The Rise and Fall of Marriage in the Christian Age Properties of Blood, Part II, chapter 3  

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  Dickens, in characterizing the French Revolution, was half-right.  The period of the French Revolution was among the very worst times that civilized men and women have had to endure.  As heirs of the French Revolution, we are also heirs to the disease which that generation of revolutionaries injected into our world, and in the two centuries that have followed, the disease has so intensified and metastisized that we may be tempted to view its first phase as benign, more of a remedy, perhaps, than the disease itself.  That is a serious mistake, among the most serious mistakes we could make, because, unless we are able to understand the origins of our own miseries, we shall never be able to treat them.  

European men have had their share of difficult times:  the Mongol invasions of Europe, the Thirty Years War, and, one of the worst of all, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the course of the Fifth Century, but it was precisely in those periods of great distress—of social dissolution and anarchy—that the institutions of marriage, family, and kinship generally increased in significance and strength.  With no law except that of custom, no order but what is imposed by force, the ties of blood reassume their primitive vigor.  With the rise of the revolutionary state, in both its liberal-capitalist and socialist forms, the primal institutions of the human race, are systematically circumscribed and debilitated.  As some Americans are beginning to realize, there are worse conditions than the savagery of the old frontier, where dueling flourished and the laws of blood were fulfilled.  In a sense, the disintegration of the Roman order was just such a period of creative anarchy, when men and women have to provide not only their own food for themselves and their families:  They had to secure their own justice.

The breakdown of ancient civilization that took place in Europe in the period following the barbarian invasions was a terrifying shock.  In The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins has offered an irrefutable corrective to the cheerful accounts of the early Dark Age offered by optimistic Catholic historians.  Nearly every basic technology of everyday life degenerated and disappeared: roadbuilding and roof tiles, pottery made on a wheel, medicine and sanitation, law and order.   With the barbarian conquest of the Western Empire, European society reverted to material and social conditions even more primitive than the Homeric world.  Blood feuds and trial by combat replaced the elaborate protections offered by Roman law  and it was as if the Church had to go back to the drawing board to teach crude Germans, Celts, and Slavs the ideals of Christian marriage, which was in many respects simply Roman marriage infused with Christian discipline.

Greco-Roman civilization hd lasted a long time.  Even if we exclude the Bronze Age citadels of Mycenaean Greece and the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, classical civilization lasted continuously for at least 13 centuries, from the Eighth Century BC, when the Homeric poems were being put together and Geometric vases were produced, down to roughly 500 AD, when the barbarian take-over of the Christianized western empire seemed irreversible.  In the by no means static conditions of the ancient world, the laws on marriage inevitably evolved, though government never played the role it has played in the Modern Era.  In the later Roman Empire, the law did restrict some of the powers that husbands had held over their wives and children but never to the point of regularly interfering in the everyday life of the household.  

Celibacy remained the highest ideal in the Middle Ages, but the Church recognized marriage as an honorable institution created by God for the procreation and preservation of the human race and, though sexual pleasure, even in marriage, was viewed with suspicion by theologians, conjugal relations were conceded as a licit means for avoiding fornication and adultery.  Ordinary people, who do not appear to have paid much attention to the puritanical fulminations of the clergy, went on marrying and giving in marriage.  One might as well say the obvious: Since most of the information on the secondary status of marriage and the sinfulness of conjugal pleasure comes from clerics, one may well doubt how representative such opinions were in any class.  Celibacy, disapproval of adultery, sexual continence—these were not customs to attract the turbulent Germans who overran the Empire.  The best one could hope to accomplish with such people—then and now—is to direct their passions into socially constructive exercises, such as fruitful marriages and crusades against the pagans

Tacitus, in his essay Germania, had painted a very idealistic portrait of the Germans as virtuous family men and stay-at-home wives who shunned adultery.  If such virtues ever existed outside the imagination of a disgruntled Roman reactionary, they never made much of an impact on the peoples who took over Europe: Goths, Burgundians, Franks, and Lombards.  It is an easy but unverifiable conjecture that between the time when Tacitus composed his second-hand account and the fifth and six centuries, when we begin to get documentary information, Germanic marriage customs had deteriorated.   A more plausible hypothesis is that Tacitus, disgusted with the Roman morals of his own time, was eager to be misinformed.

In general, marriage customs among German and Scandinavian pagans were extremely loose.  Marriage did not depend on formal law or ritual but only on the fact of cohabitation.  “Marriage was a social fact, not a legal status.”  Pre-marital sex and out-of-marriage couplings were common; concubinage was an accepted institution; polygyny was practiced by those who could afford it; and divorce for either husband or wife was as easy as walking out the door.  

