In March 1475 a young Londoner named William Rote appeared in the Consistory court of the diocese of London to be examined by an ecclesiastical judge. His appearance was prompted by a lawsuit that had been launched against him by Agnes Wellys, who alleged that he had refused to honor the marriage vows they had made together. In answer to Agnes's charges, William told a story, which the court's registrar translated into Latin and recorded in a deposition (or testimony) book. This is how the story goes. One afternoon the previous summer, on the day before the feast of the Assumption, William had gone for a social visit to the house of his older friend, John Wellys, bringing a jug of wine that William thought they would drink together. Instead of the friendly reception he had expected, William found John Wellys very angry. Wellys accused Rote of having "violated" Wellys's daughter Agnes—whether he meant that William had raped or seduced her is not clear. Before a number of other people present at the time, including Agnes, Wellys threatened Rote: "You will marry her, even if I have to force you." William responded to Wellys's accusation by saying that he certainly had never had sexual relations with Agnes and that he had no wish to marry her. John Wellys became even angrier and pulled out a knife. He would have stabbed William, as William testified, had not another man stepped between them and held Wellys's arm back. In the ensuing scuffle William escaped from the house, running out into the street. Agnes and her mother gave chase, shouting after him, "Hold the thief!" They caught William and brought him back to the house, where John Wellys was waiting, still very angry. After that more threats followed, as William's testimony detailed:
Wellys said to him that unless this witness [William Rote] would contract marriage with his daughter Agnes, he or someone else in his name would give this witness a sign that he would take with him to his grave. Wellys also said that he would bring this witness before the mayor and alderman where he would be confounded by such embarrassment that the shame would compell him to contract marriage with Agnes. So, as much from fear of his body as from shame at appearing before the mayor and aldermen, this witness contracted marriage there with Agnes.
By late medieval church law, a contract of marriage was the speaking, by the prospective husband and wife, of the words of consent to the union ("I William take you Agnes as my wife"; "I Agnes take you William as my husband"), words that in themselves made the sacrament of marriage, regardless of where they were spoken or whether or not a priest was present. William's contract was not a promise or a betrothal, but a binding, indissoluble union—or at least, it would have been, had William spoken the words freely and without coercion. In order to make certain that William could not repudiate the vows he had made, John Wellys ensured that they were spoken in the presence of a number of important men whom he had summoned expressly for that purpose.
William Rote's story about his shotgun (dagger?) wedding is illustrative of a number of themes I explore in this book. Some elements of William's story seem familiar to the average twenty-first-century Western reader: even if we no longer expect fathers to try to force the seducers of their daughters to marry them, we recognize the basic plot elements of damaged honor and redemption through married respectability. Other elements are more unexpected: we might anticipate that marriage vows in the Middle Ages would be exchanged in a church rather than a house, and we might expect a priest to be present. As we will see, however, although William's situation—being forced at dagger-point—was unusual, the location where he and Agnes made their vows of marriage, the bride's father's house, was not. Nonetheless, despite the domestic setting and the absence of a priest, the influence of the medieval Catholic Church is nonetheless unmistakable in this case: Agnes, probably with the help of her father, took her case to a church court when William refused to recognize the marriage they had made in her father's house that August afternoon. Marriage, as a sacrament, was under the jurisdiction of canon (or church) law and the ecclesiastical courts. Likewise, William's defense was drawn from one of the main pillars of the late medieval Catholic theology of marriage, that the sacramental bond of marriage could be made only through the freely given consent of both parties. William may have said the words, but he did so only out of fear for his life and his reputation, or so he claimed; thus, William argued, no bond was created, and there was no marriage.
Yet while each of the parties could use theology, canon law, and the church courts and neither of the parties could easily disregard them, other forces were also at work. Paternal authority, most forcefully represented in the person of John Wellys, could and often did over-ride ecclesiastical theories of individual consent. The collective authority of older men of substantial position was also hard to resist: the men whom John Wellys summoned to witness the marriage were a draper and two grocers, both high-status merchant occupations. Their word, both in the parish and neighborhood during that summer and the following spring in the ecclesiastical court, was likely to carry a good deal of weight. More explicitly, William told the Consistory court judge that he had been coerced into marrying Agnes because he wanted to avoid the shame of being summoned before the mayor and aldermen. This threat was vague, yet obviously powerful—for William it ranked high enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the danger to his life. It is not clear if John Wellys implied that he would accuse William there of rape, fornication, or some other offense, perhaps even one he would simply invent as leverage. Nonetheless, John Wellys saw the highest officials of his city as extensions of his paternal authority: if William would not do what John said, the mayor and aldermen would make him do it. William's response is no less revealing: he needed to take care to avoid public embarrassment, anything that would detract from his reputation. His name as a man of honor and credibility, essential to his success in whatever career path he was pursuing, depended not only on his honesty and reliability in business dealings but also on his ability to keep his sexual urges in check. A man who seduced another man's daughter offended at least as much against the father as he did against the woman; he lacked respect for the integrity of another man's household and would probably be perceived as deceptive, disorderly, and dishonest in other ways as well. William was right to fear being hauled before the mayor and aldermen, whether or not he had seduced Agnes.
Apart from the various witness statements offered in this case—some of which largely corroborated William's version of events, some of which denied it—we know nothing more about what happened on that summer day in 1474. Nor do we know how the judge in the Consistory court decided the case: he may have chosen to uphold the marriage, forcing William to recognize Agnes as his wife and to take her into his home and share "bed and board" with her, as the medieval formulation put it. Or he may have agreed with William and two of his witnesses that the marriage had been coerced and declared the marriage annulled, leaving each of them free to marry again. I have not been able to trace William Rote, John Wellys, or Agnes Wellys in any further records, so we do not know what happened to them. Yet this brief story about a dramatic afternoon—which may have been completely invented by William to escape a marriage he did not desire—tells us a good deal about marriage, sex, and civic culture in late medieval London.
Sex and marriage were tightly woven into the fabric of medieval English society. Marriage was one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, imbued with deep spiritual significance; while sexual congress within marriage was (at least sometimes) seen as pleasing to God, outside marriage it carried the weight of deadly sin. The marital unit of the husband and wife was also the central core of the household, the fundamental social, political, and economic unit. Marriages created political alliances at all levels, from the arena of international politics to the local neighborhood; allowed the transfer of property, goods, and labor from one family to another; initiated or deepened ties of friendship and love not only between the couple but also among the couple's family and friends; and helped forge gender identities, the husband's and wife's roles forming two of the main constituents of conceptualizations of masculinity and femininity. Sexual relationships outside marriage were, if anything, more complicated: medieval Londoners variously saw them as irrelevant, as deeply damaging to society and to the body politic, as economically productive or as wasteful of resources, as mainly due to female seduction or to male lustfulness. This book studies both how people went about forming marital and sexual relationships and how other people—parents, relatives, friends, neighbors, civic officials, parish priests, ecclesiastical judges—sought to influence, control, or prevent them. My fundamental argument is that bonds of marriage and sex were simultaneously intimate, deeply personal ties and matters of public concern, subject to intervention by everyone from a woman's or man's family, friends, and employers to the mayor of London himself.
This is a book about a particular place and time—London in the second half of the fifteenth century. It is conventional for historians to point out the limitations of their local studies, and conventionally I make no claim here that the conclusions I reach apply to other parts of Europe or even England, although in many cases they do. But equally I also make the claim that the local study presents a better picture of the lived experience of medieval people than the broader study that skims over the surface of many cultures and times. I have tried here, as far as possible, to examine issues through contemporary, London—based sources rather than through received scholarship or from sources that originate outside the time and place I have chosen. I contend here that the making of marriage and entering into both legitimate and illegitimate sexual relationships were social acts that were framed both through tradition and custom and through local particularities of time and place, of the late medieval urban situation, and the social and political contests of London in the late fifteenth century. Thus, for instance, canon law written in the thirteenth century cannot be assumed to apply in the late fifteenth—century ecclesiastical courts of London in the same way as it had in the thirteenth or the fourteenth century, or in the same way as it applied in the province of York, or indeed in the diocese of Canterbury. Economic factors that arguably allowed Yorkshire women in the earlier decades of the fifteenth century considerable freedom of choice in marriage—or the freedom not to marry at all—similarly did not necessarily apply to a time and place when power and wealth were being concentrated in fewer hands and women's economic options were severely curtailed. Even given the focus on time and place, there was no one single attitude or experience among Londoners—sex, age, status, occupation, and personality were just some of the factors that shaped their marital and sexual lives—but a more closely focused lens helps to draw out those individual experiences.
It is nonetheless important to consider where the detailed picture I will draw fits into the larger landscape of European and even world history. This task of contextualization is made easier by Mary S. Hartman's recent book, The Household and the Making of History, which takes a bird's-eye view of the historical development of marriage and household patterns in European and world history. Hartman takes as her starting point the insights of demographer John Hajnal, who first pointed out forty years ago that sometime in the Middle Ages—it is unclear when, but certainly before the fifteenth century—northwestern Europeans below the socioeconomic elite began to develop a pattern of marriage and household formation that is anomalous in global terms. In this demographic regime, dubbed by Hajnal the "northwestern European" pattern, both men and women first marry in their mid twenties to a partner roughly the same age. The bride and groom go on to establish their own household, and households rarely contain more than two generations (i.e., they are nuclear households). A significant proportion of the population, as much as a quarter, never marries. While modern Westerners will recognize this pattern because it conforms to our own demographic regime, as Hartman points out, it is remarkably different from the ways marriages and households were and are formed in other agricultural societies. This is particularly true of the late age at first marriage for women. In other agricultural societies, including the medieval Mediterranean and Slavic worlds, women marry around the age of puberty, in most cases to a husband who is significantly older, in his late twenties or thirties. They usually join multifamily households headed by their husbands' father or another older male relative. Only a very small proportion of the population never marries. For reasons that remain obscure—Hartman posits that the usefulness of adolescent daughters' labor on the family farm may have been the regime's origin—ordinary northwestern Europeans began sometime during the Middle Ages to diverge from this pattern and to marry their daughters about a decade after puberty rather than in their early to midteens. By the late medieval period, when we first begin to see the system at work in some detail, other social and cultural elements had developed around this late age of marriage for women, including, as we will see in more detail, relative independence of choice of marriage partners for both men and women. The implications of this seemingly small change of marrying daughters late, Hartman compellingly argues, were immense; indeed, she contends that the northwestern European marriage pattern, with its concomitant unstable households and greater parity (although by no means complete equality) between husbands and wives, is the underlying precondition for the West's assumption of global dominance in the early modern and modern periods.
This book discusses an early, although clearly not originary, point in the evolution of the northwestern European marriage pattern. As I will discuss, many, although not all, Londoners married and formed households according to this pattern: they married first in their mid twenties to partners roughly of the same age and more or less of their own choice. In many ways my approach accords with Hartman's, even though I use a close focus rather than the wide-angle view she employs. Like Hartman, I see the household—and the marital and sexual relationships that served as major, although by no means sole, bonds in its structure—as one of the fundamental motors of late medieval political life. This is a view that sees aspects we often label "private" life as holding public significance—in other words, fundamentally influencing the course of political, economic, social, intellectual, and religious developments. The details of medieval people's marital and sexual lives hold more than prurient interest. As I will show in this book, they formed a crucial foundation for the governance of the social, religious, economic, and political order. If Hartman is right that the peculiar northwestern European pattern of marrying and forming households served as the foundation for Western expansion and dominance in the five centuries that followed the year 1500, then the ways fifteenth-century Londoners courted, married, and had sex assume far more importance than might appear at first glance.
Narrowing the focus a bit, we can also make some medium-range comparisons between the findings I present here and other work on marriage in late medieval and early modern England. Because of the spotty survival of medieval records, most of the work on late medieval English marriage below elite levels has centered on Yorkshire and the city of York, the chief city of northern England, in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. P. J. P. Goldberg's influential book Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy used the records of marital litigation in York and Yorkshire to argue that women's relatively broad economic opportunities in the post—Black Death economy, especially in the urban setting, allowed them to make quite independent marriage choices—that is, they could choose whom to marry, or not to marry at all. Goldberg's findings echo those of Michael Sheehan, who argued in the early 1970s for an "astonishingly individualistic" approach to marriage formation in the diocese of Ely in the late fourteenth century. I see a somewhat different picture for later fifteenth-century London: marriage options were more constrained than in Sheehan's fourteenth-century Ely and Goldberg's early fifteenth-century York. Parents and employers played a more significant role, although again it must be said that below elite levels both partners still had much more freedom than, for example, their contemporaries in Italy or Spain.
