudulent behavior of her mother and her female accomplices, which brought down the censure of the saintly bishop. If they had only waited until she was seven, things might have been alright, given the swift deaths of the hasty spouses. [See the discussion of this case by Paulette L'Hermite Le Clerq, in "The Feudal Order," in A History of Women, Vol II: Silences of the Middle Ages (Harvard, 1992), ed. Christine Klupisch-Zuber, gen eds. George Duby and Michelle Perrot, pp. 204-206.]

But affairs of state might sanction infant marriage, let alone the marriage of seven-year-olds; numerous sources testify to "the widespread practice of child marriage at the highest levels of society" [Le Clerq, p. 274]; the children of Henry II "had been married in babyhood," and the Council of Westminster (1175) conceded that these could be valid marriages "pro bono pacis" (for the sake of peace), even although it also said that "where there is no consent of both parties there is no marriage, and so those who give girls to boys in their cradles achieve nothing" [Brooke, p. 140]. It is also clear -- contrary to the verdict of the Gieses, who in their study of marriage in the Middle Ages claim that, "Child marriage was confined to the aristocracy, peasant and artisan classes having no need for it," (p. 209) -- that in fact child marriage was entered into well below the exalted circles of the court, for reasons making as much economic sense, at their level, as did the regal exchange of provinces and castles. GC Homans cites the court books of the village of Cahiers, Herts, for the year 1294: "Walter, Ailrich's son, came and made fine for the land which belonged to Ailrich, his father. And thereupon came Adam Irman, and took said land, and said Walter the heir until he is of age, so that in the meantime he will build and will maintain the land and the holding and will give Helen the daughter of said Adam to said Walter. And he will do the due and accustomed services. And he gives, for the fine and for the term of years and for the license to marry, a half-mark." [English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century, p. 162.] (This case should remind us that, contrary to Carolyn Dinshaw's assertion in Chaucer's Sexual Poetics (Wisconsin, 1989), p. 57, which ties medieval child marriage solely to the exchange of women that she believes characterizes the patriarchal society of the Middle Ages, an argument that she believes she derives from Claude Levi-Strauss' Elementary Structures of Kinship, young boys as well as young girls, on the peasant level as on the aristocratic level, were traded in this fashion.) Other cases are cited by Barbara Hanawalt, in Growing up in Medieval London (p. 101): "Agnes, widow of John Laurence, and her new husband, Simon de Burgh, were appointed guardians of little Agnes, who was eight months old. The couple contrived to marry Agnes, who had property worth 40 marks, to Thomas, son of Simon, who was eleven years old. The banns had already been read, and the wedding garments purchased (little Agnes' dress must have been a glorified christening dress), when the "next friends" intervened and Agnes was removed from her mother's custody. In a similar case the marriage actually occurred. The guardian had married the widowed mother of an orphan and had then married off the little girl [age not given], even though he had covenanted with the mayor not to marry her off." Elsewhere, Hanawalt refers to John Bryan, a fishmonger, who marries off one Alison Rayner to Richard Fraunceys, "with permission of the chamberlain" (p. 245, note 30); thus even in London, where orphans and children were supposedly under the direct protection of the mayor, the marriage of children in far from aristocratic state might still take place.

While far from as plentiful in the records as evidence of royal marriages and betrothals -- peasants could not afford the expensive and extended litigation which makes the entry of aristocratic appeals for annulment and divorce appear so much more readily in the records -- the routine nature of these transactions (and the petty amounts involved) provides supporting evidence of the widespread abuse of wardship involved in medieval child marriage, from the aristocracy to the peasantry. If Furnivall's 27 cases of child divorce in five years within one diocese in the 16th century could be permitted to enter the argument as at least tangential evidence of the continuing practice of child marriage below the aristocracy, then it would count as no small measure of the difference between the Middle Ages and the 20th century that this custom, once so widespread and so apparently accepted in the statute books and the church registers and court rolls, with its own limits and regulations, its own boundaries and acceptable practices and precedents, has now passed into history, as a clear marker of the Otherness of the Middle Ages from our era.

