In today’s society, marriage and family life are considered the center of our societal make-up. Everything that we do in life is affected by our familial relationships. That being true, is it any surprise that the same could be said of the families of the Middle Ages? In fact, in a way marriage and family life was even more important then. A person’s family affected every instance of an individual’s life. Coming from a good family, with a reputable reputation for breeding, greatly improved a woman’s chances of a good marriage. For men, choosing a wife from a good family meant making proper legal ties which would perpetuate the fortunes of, and in certain instances improve, his line. However, as important as marriage was to life in the Middle Ages, very little documentation has been discovered from which we can learn about this important institution. What records are available come through the filter of those with a particular view of how things should have been, not necessarily how they actually were.
While tracing the actual history of marriage is complicated; tracing the history of the married lives of women through their own perspective in nearly impossible. The information there is on the lives of women come through the filter of men, particularly members of local clergy and the aristocracy. In this paper I have teased out some of the available information on marriage and family life from the medieval woman’s perspective. As I have mentioned previously, the center of life in the Middle Ages was one’s marriage and family. This was especially true for women. From birth, a young woman’s sole use to her father was contained in her potential as a breed-able wife. For this reason, a young woman’s prized virtue was her virginity, which was fiercely guarded by her male relatives. In the Middle Ages, tampering with a woman whom did not belong to you was considered damaging another man’s property.
Abduction and Rape
Every Medieval culture had rules and punishments for dealing with such offenses. The actual punishments themselves differed depending upon the culture and the exact offense thought the overarching premise is compensating the wounded party for the loss or damage of their ward. In the case of plain rape, the perpetrator, if caught, is usually heavily fined. Frankish law, for example, states “For a rapist, let him be held liable for 2500 denarii, which make sixty-two and one-half solidi.”1 The range of the fines, tend to depend upon the rank of the woman and that of her attacker, with a lady of noble birth carrying a higher fine that a peasant girl from the village. This is best displayed in Anglo-Saxon law, where the provisions for sexual crimes including rape and seduction, varied based upon rank.2
Of course, there are cases where a rapist is only punishable if a woman should cry out for help. In such cases, she would be examined by “good women and law-worthy matrons” to discern whether or not she was raped. If her assailant manages to gain...