Taming Our Savage Progenitors: POB II.3

Thomas Fleming


July 5, 2018

The Church’s attempt to impose Christian marriage on the German nations was a daring project, and faithful churchmen no less than pioneering missionaries had a long row to hoe.  From the Christian perspective, marriage--and not just Christian marriage--is a merging of identities, intended to be unique and permanent, dissoluble only under the most extreme circumstances (e.g., infidelity, impotence, desertion), which do not necessarily legitimate another union.  This Christian ideal, however, has never been an easy rule to enforce, upon even civilized people, much less upon the wild Franks and Anglo-Saxons who were anything but  promising specimens for moral reformation.   

In Medieval France it was centuries before the polygamous Franks were able to reconcile themselves to the notion of permanent monogamy or even to marriage as an act of consent.  In the Merovingian kingdom a father could contract a marriage for a very young girl, and a blood feud might result from a daughter’s decision to marry without her parents’ permission, while the abduction of a bride against her will, though there were penalties, was commonplace, often with the king’s permission.  Marriage by abduction was clearly in conflict with Christian doctrine, and it was far less common in Carolingian France, which had by then come under Roman influence.  Concubinage and polygamy in royal circles, nonetheless, remained common.  Even the church in Francia acquiesced.  At the Council of Mainz (848), it was decided that a man might continue to receive communion if he had no more than one concubine.  Even more astounding had been the earlier decision of the Council of Orleans (538) not to depose a married priest who shacked up with a concubine after his wife's death.

Charlemagne and his descendants followed the scandalous precedent set by the family of Clovis, whose marital relations, as described by Gregory of Tours, would make a Hollywood film producer blush.   By the end of the 9th Century, however, the Church's authority had become paramount in matters of marriage and divorce, and while individual cases provoked lively debates--particularly when they involved state marriages--"a firm foundation in law had been laid by the legislators and theologians of the Frankish kingdom."  Nonetheless, French kings continued to put aside their wives, for a variety of reasons both personal and political, and were at loggerheads with Popes who maintained (as French bishops did not, necessarily, the sanctity of marriage.   The divorce of Lothar II, Charlemagne’s great grandson, was a great scandal.  When his wife Theutberga produced no male heirs, Lothar tried to divorce her and marry his mistress Waldrada.  Although a synod of Frankish bishops upheld the king, Pope Nicholas I overruled them.  When Lothar died (in 869), the kingdom of Lotharingia disappeared from history.  Such a dynastic catastrophe must have encouraged other Germanic kings to resist the Pope’s attempt to impose the Christian moral yoke on the Germans.

Nonetheless, the Church was cracking down successfully:  "Certainly the Carolingians agreed with the Church that a marriage legitimately entered upon was effectively indissoluble.  No liturgical provision existed for divorce: it merely had to be recognized  in certain rare cases.”  The Frankish monarchy, however, was capable of fighting back.  The troubled marital career of King Robert I (996-1031), the son of Hugh Capet (the founder of the Capetian dynasty), was an important test.  King Robert was most famous for his marital problems.  Forced to marry an older widow with grown children, he repudiated her soon after his coronation and decided to espouse his widowed third cousin Berthe.  The marriage was prohibited on general grounds of consanguinity but even more by the fact that Robert was godfather to her child (a relationship the Church treated as the Romans would have treated adoption).  His marital life strained Robert’s relations with church, and Pope Gregory V eventually annulled the marriage.  When the couple would visit a town, masses were halted, but bells were rung on their departure.  “Look, my love,” Robert is supposed to have said on one such occasion, “They are ringing us out."

The case was as political as it was ecclesiastical:  The newly established Capetian dynasty had rivals and enemies, who would have been delighted to see Robert discomfited.  However,  there must also have been some sympathy for poor Robert and Pope Sylvester II—who, before assuming the papal tiara, had eased the way of Robert's father Hugh Capet to the throne—rescinded the excommunication on condition that he put aside Berthe, a promise which he did not, in fact, carry out.  

Robert’s grandson King Philippe, a chip off the old Frankish block, lived openly and incestuously with his married cousin (albeit a distant cousin connected by marriage) Bertrade, the wife of the hapless Fulk le réchin of Anjou, whose marital experience included five “legitimate” wives, in addition to innumerable concubines, mistresses, and casual flings.  After a bogus marriage ceremony, Philippe and Bertrade lived openly as man and wife, despite the fact that each had a living legal spouse.  At the time Philip’s second marriage was portrayed either as the result of royal lust or Bertrade’s seductions, but there was probably more to it than sex.  The king did have one son, but that was hardly sufficient to guarantee his succession.  Besides, Bertrade, who was related to the ancient French nobility, was a useful ally for a king whose family had no very firm historic claim on the throne.

