Women, Family, and Society in Medieval Europe: Historical Essays, 1978-1991

By David Herlihy; A. Molho | Go to book overview

MAKING SENSE OF INCEST:
Women and the Marriage Rules of the Early Middle Ages

Of all social rules, the incest prohibition comes closest to representing a universal law of behavior: almost all known societies have forbidden marriages between brothers and sisters.1 Most societies have also refused to allow other types of close relatives to contract legal marriages. Typical of those prevented from marrying are ascendants and descendants in the direct line.

In the early Middle Ages, between the third and the eighth centuries, the Christian Church, with the approval of Roman emperors and barbarian kings, extended the domain of relationships within which marriages were prohibited to extraordinary lengths.2 No other society is known to have applied the incest taboo with such extreme rigor. The Church also came to prohibit marriages between persons related in ways other than by blood. Although this extension and redefinition of the prohibition was common to both eastern and western Christianity, in the West the Frankish councils of the eighth and ninth centuries were particularly active in elaborating the new understanding of incest.

____________________
1
For a rare example of sanctioned brother-sister marriages, together with a useful review of recent sociological and anthropological literature on incest, see K. Hopkins , "Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt," Comparative Studies in Society and History, 22 ( 1980), pp. 303-54.
2
On the development of the incest prohibition, see G. Oesterle, "L'incest," Dictionnaire de droit canonique, vol. 5 ( 1953), cols. 1297-1314; E. Mangenot, "L'inceste," Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, vol. 7 ( 1930), cols. 1539-55.

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