Marriage by Consent in the Late Middle Ages

Wen-Chi, Lin

The year is 1434 in the city of Bruges.

The year is 1434 in the city of Bruges. The visiting merchant Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini from Lucca, Italy, holds the slender hands of his wife-to-be Giovanna Cenami behind the lavishly furnished tapestry of their marriage bed. Giovanni raises his right hand as he recites a solemn oath, exchanging a moment of tender intimacy. Giovanni’s silk velvet tabard in brown marten fur accompany Giovanna’s high-horned bun and olive-green woolen gown edged with dagged strips to reflect more than the new-found material wealth of the commercial class but the faith and glamor in the couple’s state of love. Nearly six centuries after the Flemish master Jan Van Eyck painted his famous wedding portrait The Arnolfini Portrait, the mysteries continue to captivate our gaze. According to art historian Ernst Gombrich, the Arnolfini Portrait was “the first time in history the artist became the perfect eye-witness in the truest sense of the term,” for he captured artistic realism of the Arnolfini wedding through his mastery of brushwork, intensity of color, and illusionism of space. But beyond the layers of his translucent paint, Van Eyck is also living testimony to the Arnolfinis’ private marriage, one that was strikingly ‘modern’ and difficult to imagine in other regions of the medieval world. One of the questions raised by Van Eyck’s enigmatic painting was when precisely a couple transitioned from the unmarried to the married state. For the Arnolfinis, the sacramental rite of marriage was completed by the joining of the hands, the marital oath, and the recognition that the bridal pair is equal before God, in the absence of public witnesses and priestly ordination. The decision of Giovanni and Giovanna to marry was a private arrangement where parental authority and the extended family exercised little control. What Van Eyck immortalized in his Arnolfini Portrait was the story of a new marriage pattern characterized by consensus between spouses, independence from the family and the church, and the establishment of the nuclear household that would come to define the European family. The notion of a peculiar Western European Marriage Pattern, or EMP, has fascinated demographers in recent scholarly debates. The EMP arose in the late Middle Ages on the shores of the North Sea, spanning England and the Low Countries, where the story of the Arnolfini marriage unfolded. Men and women found individual agency to select their partners without the intervention of the family, paving the way for a long tradition of informal marriages. As spouses embraced the doctrine of consent, marriage no longer meant arrangements between heads of households but the establishment of a new family and residence with economic self-sufficiency. Women also gained access to the labor force as independent wage earners. Young women sought economic bargaining power as they accumulated wealth in preparation for the new household, delaying marriage in the process. Many historians credit this large pool of a flexible female labor force for contributing to Western Europe’s comparative economic success and early take-off during the Industrial Revolution, where entrepreneurs hired inexpensive young women to work in cotton mills. In the long-run, the establishment of independent household enterprises and women’s entrance in the labor market helped propel the commercial success of the region and the “Rise of the West.” What was the unique convergence of conditions and events that led to the EMP, and what made the situation of the North Sea so favorable to the development of the new marriage trend? This article explores the underlying causes behind the EMP and sheds light on the context behind the Arnolfini’s marriage.
Marriage by Consent in the Late Middle Ages
Jan Van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, 1434

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Marriage by Consent in the Late Middle Ages
Schwäbischer Meister, A Bridal Couple, c. 1470

