My wider reading seems to be taking a turn for the dramatic. I am working my way steadily through Stolen Women in Medieval England: Rape, Abduction and Adultery, 1100-1500 by Caroline Dunn. It’s a bit of a break from John of Gaunt’s entourage and its certainly eyebrow raising. Dunn uses the example of Richard Mareschal to demonstrate that medieval common law took a dim view of adultery. He was charged with the abduction of Stephen de Hereford’s wife. It turns out that Mrs de Hereford was more than happy to spend time in the company of Mareschal, a cleric. He did not force the lady to go anywhere nor to do anything she didn’t want to do – in other words they were two consenting adults. Dunn explains that medieval law still classified their relationship as abduction as clearly Stephen de Hereford had not given his permission for his wife to have an affair with Mareschal (p.124-126). There is a logic to it, though it effectively makes the woman in the case into a possession rather than a person – and that’s an entirely different post which I’m not going to get into here. It is sufficient to remember that a woman was legally subordinate to her husband once she was married. The law that Mareschal was charged under was the medieval Raptus Law.
Women could, in the early medieval period, have their nose and ears cut off if found guilty of adultery – a law which Cnut would have recognised. I mentioned the fine of legerwyte in an earlier post which was levied in manorial courts upon women who indulged in premarital sex. Mortimer explains that this fine could also be applied to adulterous men (p 226) as well as fornicating women.
It is also impossible to escape the religious element of the equation within medieval thinking. Essentially the medieval Church, despite the number of churchmen with families of their own, believed that celibacy was the best state in which to live. St Augustine of Hippo explained rather pithily that sex was for the procreation of children and should, if it had to occur at all, happen inside a marriage – where it was a venal sin. Outside marriage or without someone who was not your spouse it became a mortal sin. Consequentially adulterers, when not monarchs or extremely powerful lords (because let’s face it it’s virtually impossible to find a Plantagenet monarch who didn’t have at least one mistress and let’s not even venture into the maze that was John of Gaunt’s love life) were regarded as having broken both common and ecclesiastical law. Priests were expected to keep a note of the goings on of their parishioners. Those members of the community who were misbehaving could find themselves dragged off to the ecclesiastical courts where they could be fined, required to do penance which involved being paraded around in your shift – see the image at the start of this post from a medieval manuscript.
Incidentally whilst king’s could do what they liked, it is worth noting that the petty treason laws which covered crimes against your more immediate master included committing adultery with your lord’s wife or seducing his daughters. The punishment was death. Petty treason also covered a wife’s duty to her husband. Plotting to murder your husband was covered by the petty treason laws and could result in a woman being burned for her crimes. Adultery could, it was sometimes argued, be regarded as a type of petty treason. If Henry VIII had been particularly malevolent this is the fate that could have befallen Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. Isabella of France’s (so called She-wolf and wife of Edward II of England) sisters-in-law provided an infamous early fourteenth century example of the punishments that could be inflicted on adulterous wives in France.
The Tour de Nesle scandal rocked the french royal family to its foundations. Joan and Blanche were daughters of Otto of Burgundy. They were married to Philip and Charles of France respectively. Louis, the oldest of the french princes was married to Margaret, a cousin of the two sisters. Isabella on a visit from England noted some unusual behaviour and informed her father, Philip IV, who discovered that Blanche and Margaret had been carrying on with two brothers- Gautier and Philippe D’Aunay. Joan knew about the adultery so found herself being tarred with the same brush for a time but went on to become France’s queen. Blanche and Margaret had their heads shaved and were imprisoned for life – it’s probably best not to think about the inventiveness of Philip IV with regard to the punishment of the men involved. Blanche ended up in a nunnery where she died: a further reminder as to the punishment that could be meted out to adulterous wives without necessarily drawing anyone’s attention to the scandal.
All of this links to the stability of society and to the practicalities of inheritance. If a noble marriage was about the union of two families, a treaty or about a land deal it really wouldn’t do if the heirs of that marriage didn’t belong to the husband. Thomas Aquinas wrote on the topic- which leads to the next point – the law was much more interested in women committing adultery than it was in their husbands carrying on with servants, peasants and prostitutes because essentially in the eyes of medieval society that didn’t count – which perhaps explains why during the Tudor period Henry VIII felt able to effectively kidnap one woman from her husband, take her home and have his wicked way without it impacting on his sense of honour. The woman and her husband not being of sufficiently important status to count. Thus all those Plantagenet kings weren’t actually guilty of anything because they were the most important men in the land and could do whatever they wanted. In fact Henry VII was regarded as rather lacking on the manliness front because he had no known mistresses – an absolute monarch was expected to take everything he wanted because he was the ultimate Alpha male.
And let’s not forget the thoughts of Pope Innocent IV on the topic. He was with Thomas Aquinas; a woman’s adultery was worse than a man’s because man had more resemblance to Christ whilst a woman was more like the church which could have only one spouse i.e. Christ. The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe reveals that this attitude was shifting by the end of the fifteenth century and that there were proportionally more court cases involving men and unmarried women which had been, presumably, previously ignored.
And as though that weren’t complicated enough there’s the whole concept of courtly love to take into consideration. Society encouraged nobles and knights to place an unobtainable woman on a pedestal and then wander around in a lovestruck state. The key thing was that the woman was unobtainable: it was a game. The man was expected to admire his lady from afar and go off and do derring and gallant deeds for her with no expectation of his devotion being reciprocated. There’s a rather macabre medieval illustration of a couple killing themselves rather than commit adultery – not quite sure how that fits on the scale of sin!
Medieval tales seem to delight with romances and marriages gone wrong – there’s Chaucer, who’s Merchant’s Tale involves an elderly husband January marrying young May. She promptly shimmies up a tree to meet her lover Damyan – Chaucer neatly referencing Adam, Eve and sin in one rather bawdy image. There’s Tristan and Isolde who drink a love potion and of course, Lancelot and Guinevere who finds herself threatened with burning by King Arthur on discovery of the affair and has to be rescued…Arthur seems less put out with his friend Lancelot.
Amt, Emilie. (1993) Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe. New York: Routledge
Bennett, Judith M and Karras, Ruth Mazo (eds) () The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Dunn, Caroline. (2013 ) Stolen Women in Medieval England: Rape, Abduction and Adultery, 1100-1500 Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought Fourth Series.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Mortimer, Ian. (2009) A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. London: Vintage
Schaus, Margaret C. (ed) () Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia