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Comparison of Medieval and Renaissance Marriage Customs.

By Cyd Klein

The Old and New testaments provided early church leaders with conflicting views regarding marriage. Biblical writings had clearly indicated men and women relationships outside the confines of marriage, multiple partner marriages, and the use of concubines.

The Bible was also rampant with stories of lust as in the story of David and Bathsheba.
St Augustine defended this by writing that God said it pleased him that certain individuals amongst the Patriarchs of the Bible have many wives, specifically for the multiplication of their offspring. He further suggested that the only reason women would need more than one husband would be for lustful gratification.

To give the old guy his due, he also is credited with saying, "Let everyone of you in particular so love his wife even as himself, and the wife see that she reverence her husband." Augustine considered marriage a sacrament, a permanent union of faith.

Now that marriage was declared a sacrament, the church leaders thusly made a declaration that men and women should pursue marriage with only one partner. They added that sexual relations with the confines of a marriage should be for procreation and not for lust alone. Once marriage had become a sacrament, it soon followed that the church needed legislative power over marriage and that a priest should perform a nuptial blessing.

Something as important as deciding on a marriage partner was not left in the hands of the bride and groom, for the bride and groom were usually children. Parents arranged marriages in the Middle Ages when their children were still very young. If love was involved at all, it came well after the wedding had taken place. Girls were as young as twelve and boys as young as 17. The arrangements were not considered complete until a wedding notice was posted on the door of the church.

Marriages continued to be arranged during the Renaissance. Boys could marry at age 14 and girls at 12, with their parent's permission. The families from the groom and brides side would come together and work out the dowry.

In the middle ages, marriages were arranged to improve the socioeconomic status of the parties involved. The brides family provided a dowry to the boy she would marry. The dowry could be quite substantial, including cash, lands, or other valuable assets. Her future husband would have complete control over the dowry forever. In

Italian marriages during the Renaissance, the dowry was the most important part of the pre-marriage ritual, but in Florence besides gifts from the bride's family there were counter-gifts from her husband and his family. The ritual would go back and forth, giving gifts to those who gave gifts in response to previous gifts. The expense was so great that some men gave up on marriage or married at a much later time in their life when they could afford the expense.

Unlike the Medieval times, the Renaissance dowry remained with the bride her entire life. If she was widowed, she could return to her family with her dowry, but she would have to leave her children with her husband's family.

In England, a marriage contract included provision both for the bride's dowry and for a jointure, or settlement, in cash and property by the husband's family, that guaranteed her welfare should her husband die first.

For the most part the church was involved in the ceremonies that took place. The Council of Westminster had decreed in 1076 that no man should give his daughter or female relative to anyone without priestly blessing.

Weddings during the middle ages were considered family and community affairs. It was important that both parties consented to the marriage; this could be substituted with the consent of the parents. The ceremony was performed in church. Vows were exchanged outside the church before everyone moved inside for mass.
There was a procession both from and to the bride's home.

It was a custom in the Medieval time that if the groom was not from the area he would buy a round of drinks for the local young men to make amends for removing a local girl from the marriage market. Guests would often bring cakes from home that would be stacked on top of each other. The newly weds would have to try to kiss over the cakes without toppling them. This is the origin of the modern multi-tiered wedding cake.

Formal consummation may or may not have taken place after the ceremony it depending upon the age of the bride. After the ceremony she may have retired with her parents to their home until she became of age.

The Renaissance wedding was also performed in a church. Prior to the wedding it had to be announced in the church on three consecutive Sundays. This allowed time for any objections to be raised before the wedding could take place. The ceremony was probably performed before noon for luck, and included a procession from the bride's home to the church accompanied with as much noise and revelry as in the medieval wedding ceremony.

Medieval wives were expected to produce male children, and submit to their husband's authority. They would be instructed from an early age that their gender was weak and sinful and deceitful due to the first sin by Eve against Adam. The Medieval wife was kept a recluse in her own home. The only choice for women other than marriage was life in a nunnery.

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee, And for thy maintenance commits his body To painful labour both by sea and land, To watch the night in storms, the day in cold, Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe; And craves no other tribute at thy hands But love, fair looks and true obedience; Too little payment for so great a debt. (Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew 5.2.145-53)

In Renaissance England married women held no political power. Married women could not own property or make contracts; they were completely subjected to the economic and physical power of their husbands.
Renaissance women were told to keep quiet, not discuss political matters and to go about their duties in their husband's households. The submission of the wife was considered an important part of maintaining household order and therefore order in the Commonwealth. Disobedient wives were labeled shrews and could be subject to public punishment devised to humiliate her.

Within his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer writes of the Wife of the Bath's Prologue. She had met a good Samaritan while she was in the company of a man after just burying her fifth husband.
The Good Samaritan questions her on having five husbands and being in the company of a man not yet her husband. She answers him stating she had first married at twelve years old and now after five husbands does not mean to be "chaste at all costs". Chaucer ends the tale with a humorous excerpt from her...
And now to all us women may Christ send Submissive husbands full of youth in bed, And grace to outlive all the men we wed. And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives Of those who won't be governed by their wives; And old ill tempered niggards who hate expense, God promptly bring them down with pestilence!

In the Medieval time if a woman was widowed and there was no children the women would inherit her husband's entire estate. In this case Chaucer's character in the Wife of the Bath's Prologue would have been a rich woman indeed.

Whereas Renaissance widows retained at least 1/3 of their husband's estates whether there were children or not. Her heirs might not be able to marry until her death because the estate was tied up. If there were no children, the wife would inherit the entire estate, just as in medieval times.

In conclusion there does not appear to be great differences in the state of marriage between the middle ages and the Renaissance periods. A look closer can find some similarities between these earlier eras and the marriage practices of today. Couples no longer have to get their parents permission, or provide a dowry. However, the announcement of the future ceremony is done in the local paper rather than the church doors. Most ceremonies are done in a religious setting in the presence of clergy. There is still a "stacked wedding cake and the Grooms ritual of buying drinks for the boys.

Fortunately for women the institution of marriage itself has changed a great deal since the middle ages and the Renaissance. Although there is no guarantee of equality in marriages of today, things are a lot better than they were.

Copyright Reserved by Cyd Klein Enterprises

About the Author

Cyd Klein has 21 years experience sewing for others. Her vocation is designing and manufacturing Costumes which are then marketed locally and on-line at In addition she maintains a Sewing Help site at


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