Consensus non Concubitus

As early as the 9th century, the Catholic Church affirmed that mutual consent was alone sufficient for the sacrament of matrimony. However, it would take another two centuries before a clear and unified doctrine was incorporated into canon law and become standard practice of the church. In 1140, the doctrine of consent found its first influential expression in the theological works of the jurist Gratian, who established in his decretals that marriage was a “faith of consent” among equals, and that the final decision should not be made by parents or the priest. Beyond the Alps, the matter was settled by Peter Lombard, Bishop of Paris, and author of the theology textbook Sentences, who believed that a valid marriage derived from consent by spoken words in the present tense, or per verba de presenti. One joins a fully realized union of marriage through the swearing of the marital oath without accompanying formalities, the oversight of the family or the blessing of the priest. Interpreted romantically, consensual marriage emphasized mutual love as a prerequisite for consummation, signaling the 12th century turn to individualism and a weakening of the traditional family, kinship, and the feudal order. Although the principle was met with resistance by conventions of aristocratic courtship, contemporary English pastoral manuals reveal that consensual marriage disseminated widely at the parish level by the 15th century, undermining the authority of manorial lords, who lost control of the marriage decisions and affairs of the serfs. The doctrine also dealt a blow to the authority of the parents, who were more willing to allow their children to leave the family and establish their own household. Although the emergence of EMP was legitimized by the preaching of the Catholic Church, it is not a sufficient cause in explaining why the new marriage pattern was confined to the North Sea region. Other factors must have been at work. Rise of Labor Markets The transition to the EMP accelerated after 1348, when the bubonic plague docked at the ports of Europe and went on to decimate nearly a third of the European population. The virulence of the Black Death also unintentionally nailed the coffin of the patriarchal household. Due to labor shortages and the demise of the feudal system, women took advantage of lucrative labor opportunities and improvements in real earnings, translating economic gains into matrimonial autonomy. Wage labor became a significant part of the life cycle, with women acquiring skills as young servants and migrating to cities when opportunities became available. It was estimated that before the plague, women earned a penny a day, less than half of that of unskilled laborers. After 1348, the wages of women nearly tripled and quadrupled, giving women an edge in the gendered division of labor. In contrast to Eastern and Southern Europe, where new employment slots were predominantly filled by men in urban areas, cities in the Northwest saw a large influx of unmarried women in search of jobs traditionally reserved for men. From reapers to mowers, and ploughers to servants, women gained access to labor markets and left the household as independent wage earners, challenging the authority of the parent and the family. Another interesting conjecture linking the EMP to the Black Death found that due to the abundance of land and scarcity of labor, land-intensive pastoral agriculture became a profitable sector. Young women were more accustomed and productive in pastoral work, thereby raising their employment prospects outside of the domestic household. The share of women aged 20-24 who worked as servants was estimated at 40% in England and 36% in the Low Countries, delaying the first age of marriage to 25 or beyond. In fact, it became so common for girls to leave their families for work between adolescence and marriage that the German word Magd (maid) defined both an unmarried woman and a servant. As women married late or stayed celibate, this imposed a natural check on fertility and lowered population pressure. Wages remained high and the development of a prosperous middle class followed suit. Unlike the agricultural and labor conditions of the Northwest, farming and production in Mediterranean countries favored transhumance, or the driving of livestock across vast distances, but which did not suit women’s social roles and services in husbandry. In Eastern Europe, serfdom continued as the dominant form of production, hindering the growth in wages and access to labor among women. This ensured that the EMP did not develop in to a continent-wide phenomenon but was limited to the North Sea region. The Black Death ushered in the “golden age of the craftsman” and women shared in the utopia. Exploiting labor and agricultural conditions to become wage earners, young women found the perfect opportunity to withdraw from parental authority and gain bargaining power once they started to own property. The incentive that spouses postpone marriage before they had accumulated enough wealth to set up a new household became a characteristic feature of the EMP in the Northwest and explains why the region saw economic development ahead of the rest of Europe and the world.
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Shift of the Tide

The genesis of the EMP is not just a story of love but one of women’s empowerment, economic participation, and the early rise of the Western world. The Catholic Church’s toleration of marriage by consent without the interference of the parents and the priest gave the ideological justification that was reinforced by the rapidly expanding labor market driven by the economic consequences of the Black Death. The rise of the private, informal marriage as depicted in the Arnolfini Portrait suited well the lifestyle of the growing middle class, who escaped from parental authority to set up an independent, nuclear household. Yet, there is more to the story of the EMP, when things started to look different for the European women. By the 16th century, the liberating trends of the past century and a half began to reverse themselves. Ideologically, parental authority reasserted itself when Martin Luther and his Protestant crusade criticized the informal nature of marriages. Reformers called for an end to the canon law of consent, stressing the legitimacy of public ceremonies, parental consent, and religious invocation to preserve the piety of the sacrament. John Calvin and his Calvinist Church followed suit, affirming marriage as a covenantal agreement of the entire community. Beyond the sacred blessings of the minister, two witnesses serving as God’s priests admonished the spouses in their spiritual duties. The attacks from the Protestant sector pressured the Catholic Church to reinterpret its standards on matrimony and invited religious and civil authorities back into the private spheres of marriage. With the gradual economic recovery from the plague, the labor shortage brought about by the Black Death turned into labor surplus by the turn of the 16th century. This deprived women of much of the labor market gains made since the 14th century, as real wages declined and women were reduced to unskilled or unspecialized labor in the countryside. Marriage decisions and work prospects returned to the domestic household and the authority of the family. Despite this brief “return to patriarchy” of the 16th century, the emergence of the European marriage regime and the mobilization of women into the labor force had become deeply entrenched in the economy and society on the shores of the North Sea. The EMP would have far-reaching consequences into the 17th and 18th centuries, playing a critical role in the expansion of trade during the commercial revolution, the formation of new market institutions during the Dutch Golden Age, and finally, the technological and social progress under the British Industrial Revolution. And at the same time as Van Eyck tantalized the art world with his cryptic painting, the Arnolfinis have set a unique trajectory for the economic and social transformation of the West.
Marriage by Consent in the Late Middle Ages
Rogier van der Weyden, Matrimony, The Seven Sacraments, c. 1445
Marriage by Consent in the Late Middle Ages

Wen-Chi, Lin

I am Wen-Chi, Lin (Lucas) from Taiwan, an incoming freshman at Duke University who is passionate about all things history, from politics, to society, and art history. In the summer of 2020, I created the platform library_of_history on Instagram with my friend Sydney Hsieh to promote historical knowledge that incorporates informative texts with aesthetic designs.
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