In reading Germanic legal codes, we enter a world that is almost completely foreign to the laws of the Roman Empire.  It goes without saying that there is great variety both in the content of the laws and in the degree to which they had been influenced by Roman legal concepts law.  Nonetheless, speaking in the most general terms, we can say that  marriage has become, once again, an affair between families rather than between consenting individuals.  Fathers had the power to arrange the marriages of their sons and daughters, and, if he died, that power passed to a close male relative.   Upon marriage, responsibility for a woman’s protection (mundium) passed from her father to her husband, except in marriages, for example an abduction, in which the father was not paid for her mundium.  Among the barbarians who invaded the empire, the Visigoths--like most Germanic peoples, perhaps--expected to arrange the marriages of their children, but according to the Visigothic Code (III. I.3), a girl who had been betrothed by her parents but eloped with another would, along with her husband, be put into the hands of the betrothed.  If her family relented, then they had to pay a penalty to the disappointed fiancé.  

Germanic marriage customs, then, were quite different from marriage in the later Roman Empire, but in some respects they can be seen as a reversion to something like earlier Roman or Greek conditions.   A German father’s power over his dependents (mundium) is somewhat reminiscent of the Roman father's patria potestas.  Thus, a girl upon her marriage passed from her father's into her husband’s control, as in a Roman marriage in manu; however, the German son, unlike the Roman, was freed upon reaching his majority.   

In early Lombard law, a woman was always under the control of some male.  While lip service, at least, was paid to the Christian stipulation of marital consent, the insincerity of such professions is revealed in the fact that very young girls could be married or affianced.  In the late 7th century, the Lombard king Rothair issued an edict that speaks of the bride in almost commercial language:  The groom must be content with what he receives from her family [181], while a man who forcibly abducts a free woman must pay a fine in addition to the purchase price of her mundium. [183]  As in early Greek and Roman law, inheritance was a central concern.  Marriage was a means of propagating future generations who would inherit the family’s property: “Property was essential to the continuation of the family, and the Lombards, like the other Germans, regarded family property as the rightful possession of the family, not to be dissipated by sale or testament by him who controlled it at any one time.”

The Germans were generally severe in punishing a wife’s adultery.  Visigothic law allowed a wife’s father or  husband to kill her lover, though in many Germanic codes the adulterer might get off by paying damages.   Christians, even if they might have disapproved of these harsh measures, would have approved the severity with which adultery was treated by the Germans.  However,  some of their other marriage customs shocked Christian missionaries.  Pagan Anglo-Saxons, for example, did not have anywhere near so strict a sense of incest as was prescribed in Christian or Roman law, and it was routine for a son, upon the death of his father,  to marry  his step-mother—an act which would have horrified civilized Romans.  These abuses of Christian morality and Roman law had to be endured.  Since a sudden crackdown would only have retarded the process of conversion, Pope Gregory the Great counseled moderation to the missionaries he had sent to the Anglo-Saxons.  

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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

9 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    ” In The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins has offered an irrefutable corrective to the cheerful accounts of the early Dark Age offered by optimistic Catholic historians”

    Who are these optimistic catholic historians you are referring to let us indeed name names as unfortunately your Mr Bryan-Ward Perkins can not have it both ways.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    I suspect he is referring to professor Peter Brown’s efforts of consolidating the Dark Ages into Late Antiquity ” , but this is an argument among scholars of the last 60 years and nothing irrefutable about Peter Brown who was of Scotts -Irish stock from Dublin and an optimistic Protestant concerning the dark ages . Which scholars have put the irrefutable corrective to Newman in his essay on The Benedictines and the reasons for their growth during the invasions?

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    My point is not at all to denigrate the accomplishments of the Christian Age. The point at hand is 1) the break-down of ancient technology and 2) the collapse of civil order. Ward-Perkins is a superbly trained historian with few axes to grind, He was early on trained by his archeologist father, and he knows more about the transition in Italy than anyone does. I have heard too many defenses of what happened after 476, both from Catholics and from misguided admirers of Teutonic barbarism.

    I was not thinking of Peter Brown but of several contemporary Catholic historians who, in order to defend Christian civility, turned a blind eye to the catastrophic results of the barbarian invasions and the collapse of law and order. I’d rather not talk about them, because I sympathize with their aspirations.