But of course Furnivall makes the case for recognizing the practice of child marriage in England even into the 17th century and beyond, citing Lord Henry Swinburne, Judge of the Prerogative Court of York, in his Treatise of Spousals or Matrimonial Contracts, pp. 19-22, 25-27, (Furnivall, pp. xxxv-vii), on the English laws governing grounds for dissolution of these child marriages, in terms remarkably similar to Gratian and Peter Anchiorno. At the same time, and even more disturbing to 20th century sensibilities, there may be little reason to doubt and some reason to suspect that swift consummation of such marriages was an option to be explored in securing the inheritance of the child in question. At issue are the two competing definitions of marriage, involving both consent and consummation (the model of Gratian in the 12th century and Peter Anchiorno in the 15th century, in concert with the received wisdom and practice of the common people), as opposed to that involving consent alone (the idealistic model of Ivo of Chartres and Innocent III) [ See Brundage, Brooke, et al]. There is little evidence to support the argument that the second model alone was supposed to be applied to child marriage, with the first reserved for adult marriage only. The records do not support this way out of the possibility of what we would now regard as blatant child abuse. Discussion of definitions of consummation consumed the learned doctors of the Church: Deposition of semen only, or penetration beyond the vulva? What are the grounds for annulment? Is gross disparity between the sexual organs grounds for such relief from vows entered into between consenting parties? Can a wife be put away for failure to bear a child? Is impotence equally valid grounds for divorce as adultery? Is it legitimate to test a claim to impotence by using naked women in the examination? These queries crowd the pages of the early penitentials and the later decretals, with never a special case for child marriage noted or discussed. [See Brundage, pp 36, 92, 130, 202, 296, 437, 502, passim.] And yet this was an age of logic-chopping and special cases. If there had been an exception for children, it would have been easy enough to make; I have been unable to find it in my research on this topic. Even in Furnivall, the clearly- rehearsed deponents, whose testimony appears and re-appears in almost identical wording in the 27 cases that form the main body of his evidence, (pp. 1-52) insist to a person that there has been no possibility of consummation -- or even cohabitation -- between the parties from the beginning, in case the faintest hint of even attempted intercourse should pose a barrier to the child divorces being sought by on their behalf. This follows, of course, from recognition that, in an age which accepted Original Sin but had not embraced the Freudian "latency myth," in an agricultural society where animal copulation was readily observable, along with the example of servants and other adults -- with privacy, practically speaking, a non-issue -- the Romantic conception of the "innocent child" had not yet been arrived at. [See for discussion James R Kincaid, Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture ( Routledge, NY, 1992), pp. 120-133, and notes.] Precocity was in fact recognized in the medieval period: "[...] Hostiensis reminded his readers that the real criterion of readiness for marriage was sexual capacity; a girl who was able and willing to consummate a sexual union was fit for marriage, whatever her chronological age, and boys who were fit for sex were likewise capable of contracting marriage. (Brundage, p.434] [Hostiensis was Henry of Segusio, Cardinal bishop of Ostia, d. 1271] As abhorrent as we find it in the 20th century, then, the merciless logic of a marriage theory which required consummation to complement consent winds up in at least a possibility of pedophilia in medieval child marriage.

Perhaps this is the place -- in a conference paper at least, if not in a published essay -- to note that in my work with abused children for an arts and social service agency in the Poconos, I have found that one of the most distressing side-effects of the incest-abused children with whom I have had to deal has been their promiscuous behavior, towards adults and towards other children. It is as if the abuse had awakened desires and behaviors which would otherwise, in this society, have lain dormant until puberty. Speaking personally, I find this one of the most dreadful side-effects -- if that is the word -- for such child abuse. I recognize that this may not be a totally clinical response; but then I'm not that kind of doctor.

Medieval child marriage, then, might well have been an elaborate doll-game involving pseudo-consent obtained from a dazzled child by overbearing parents (although precisely this pseudo-consent lay at the heart of the ecclesiastical litigation concerning dissolution of marriages, as brought by the few defiant and well-heeled children and their friends in the period). It might have involved nothing more than transfer of a child from one nursery to another, following a childish scrawl in a church register, but with immediate transfer of lands and inheritance from one guardian to another, or to a greedy or complaisant, self-seeking parent (These are the kinds of claims made in Furnivall's cases.) It might have followed upon family discussion of the benefits to be mutually obtained for the family, in bringing together adjoining fish-shops or fields -- or fiefdoms and royal treasuries. And at the same time it might, in fact, have involved what we must call unanswerable violation of the child, making annulment -- and return of the prizes -- impossible by any except the most complex definition of marriage, such as only the richest of magnates -- and the cleverest of lawyers -- could wring from the highest courts, following the most arduous, difficult, time-consuming and expensive trail of litigation. And it might have been a purely formal matter, involving childish consent obtained not even in front of witnesses, passing thereafter into the non- remarked and the obscure, ripening with age into the eventual production of children and the passage of generations, in a conspiracy of silence concerning what had been done to a child in the name of lustful greed.

John McLaughlin, April 1997.