Une histoire du non-mariage au Moyen Âge (Ruth Mazo Karras)

Il y a quelques mois, nous avons rappelé qu’avaient existé au Moyen Âge des formes d’unions entre personnes de même sexe, qui n’étaient pas des mariages mais n’en manifestaient pas moins une capacité à créer de l’engagement affectif, social voire politique. Récemment, l’une des meilleures spécialistes des questions de genre au Moyen Âge a publié une bienvenue histoire de la diversité des formes d’unions entre hommes et femmes, qui là non plus ne se réduisaient pas au mariage canonique, loin s’en faut. D’où le titre facétieux de son livre : « Les non-mariages »

Je reproduis ci-dessous le compte-rendu paru dans « The Medieval Review », en espérant que livre sera rapidement traduit en français et en attenant peut-être un débat prochain, qui pourrait bien être passionnant, sur le non-mariage pour tous…

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Karras, Ruth Mazo.  <i>Unmarriages.  Women, Men and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages</i>. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.  Pp.  283.  $ 49.95.  ISBN-13: 9780812244205.

Reviewed by Walter Prevenier
University of Ghent
walter.prevenier@telenet.be

This book makes me happy for many reasons. For years I have admired
Ruth Karras for the outstanding originality of her former studies, but
this is certainly her most challenging. It has the sharpest analysis I
have read on the complexity of the many forms of marriage and
alternative companionship in the Middle Ages. Karras describes the
phenomenon with a slightly ironical, convenient overarching term,
« unmarriages. » In the past many historians worked on formal marriages,
others on clandestine unions, and others on concubinage and adultery.
Here we get them all together in one global overview, and the variety
is much broader than these four formats. Karras’ thesis is that there
was never one unique model of marriage, rather an impressive plurality
of alternative forms of cohabitation, displaying a lot of individual
creativity and some critical disrespect for the ecclesiastical rituals
and the civic rules of the game. I appreciate that Karras, more than
most historians in the past, does not hesitate to reveal that her
observation of the contested nature of marriage in today’s society was
her source of inspiration. I also like her statement that looking into
the mirror of the past is a challenge for all current ideological
groups with opposing views on marriage, both those basing their claims
on tradition and those claiming that cultural changes should provoke
changes in the form of marriage: « only by historicizing marriage can we
see the inherent illogic of claims that there is only one ‘real’ form »
(1).

Secondly I appreciate Karras’ fierce reaction against another false
perception that considers medieval society as a monolithic repository
of tradition. This study claims that medieval communities focused
rather on adaptability, creativity, and flexibility. Many medieval
women and men found indeed countless appropriate roads to escape all
forms of interference in matters of marriage and sexual activities, and
all ways to avoid calculations of parents related to family patrimony
and dowry regulations. Their intended, often discouraged, formats
varied from socially mixed marriages, clandestine marriages,
quasi-marital unions, interreligious and international unions,
concubinage, living apart together. Karras warns us from the beginning
that she excluded two categories from a systematic analysis in this
book: same-sex couples and spiritual unions with other persons or with
Christ (chastity unions), because recent and exhaustive scholarship on
these points is available, respectively by James Brundage and Dyan
Elliott.

A third originality of this book is that it takes into account all the
« powers » that had the ambition to regulate and influence human
companionships in the direction of traditional and conservative
marriages: the Church, civic authorities, urban elites, parents, and
extended families.

How did Karras find the reverse side of the coin?  For chapter 1 (« The
Church and the Regulation of Unions between Women and Men »), chapter 2
(« Unequal Unions ») and the first part of chapter 3 (« Priests and their
Partners ») she relies essentially on an impressive and well selected
collection of specialized literature, secondary sources and printed
primary sources. For the second part of chapter 3, on priests, and for
the entire chapter 4, « On the Margins of Marriage, » she turned to
totally new and unexplored materials. She worked here in essence with
the civil and the criminal registers of the Archdeaconry of Paris from
1483 to 1505, those of Brie from 1499 to 1505, and the register of the
Officiality of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris from 1486 to 1498.
I consider this a justifiable selection, limited in time but fair,
because it is a set of unedited and virtually unexplored documentary
materials, and because these sources are superbly contextualized with a
rich collection of related secondary literature. The weakness of this
choice, however, is double. All the material comes from ecclesiastical
authorities and gives a limited and one-sided approach to the picture.
More importantly, while the comparative focus is present, especially
for France and England, it is not prominent enough for Germany,
Mediterrenean Europe and the Low Countries, where a lot of solid
analysis is available that would have allowed Karras to discover the
specificity of the « unmarriage » sensibilities in the Parisian
microcosm. The limited use of material from the Low Countries is
especially unfortunate. One article by Monique Vleeschouwers Van
Melkebeek has been used (249), but this author produced several other
books and articles in which she develops exactly the same themes which
are crucial in the Paris officiality registers. Some of these would
have been wonderful in the comparative mood, such as: Monique
Vleeschouwers-Van Melkebeek, « Aspects du lien matrimonial dans le Liber
Sentenciarum de Bruxelles (1448-1459), » <i>Revue de l’histoire du
Droit</i> 53 (1985):  49-67; and « Classical Canon Law on Marriage. The
Making and Breaking of Households, » in Myriam Carlier and Tim Soens,
eds., <i>The Household in Late Medieval Cities. Italy and Northwestern
Europe Compared</i>, Louvain and Apeldoorn, 2001, 15-23. A third
article (« Bina matrimonia: matrimonium praesumptum versus matrimonium
manifestum, » in Serge Dauchy et al., eds., <i> Auctoritates xenia R.C.
Van Caenegem oblata</i>,  Iuris scripta historica 13 (1997): 245-55)
would have been helpful for decoding the rather cryptic Parisian texts,
such as the one on « presumed marriage » on p. 170.  I give one other
lacuna: the materials of the magnificent collection of marriage
contracts from fifteenth-century Douai analysed by Martha Howell in
<i>The Marriage Exchange. Property, Social Place, and Gender in Cities
of the Low Countries, 1300-1550</i> (Chicago and London, 1998). Douai
shows a very typical variant of marriage conditions and couple
relations, as it was a city with a preponderance of small family
businesses and nuclear households, in which couples’ common
responsibilities were considerable, and greater than in most other
cities. Interesting contrasts with the Ile de France have been
developed by Philippe Godding in « La famille dans le droit urbain de
l’Europe du Nord-Ouest au bas moyen-âge, » in Myriam Carlier and Tim
Soens, eds., <i>The Household in Late Medieval Cities. Italy and
Northwestern Europe Compared</i> (Louvain and Apeldoorn, 2001). Anyway,
I consider Karras’s case study on the Parisian area a significant
monograph that will be a cornerstone for a later synthesis within a
broader European frame. Karras refers indeed to that future
perspective, and very wisely warns us that the patterns of behavior in
Paris are not necessarily typical for the rest of medieval Europe (172).

However erudite and solidly professionally documented it may be, this
marvelous book reads like an exciting novel.  It is full of unexpected
and challenging information and wonderful anecdotes. I quote a few of
them. The long chapter on « unequal unions » (68-114) reveals the fact
that socially mixed marriages were not such an exceptional phenomenon
as many historians presumed in the past, but it also displays the
incredible variety of mixed conditions. Especially unions including
concubines present the most sophisticated forms of statutes and of
dowry regulations. The sexual use of servants, and even more of slaves,
was regular conduct for men of the master class; especially for their
younger family members it was an appealing and cheap alternative for
the relatively impersonal visits to prostitutes (90). Marriage by
members of the elites with their servants was, however, another story;
most families found servants unsuitable as partners. Those mixed unions
were mostly considered as « shameful, infamous and vile » (97). In all
these conditions one could never escape the notion of honor. A
lower-class free man marrying a former slave might not lose much honor,
but an upper-class man certainly would. The adultery of a wife,
especially with a slave or a person of low status, was considered a
much bigger dishonor for her family than similar activities by her
husband (98). Don’t miss the statement « sans façons » of Pierrette
Flatret about her partner Aimery de Beauvais, who had left her fourteen
years earlier, nevertheless maintained Pierrette for twelve of those
fourteen years during which they had five children together. All this
time he promised to marry her, but refrained. In Pierrette’s complaint
about this failure before the official of Paris, apparently in a rather
indecent terminology, she used one unforgettable expression of perfect
female self-consciousness: « that no man would be the master of her cunt
and that she would do what she wanted with it » (206).