    Of course, the darkness hit at different rates in different places. Ravenna lingered for a while, as did Venice and Rome, all of which remained in contact with the New Rome. The papacy was enriched by Hellenic priests from Calabria and Southern Italy, and there were parts of Southern France that remained outposts of Romanitas as the savage Franks were swallowing up the rest. And there were degrees among the barbarians. The Goths and Burgundians were on a higher plane than Franks and Lombards. I think it was providential that Clovis married a Burgundian princess who had been allowed to retain her Catholic faith at an Arian court. It was she who converted the grisly Clovis and set in motion the sacred destiny of la grande nation, the eldest daughter of the Church…..

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    This is the passage I was referring to from Cardinal Newman about the young noble and others like him, fleeing the invasions.
    Their one idea then, their one purpose, was to be quit of it; too long had it enthralled them. It was not a question of this or that vocation, of the better deed, of the higher state, but of life and death. In later times {375} a variety of holy objects might present themselves for devotion to choose from, such as the care of the poor, or of the sick, or of the young, the redemption of captives, or the conversion of the barbarians; but early monachism was flight from the world, and nothing else. The troubled, jaded, weary heart, the stricken, laden conscience, sought a life free from corruption in its daily work, free from distraction in its daily worship; and it sought employments as contrary as possible to the world’s employments,—employments, the end of which would be in themselves, in which each day, each hour, would have its own completeness;—no elaborate undertakings, no difficult aims, no anxious ventures, no uncertainties to make the heart beat, or the temples throb, no painful combination of efforts, no extended plan of operations, no multiplicity of details, no deep calculations, no sustained machinations, no suspense, no vicissitudes, no moments of crisis or catastrophe;—nor again any subtle investigations, nor perplexities of proof, nor conflicts of rival intellects, to agitate, harass, depress, stimulate, weary, or intoxicate the soul.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    We are talking at cross purposes. I don’t know why any one person or any significant number of persons followed Benedict. Obviously, it was rather a tiny minority. One might suppose that things got much worse during the reconquest of Italy by Justinian, which was followed by the Lombard invasions. There is a great gulf between the writing of Boethius, judicially murdered in 524, and that of Gregory I (b. 540). More separates the two great men than mere Latinity and style. Boethius is a civilized Roman of an ancient house and tradition, while the world of Boethius, its order and sanity, already seem alien to Gregory. Gregory’s own motives in founding a monastery in Rome would seem to have been complex, but fear of the world was not one of them. He was well-off and well-connected, and he could have fled to Southern Italy/Sicily or Constantinople, if we was seeking security. I do not have and do not wish to have the gift of reading the intentions of people long dead. All I can hope to try is to understand them in their own light.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I should add that my only reason for mentioning, in passing, the terrible 6th and 7th centuries is to note the survival of primitive marriage and the persistence of the Christian understanding of marriage in so dark a time. It will take roughly 600 years before the missionaries’ attempts to inoculate the German with moral decency will begin to “take” and after that it take less time for it to be overturned by ambitious rulers like Henry VIII.

  7. Robert Reavis says:

    Boethius and Pope John both discovered there was nothing short of martyrdom that would satisfy Theodoric and the fever of life from the barbarians. No capitulation no compromise would satisfy them except their will be done. Within a year of Boethius’ martyrdom St Benedict established Monte Casino. Two different lights amidst the real darkness. Don’t know of any catholic historian worthy of the name who couldn’t see how great was the darkness therein.

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Agreed, but there have been several credible writers who have gone overboard in praising the heights of the Christian Millennium and permitted themselves to fall into a myopic optimism. Five or six years ago, I read a French lady-professor who made good points but insisted on ignoring the dark side. It’s interesting to read Gregory of Tours, who found the Franks appalling–rather like Iroquois without cannibalism.

    Once again, we are going to miss you at the Summer School.

  9. Robert Geraci says:

    I find it a curious thing that marriage and the bond between a man and a woman has taken the various terms and permutations over the centuries that Dr. Fleming points out, when one compares these to what is found in the first book of the Bible. It may be simple, but it is the first book of the foundation of all that we ought to rely upon. God created Man and out of this man, he then created his companion and partner. He didn’t create woman independently, but purposely out of the man instead (which indicates a very special bond indeed: two united as one or returning to one). And that bond was recognized by none other and no other than God. They were to serve each other as well as to multiply. A rather clear and simple edict or direction. Taken as a literal or allegorical truth, I wonder what else needs to be said. And while there were no others present, that first sin and division between the two, seems comparable to adultery: something was destroyed between Adam and Eve in the quest for that which was unattainable, which defines adultery. As I reflect on what Dr. Fleming has written, it reminds me of Robert Bolt’s words of Thomas More: “God made the angels to show him splendor – as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.”