Possibly the subtle differences between my arguments and those of Sheehan and Goldberg derive from divergences in the way we see the sources, but it seems more likely to me that the differences derive from real historical change from the early to later fifteenth century and (to a lesser extent) the peculiarities of London civic culture in this period. This remains difficult, if not impossible, to prove conclusively due to the problem of available sources. Various pieces of evidence, however, indicate that there was a tightening of the supervision of marriage formation and of household governance generally in England in the latter half of the fifteenth century, perhaps most precociously in the metropolis. Economic contraction, and in particular a shrinkage in work opportunities for women, resulted in greater socioeconomic stratification and less independence for female workers. The concentration of wealth in fewer hands fed the development of greater oligarchy in civic politics and in the governance of the city's guilds and crafts: the divisions between rich and poor, elite and ordinary were becoming wider and less permeable. Greater concern for disorder and misbehavior, paired with the development of a confident civic Christianity, gave to leading men of the parish and city the duty to ensure proper conduct in neighbors. All this arguably increased the power of householders or, in other words, patriarchal authority (understood here as the power ordinarily exercised by fathers as heads of the family and the household, and extending outward from the household into other kinds of governance in neighborhood, parish, ward, guild, city, and ultimately, kingdom). I argue that it resulted in a more conservative approach to marital strategies for daughters (and, to a much lesser degree, sons) and thus relatively more parental involvement in the making of marriage than Sheehan saw in fourteenth-century Ely or Goldberg saw in earlier fifteenth-century York. This is a valuable reminder that the pendulum of historical change—in this case, the development of Western companionate marriage—does not always move inexorably or smoothly in a single direction.
While I argue that marriages formed in subtly different ways in later fifteenth-century London from those in earlier fifteenth-century York, it is also possible to draw some comparisons with a much more substantial literature on marriage and gender in the second half of the sixteenth century. Many of the themes discussed earlier and on which I will elaborate remain consistent through the subsequent century, but again it seems that courtships and marriages were somewhat more tightly supervised in the later fifteenth century than they were a century or so later, although this is a difference again of degree rather than kind. Intense population growth, economic change, and religious transformations make the Elizabethan world a very different one from the late medieval one, but many aspects of courtship, sexuality, and the formation of marriage remain similar. I do not, however, see in the later part of the fifteenth century the intense gender conflicts that some historians have seen in Elizabethan London. This is not to say that all was quiet and peaceful, as we shall see. In the ebb and flow of historical developments, fifteenth-century London may have seen the flow and possibly the cresting of a wave of patriarchal control of the household.
London c. 1450-1500
Let us move our gaze back to London in the second half of the fifteenth century. By this point London had long been the metropolitan hub of England. Situated north of the Thames River, at the point where that great waterway first becomes bridgeable, London had been a site of major importance since the Roman occupation of Britain. In modern terms, London's great size—it was perhaps four times the size of its nearest English rival—was only relative; the city's population of forty to fifty thousand souls crowded into a space of slightly more than a square mile, while an additional population, relatively small as yet, spilled out into the suburbs outside the City boundaries and across the Thames in Southwark. Its sheer size as well as its location made London the economic center of the realm, playing a pivotal role in international trade and featuring the most diversified and specialized workforce. The population of London ranged from the poorest of the poor to the wealthiest merchants and the mightiest aristocrats of the realm, the latter often keeping London houses. As in most other urban centers in this period, London's population could not reproduce itself: the swift spread of disease in the close living conditions of the city meant that mortality rates outstripped fertility. It was through immigration that London kept its population roughly stable throughout the fifteenth century, and probably even increasing it somewhat in the decades around 1500. Many Londoners were newcomers who had their origins elsewhere in England: they frequently came to the city as adolescents to apprentice to a trade, enter into domestic service, or simply find wage labor of any kind. Others came from elsewhere in Europe: Flemings, Germans, Scots, Irish, Italians, Spaniards, French, and other "aliens" came to London, sometimes as international merchants, sometimes as manual laborers, beer brewers, or workers in other trades, sometimes falling into crime and prostitution.