Philippe’s interference in Church affairs, combined with his attempts to control the elections of French bishops, had not made him popular in Rome, and after a series of papal warnings, Urban II—who at that time was in exile at Clermont preaching the First Crusade—excommunicated the French king.  In the more easy-going days of the Merovingian kings, Philip’s disordered marital life might have posed few problems, but by the 11th century the Church reformers were slowly and inexorably tightening the rules and imposing the Christian ideal of marriage on unwilling Germanic rulers.  The king’s main enemy was a reforming bishop, Yves of Chartres, whose installation as bishop was performed by Pope Urban II himself over the opposition of Philip.   The bishop, in violation of his vassal’s duty to the king, had to flee to the Pope’s entourage in Italy, and the death of the king’s first wife might have put an end to the difficulty, if Philip had not stuck by his guns, insisting on the royal power to dissolve a marriage.  Fulk, himself under a sentence of excommunication for his own polygamy, was now a pawn in the Church’s hand, and he repudiated his loyalty to an upstart dynasty that was stained with the foul crime of polygamy and incest.  In the end the King was forced to repent in public and repudiate Bertrade.  It was a pious fiction, since the two  continued to live together.  

Philippe would not be the last King of France to violate his marriage vows—so hard it was and is for the Church to enforce Christian marriage on the rich and powerful.   Nonetheless, the papacy had scored a major victory, and future kings would not be able to repudiate their wives and marry their mistresses  ad libitum—or ad libidinem.  Between Philippe’s marital woes and the first divorce of Henry VIII, the Christian ideal of marriage, while it might be circumvented by kings and emperors, could not be entirely disregarded.


Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians proved to be even tougher nuts to crack than the Franks had been.  As late as the 11th century, English marriages were highly informal.  In an effort to normalize the institution, Wulfstan II, the powerful archbishop of York (1002-1023) authored an influential tract on marriage, in which he advised Anglo-Saxon parents to obtain the bride’s consent, seek a priest’s benediction, and observe the Church’s rules on consanguinity—this last to avoid giving justification for future divorces.  Wulfstan’s proposal was a noble ideal, but his appeal fell mostly on deaf ears.

Wulfstan was one of the great moralists of Anglo-Saxon England, and confronted with the Danish raids on England, he concluded that the attacks were a form of divine punishment that the English deserved. In his famous "Sermon of the Wolf to the English," he seethes with anger against the moral dissolution and lack of unity of his people.  People pray to idols, and it is worth your life to try to destroy one of them.  Men betray their lords, parents sell infants into slavery, two men club together to buy a female sex slave.   And for this reason, God has permitted the Danes to ravish this once green land, where “too many… are blemished by the stains of sin…kin-slaughterers and priest-slayers and monk-slayers…perjurers and murderers, harlots and child killers, and many foul adulterous fornicators.” 

The language brings to mind the fulminations of America’s Megachurch pastors, who—like the far more noble and Christian Wulfstan—rarely mention divorce.  His own sister Ecgfrida, however, was married three times, and her first husband capped a marital career by taking as his third wife the daughter of King Ethelred the Redeless.  

The Scandinavian marriage customs, imported by the Vikings  were even looser.  The common phrase Danish Marriage sums up an the attitude of Scandinavians then and now.  Pre-Christian Norse women were as free to divorce their husbands as their husbands were to divorce their wives.  Iceland, being an ultra-conservative Norse colony, had the most casual approach to pre-marital sex and the most liberal divorce laws, and, while Christianity succeeded in changing some of these laws, Norse attitudes never disappeared.  As one modern Icelander observed, in becoming Christian they remained good pagans.  Iceland, even when nominally Christian, has had perhaps the highest rates of illegitimacy in Europe, and  by the 19th century concubinage and illegitimacy were simply accepted facts of life that conveyed no stigma.  Christian England never descended to the depths of Icelandic revelry, but despite their devotion to the Church, Anglo-Saxon rulers never succeeded in fully impressing the ideals of Christian marriage upon their subjects—so hard it is to impose Roman decency on our savage ancestors.  Small wonder that, once the influence of Rome faded and Latin gradually disappeared, Germans and Scandinavians, Celts and Slavs quckly sloughed off their Christian skin and went back to dying their skin and betraying their wives. 

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Tom, I am enjoying following these comments. I could not find all 31 canons published from Mainz but thought as I was reading through the ones I could find, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

    MAYENCE (847). Held about the 1st of October 847, by order of Louis of Germany, under Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mayence, assisted by twelve bishops, his suffragans, and several abbots, monks, priests, and others of the clergy, including the chorepiscopi. Thirty-one canons were published.

    2. Warns bishops to be assiduous in preaching the word of God.

    7. Leaves the disposition of church property to the bishops, and asserts their power over the laity.

    11. Forbids to endow new oratories with the tithes or other property belonging to churches anciently founded, without the bishop’s consent.

    13. Relates to the life to be observed by clerks and monks. Forbids joking, gaming, unsuitable ornaments, delicate living, excess in eating or drinking, unjust weights or measures, unlawful trades, &c.

    14. Orders all monks holding livings to attend the synods and give an account of themselves.

    15. Forbids the clergy to wear long hair, under pain of anathema.

    30. Forbids marriage within the fourth degree.—Tom. viii. Conc. p. 39.you