Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne

Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne

Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne

Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne


The institution of marriage is commonly thought to have fallen into crisis in late medieval northern France. While prior scholarship has identified the pervasiveness of clandestine marriage as the cause, Sara McDougall contends that the pressure came overwhelmingly from the prevalence of remarriage in violation of the Christian ban on divorce, a practice we might call "bigamy." Throughout the fifteenth century in Christian Europe, husbands and wives married to absent or distant spouses found new spouses to wed. In the church courts of northern France, many of the individuals so married were criminally prosecuted.

In Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne, McDougall traces the history of this conflict in the diocese of Troyes and places it in the larger context of Christian theology and culture. Multiple marriage was both inevitable and repugnant in a Christian world that forbade divorce and associated bigamy with the unchristian practices of Islam or Judaism. The prevalence of bigamy might seem to suggest a failure of Christianization in late medieval northern France, but careful study of the sources shows otherwise: Clergy and laity alike valued marriage highly. Indeed, some members of the laity placed such a high value on the institution that they were willing to risk criminal punishment by entering into illegal remarriage. The risk was great: the Bishop of Troyes's judicial court prosecuted bigamy with unprecedented severity, although this prosecution broke down along gender lines. The court treated male bigamy, and only male bigamy, as a grave crime, while female bigamy was almost completely excluded from harsh punishment. As this suggests, the Church was primarily concerned with imposing a high standard on men as heads of Christian households, responsible for their own behavior and also that of their wives.


In the course of the final three centuries of the thousand-year period known as the European Middle Ages, between the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the early decades of the sixteenth century, the Christian institution of marriage became at the same time an object of veneration and a source of deep concern. On the one hand, marriage became widely and intensely valued. Men and women at all levels of the social hierarchy married, and these marriages were treated as entrance into a respectable and pious stratum of society, sometimes referred to as the “order of matrimony,” or the order of married persons. This “order” was considered comparable, if not equivalent, to the holy orders of monks and nuns.

At the same time, as varied contemporary and especially sixteenth-century reports claim, the Christian institution of marriage underwent a considerable crisis at the end of the Middle Ages. the nature of that crisis, as found in northeastern France, is the subject of this book. Mine is far from the first modern book to discuss this crisis of marriage. Steven Ozment, to offer one example, describes the fifteenth century as a time in which the institutions of marriage and the family suffered greatly, largely because of the ways in which the Catholic Church handled marriage. This book is premised, however, on the argument that Ozment and other scholars have misunderstood the nature of this crisis, at least as it emerged in northern France.

What indeed was this crisis of Christian marriage in the later Middle Ages? Ozment attributed the blame largely to the Catholic Church and its policies, which praised celibacy at the expense of marriage and the family and also espoused laws and legal practices that made marriage an unstable and disgraced business. Other scholars have different perceptions. in particular, most accounts have focused on the problem of “clandestine marriage.” From the time of Pope Alexander iii (1159–81), Western Christians—as opposed to Byzantine—could marry on the basis of nothing more than an exchange of consent between a would-be husband and his wife. This meant that a couple, even a very young couple, could validly and indissolubly marry not . . .

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