Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages
by Ruth Mazo Karras

Reviewed by Betsy L. Chunko


Published by University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012   |   3014 pages

In Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages, Ruth Mazo Karras investigates the myriad forms heterosexual relations took across the medieval period. In particular, Karras is concerned with the structures and relations that medieval authors and record keepers did not address directly, either in order to minimize or suppress them, or because they were common enough to have escaped notice or been deemed unworthy of mention. Throughout, Karras examines the historical discourse to ask, in particular, why it is that we so often insist on painting relationships between medieval people in black and white terms. Karras proceeds via a series of case studies to examine the existence of multivalence in medieval unions.

Early medieval sources reveal fluidity in the way people understood unions between men and women. As Karras shows, the status of a union depended more on the condition of the participants than on the process used to enter it. She speculates that fluidity in types of unions would have been all the more present among the classes of society that did not make their way into the historical record. To this end, Karras traces lines of gender and socioeconomic status: from slaves seeking to marry other slaves in the early medieval Mediterranean to Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt’s third wife (sister-in-law to Geoffrey Chaucer), who managed that delicate (and rare) crossover from mistress to wife.

Behaviors seen as transgressive are generally easier to investigate, as they end up in court records, etc. By contrast, behaviors deemed normal often escape notice. In these cases scholars employ some version of an argument from silence. In ambiguous circumstances, such as discourses on sex and sexual liaisons, sources include both those who were hostile to these relationships and those who participated in them. On the subject of clerical sexuality, especially priests and their partners, Karras reviews the arguments of church reformers of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries for the church’s superiority over lay society on the grounds of ritual as well as moral purity. Karras’s examination of church court records, taking these as our best entrée into the typical way people thought about sexual unions outside of marriage, builds on the tradition of earlier studies of penitentials by Pierre Payer and others.

Karras’s carefully reconceived readings of famed medieval relationships between men and women are particularly illuminating. In discussing Augustine of Hippo’s long liaison with the anonymous woman who fathered his son, Adeodatus, Karras challenges the standard interpretation that holds Augustine’s partner as “not so much a person as an object of carnal desire” in her lover’s eyes. Why, asks Karras, can she not have been both to Augustine? Nothing in his Confessions suggests he did not genuinely care for the woman during the course of their relationship; in fact, Augustine asserts he never got over the pain of their separation. In another example, Karras suggests Heloise (Abelard’s love) was a very “modern woman” in her explicit denial of her paramour’s desire to wed. Karras demonstrates that medieval people were perfectly capable of envisioning alternative kinds of partnered life.

As no discussion of marriage and sexual partnerships would be complete without examination of the subject of failed marriages and partnerships, Karras also reviews the strictures of medieval marriage bonds. She employs a careful historical relativism here: For a woman, honor was sexual, and she preserved her honor by engaging in sexual relationships only within the bonds of marriage. However, honor also inhered in rank. A woman engaged in a sexual relationship with a man of the same or lower social class would be dishonored, but a woman with a man of a higher class might not. She might, after such an affair, still be able to marry someone from her own social level. In addition, freedom to leave a union may seem a huge advantage to twenty-first-century North Americans and Europeans, yet the ability to leave also opens one to the possibility of being left. As Karras point out, even today, despite increased economic opportunities for women, men generally become better off financially after a divorce and women worse off. In the Middle Ages (as now), either party might want out of a union, but the woman was more likely to suffer economically. Medieval marriage and the consequent difficulty of dissolving such unions was, to some extent then, a protection for her.

Part of the triumph of this study is in its underlying message: If marriage was to be a sacrament—and by the twelfth century sacramental theology was beginning to argue that it was—it could hardly be defined by something as impure as coitus. Deep suspicion of sex translated, in particular, to deep suspicion of women, whose sexualized bodies represented (to the clergy and male moralists) a constant temptation and threat. Karras shows that the honor of the entire Christian community was deemed at risk from the activity of a Christian woman, whose transgressions or abstentions colored the whole collectivity.

Historical evidence suggests that the terms and possibilities of relationships and sexual contact during the Middle Ages were diverse. This is a book about the meaningfulness of sex, domestic economies, and the relationships—often fragile—between men and women within a household, variously defined.

Betsy Chunko earned her PhD from the University of Virginia and teaches at Muhlenberg College.

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