A well developed section in this book is the rich chapter on the
behavior of « priests and their partners » (115-164). I fully agree with
the remark: « the church did not speak with a unified voice » (25). There
was indeed no one behavior within the clergy. The general theory was
one of celibacy and sexual abstinence. The practice was a lot of
cohabitation and <i>de facto</i> marriage of priests. Since the
Councils of 1123 and 1139 declared clerical marriages invalid, these
unions became automatically concubinage, a situation that was welcomed
by many parishioners, but perceived with hostility by others. The
fifteenth-century Parisian theologian Jean Gerson declared that
clerical concubinage should be tolerated for the same reasons as public
prostitution. Protestants, in later times, equally showed tolerance for
marriages of priests as a lesser evil. Karras makes here an interesting
comparison with the contrasting reactions to gay couples in many parts
of the United States in the twenty-first century (116).  In theory
adult priests’ sons were denied access to holy orders, as was generally
the case for all illegitimate children; but for both categories escape
was possible, by papal dispensation and by intervention of lay patrons
(140-141). The rich variety of terms for priests’ wives or former wives
(servant, hearthmaid or handmaid to whore, domestic, prostitute or
concubine) are a perfect mirror of a dominant negative public opinion
about these women (134-135). Karras rightly insists on the legal
insecurity of priests’ partners: they risked being repudiated at any
time (164). But I would add that even greater was the social handicap
of a former priest’s concubine on the marriage market as a result of a
stigma that is well documented by sources from the Low Countries.

A table on page 154 presents interesting statistics on the different
types of clerical sexual offenses in the register of the Archdeacon of
Paris between 1483 and 1505: 299 cases in 22 years. I regret that a
systematic comparative approach is omitted here, and that no effort is
made to confront the amount of offenses for each type of misbehavior
with similar lists available for Tournai (and Cambrai) and Canterbury
for the same period, mentioned on pages 151-152. That approach would
have shown if the methods and norms for repression of clerical offenses
in the Parisian area were specific to that region or not. I regret a
second omission: Karras brings the crucial question to the table of how
these clerical offenses came to the attention of the episcopal
authorities (151-2), followed by a very short comment on realistic and
false reports by parishioners to bishops. In fact a very formal and
effective structure had been active in these matters in several parts
of Europe, the parochial synod (Sendgericht in the German areas), a
local institution composed of the parish priest (at least if he was not
accused himself) and a group of « honorable » burghers, acting as a
watchdog and a moral commission. It existed since the Merovingian
period, and it remained active in most parts of Europe, at least until
the end of the Middle Ages. For the later Middle Ages there is an
excellent monograph by Daniel Lambrecht, <i>De parochiale synode in het
oude bisdom Doornik gesitueerd in de Europese ontwikkeling, 11de
eeuw-1559</i> (Brussels, 1984) with a well developed international
overview and discussion of the Archdeaconry of Paris on pages 272-273.
This ecclesiastical technique of denunciation is close to that of some
civil institutions, like the Onestà, active in Florence since 1403
(Richard C. Trexler, « La prostitution florentine au XVe siècle, »
<i>Annales: Économies, Sociétiés, Civlisations</i> 36 (1981):
983-1015). We should also refer to a systematic analysis of the
repression of moral transgressions by episcopal courts in France and in
the Burgundian Netherlands: Véronique Beaulande, <i>Le malheur d’être
exclu? : excommunication, réconciliation et société à la fin du Moyen
Âge</i> (Paris, 2006), especially on pages 107-128.

Karras has a fine empathy for the use by contemporaries of
psychological arguments, as in the case before the Archdeaconry of
Paris in which the judge strangely fined two partners, although living
together in the same conditions under one roof, for different offenses.
The woman was fined for clandestine marriage, her husband for carnal
knowledge. Karras suggests that the court fined them in essence for
what each had confessed, and that the court apparently did not care
about and did not make a decision regarding the type of companionship
the couple had (170).  We should not be amazed. So many formats of
living together were available in the fifteenth century that not only
simple contemporaries but even well-educated judges completely lost the
scent in this imbroglio, and had doubts about how to determine the
exact quality of the cohabitation. Very often the line of marriage was
not clearly drawn and the formal rules were not applied, particularly
if no dowry or financial arrangements were on the table (201). This
magnificent book explains perfectly well why between concubinage and
clandestine marriage there was often no more than a very fine line.

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