This diverse population was governed by the merchant elite of the city. From their number were chosen a mayor, twenty-five aldermen, two sheriffs, and a common council that varied in size from about sixty to two hundred men. The mayor served for one year, elected from among the aldermen at an annual meeting of the probi hominess (the good men) of the city, defined as members of the common council and leading members of the livery companies (London's main merchant organizations). The two sheriffs, also elected annually in the same way as the mayor, had the complicated task of acting both as the king's local agent and as the strong arm of the mayor; they were responsible for administering the city's prisons, for executing convicted criminals or exacting fines, for carrying out royal writs, and for gathering a certain part of the city's tax collection. While the offices of mayor and sheriff were temporary, the twenty-five aldermen, each of whom represented a particular neighborhood of the city, called a ward, held their positions for life (although they could, and did, transfer from one ward to another in the case of a vacancy). By the fifteenth century, aldermen were chosen by the mayor and other aldermen from a list of two to four nominations submitted by the leading men of a vacant ward; the mayor and aldermen thereby ensured that only the "right" kind of men—men of sufficient substance, to put it in fifteenth-century terms—entered into aldermanic office. Fifteenth-century aldermen were invariably drawn from the wealthiest merchants of the city. Thus the office of alderman became a sign of success and status in trade.
Closely intertwined with the civic offices was the governance of the livery companies—mercers, grocers, drapers, goldsmiths, fishmongers, salters, and so on—each of which supervised both the trade and manufacture of goods in the city and the general conduct of the company's members. Within each company there were significant hierarchies, symbolized by the granting of livery—a gown made from particular fabric and colors signifying membership in the company—to the wealthier and more established members. There were also rivalries between the different companies. Although no written rule confined the office of alderman to particular occupations, in practice in the fifteenth century almost all aldermen belonged to one of the more important companies, the mercers, grocers, and drapers predominating. London government and the control of the livery companies were becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands by the second half of the fifteenth century, probably both reflection and cause of significant concentrations of wealth among a relatively small number in the merchant elite.
Formal participation in the politics of the city above the ward level was confined to those who held citizenship or, as it was sometimes known, freedom of the city. Apart from political rights, citizenship also brought with it economic benefits: the right to buy and sell at wholesale in the city was restricted to those who were of the freedom. The number of citizens was small, somewhere in the range of about 3,000 to 3,500 out of the total population of 40,000 to 50,000. Although some women gained the economic rights associated with citizenship (almost always as widows of citizens), full citizenship, including the right to participate in government, was confined entirely to men: politics in the medieval period, and of course long after, were a male privilege and responsibility. Most men, however, never became citizens; between one-fourth and one-third of the city's adult male inhabitants entered the freedom. Men who became citizens had to do so through their guilds or livery companies, who sponsored their admission. Men who did not belong to guilds—a broad spectrum ranging from aristocrats, clerics, independent shopkeepers, waged laborers, to the abject poor—could not become citizens. While lack of citizenship was not always a significant handicap—some noncitizens were very wealthy—it was clearly an important marker of status and privilege in late medieval London.
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In the course of the next seven chapters, I will look at how Londoners married one another, how they negotiated their sexual relationships, how other Londoners viewed and participated in those processes, and what place the supervision of sex and marriage had in the creation of a civic political culture. In doing so, I will draw my evidence from a number of kinds of contemporary sources. Most are archival documents from both the ecclesiastical court system and the records of city and royal government, originally written in London during the fifteenth century and now residing in libraries and record offices in and around London. I have also used books—advice manuals, chronicles, moral tales, liturgical texts—that came off the presses at the dawn of the age of print in London and nearby Westminster (where William Caxton, a London mercer, set up England's first printing press in 1478), as well as documents and texts that other scholars have published in modern editions from the eighteenth century forward. While I have not made an absolutely comprehensive study of all available evidence—one lifetime would not suffice for that—in focusing on London in particular and on one half-century of its history (1450-1500), I can make the claim that I have looked at most of the sources that bear on my chosen topic.
