Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages

By Reynolds, Philip L. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages


Reynolds, Philip L., The Catholic Historical Review


Medieval Unmarriages, Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages. By Ruth Mazo Karras. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2012. Pp. vi, 283- $49.95. ISBN 978-0-812-24420-5.)

Ruth Mazo Karras coins the term unmarriage to denote heterosexual partnerships that did not amount to legitimate marriage. She prefers that term to quasi-marital union, because the latter "assumes marriage as the model that other unions only approached, an assumption I did not wish to make" (p. 8). Nevertheless, most of the book is devoted to normative issues and to contemporaneous perceptions of the differences between legitimate and illegitimate unions.

The book is organized thematically, albeit with a chronological drift. Discussion of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages occurs mainly in the first two of the four chapters, whereas the last two focus on the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In chapter 1, Karras considers ecclesiastical efforts to demarcate between valid and invalid unions, which she traces from the heightened sense of marriage as a religious institution in the fourth century to the full articulation of a canon law of marriage emphasizing consent in the twelfth. In chapter 2, Karras considers unequal partnerships, especially those between a free man and a slave, but including those in which a class disparity was not a fatal impediment in law yet fulfilled cultural expectations for premarital or extramarital unions. Karras reviews sexual relationships in the various forms of slavery that persisted in various parts of Europe during the central Middle Ages. It was a surprise not to find Pope Hadrian IV's decretal Dignum est (1155) mentioned in Karras's brief survey of servility in the canon law of marriage (pp. 81-82). It was the culmination of a canonical effort based on Galatians 3:28 to make status irrelevant to the sacrament of marriage. In chapter 3, Karras focuses on priests' sexual partnerships, which were necessarily invalid after holy orders had become a diriment impediment in the twelfth century. …

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