Most of my research has involved grubbing around in the archives of medieval England's various legal tribunals, now housed in a number of pleasant record offices in London and Kew. Following Joel Rosenthal's example, I have taken "scraps of information, the scores or hundreds of throwaway vignettes" in order to build a kind of narrative of the social context of late medieval London life. The kinds of sources that I have favored here, often related to lawsuits directly or indirectly involving marriage, are those in which medieval people themselves told a story—not an overtly fictional one (although I have sometimes used those too) but one that purported to relate "what happened" to themselves or to people they knew. Some historians have challenged the usefulness of this kind of source: obviously sometimes people lied when they gave testimony in court, or they misremembered. The relationships from which legal action arose, whether marriages or illicit sexual unions, were by definition troubled in some way, and thus some scholars have argued that testimony from those cases gives us only questionable evidence for the normal process of marriage.
These objections have some merit, but they need not cripple us or cause us to reject these sources altogether: careful analysis of the evidence can yield considerable fruit if we keep in mind the sources' limitations. In some ways, the limitations scholars have identified are actually benefits if we use the evidence in a different way. In marriage litigation, for instance—where one person sued another either to dissolve or, more frequently, to uphold a marriage—many witnesses were trying to convince the judge that the marriage did happen. They thus tended to emphasize the ways in which the process was normal rather than atypical. Naturally, some witnesses lied or stretched the truth, but this does not necessarily diminish the value of the evidence their testimony provides; in many ways the plausible lie—that is, a story calculated to strike its medieval audience as credible, even if it had little relationship to what "really" happened—is one of the most revealing kinds of sources we have about the expectations and practices of the past. The analysis of these stories takes considerable care, however; narratives told in legal records (whether in ecclesiastical courts, in petitions to the chancellor, or in civic tribunals) were framed according to the legal requirements of the court and by the structure of the legal process the particular court used. To be successful, such narratives needed both to be socially believable and to stress the points of law necessary to prove the case. In theory—although evidently not always in practice—the narratives also had to have a relationship to what "really happened." The influence between actions and processes outside the court and the structure of litigation and the law was not unidirectional, however: while in some cases legal counsel may have prompted witnesses' reports that people used legally precise formulae in their lives outside the courtroom, it is also more than possible that such formulae became well known among ordinary laypeople. Legal ways of thinking permeated late medieval English culture, and what happened in courtrooms was not separate from "real life" but part of its texture.
This book is divided into two parts. Part I examines how church law and social practice affected the formation of marriage in late medieval London. Although by medieval canon law a marriage was irrevocably made in the moment in which a man and a woman exchanged vows of consent in the present tense before two witnesses, any time, anywhere, in practice marriage was usually a socially complicated process involving many people: family, friends, employers, neighbors, matchmakers, and civic officials. The practical interpretation of the Catholic canon law of marriage in the fifteenth century did not always follow the letter of the law. It accommodated social necessities at the same time that marital and family power relationships had to take the canon law of marriage, and the possibility of abrogations being litigated, very seriously. Marriage formation and marital litigation reveal some of the ironies and complications of medieval social relationships; gender and social hierarchies show themselves to be less than straightforward in the labyrinthine world of legal logistics and social patronage. Material manifestations of marital relationships—the gifts exchanged, the actual locations in which marriages were discussed and contracted—shed further light on the ways in which the marriage fit into late medieval London life. Part II extends these discussions to look more broadly at sex, governance, and civic morality. Medieval patriarchy (literally "father-rule") was wider than a father's governance of his biological offspring. Fathers had special hegemony over their families, recognized in law and theory, but paternal power was echoed and buttressed by the paternalistic authority exercised generally by respectable older men, the fathers of the community. Senior men had the duty and the privilege to govern and to ensure the proper working of social relationships within their sphere of action—and to prevent inappropriate social, and especially sexual, relationships from developing or flourishing. Governance in late medieval English society was practiced through many different structures, both formal and informal: the household, the neighborhood, the parish, the ward, the crafts and livery companies, and the court of the mayor and aldermen. Yet governance and its relationship to patriarchy were complicated, particularly in matters involving sex. Although self-control and the avoidance of misrule were important, at the same time sexual domination—sometimes through violence—was one dimension of men's demonstration of their ability to rule. The regulation of marital and sexual relationships reveals itself to be an important element of civic culture and political rule in the late medieval City of London.