Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, March 11, 2011

Guest Author, Elizabeth Chadwick: Behind the Books, Medieval Marriages and Sexuality

I am extremely excited, and star struck today. The wonderfully talented, best-selling author, Elizabeth Chadwick has written a post for History Undressed today! She's giving us a bit of history behind her medieval novels, in particular medieval marriages. Please join me in issuing a warm welcome to Ms. Chadwick, and I sincerly hope you find her post to be as intriguing and interesting as I did. And yes, Ms. Chadwick, do see why you love writing medieval fiction! It is my favorite genre--besides the Tudor era.

(Check back over the weekend for my latest review on TO DEFY A KING. I have previously reviewed, FOR THE KING'S FAVOR. They are both on my LOVED IT list.)


Thank you so much for inviting me onto the blog. I thought I’d talk about medieval marriages and share some details.

Having written two books about the great William Marshal (The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion) and another about the Bigod earls of Norfolk with whom the Marshals became closely connected (For the King’s Favor), I wanted to explore the bond secured by the marriage of William’s firstborn daughter, Mahelt, to the Bigod’s eldest son Hugh. Their arranged union and how they adapted to each other is a major part of what To Defy A King is about.

Medieval aristocratic marriages follow a very different pattern to the general one of today’s Western culture. In the period I write about – the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, marriages were arranged by parents or guardians to suit dynastic interests or to line pockets, frequently both. Often the bride was still an adolescent, although the groom was usually older, and sometimes much older. The age of consent at this time was 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy. This doesn’t mean it was consent to sexual relations, although this could be part of it, but it was the age at which the bride or groom was considered responsible enough to answer for themselves in all matters. Marriages of younger people did take place, but required dispensations.

When researching To Defy A King, I didn’t have a solid birth date for Mahelt Marshal, but I knew she was born somewhere between late 1192 and 1194, so I gave her a date of 1193. She was married early in 1207 when she would have been approximately 14. Her husband, Hugh Bigod was born late in 1182, so was 24, heading for 25. This seems shocking to our mindset that a girl of this age should be married off by her family to a grown man, but this was a norm in the early 13th century. King John’s bride Isabelle of Angouleme was only 12 years old and John was in his mid 30’s at the time. Mahelt’s own father had been about 42 when he married her 17 year old mother, the couple not having met until their wedding day.

Early in 1207, Mahelt’s father was preparing to go to Ireland for a protracted stay and wanted to settle Mahelt before he left. William’s biography says: ‘at that time, the Marshal spoke with Earl Roger Bigot, a man who was never slow in doing what was to his advantage and honour when it was appropriate for him to do so. He asked him graciously, being the wise man he was, to arrange a handsome marriage between his own daughter and his son Hugh.’ The match seen by the fathers as a good and honourable thing to do and Mahelt and Hugh were married before Easter of that year. Her parents and the rest of her family, barring her two older brothers who were being held hostage by King John, embarked for Ireland and Mahelt came to live at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk with her new husband and her in-laws. Coping with this would have raised challenges for Mahelt, however she would have been raised to know her duty and would also have been proud that she was helping her family to cement a powerful political and diplomatic bond. Love and attraction did not come into it. If such emotions grew then all to the good, but they weren’t the foremost criteria.

Was the marriage consummated at this stage? It’s an interesting question. It is also very much a modern novelist’s dilemma. Readers of today tend to find the very young ages of medieval brides distasteful, but in the 13th century, there was no such lens. The girl would be viewed as having entered the adult world with adult duties and responsibilities. Basically she was a grown up, and the line was drawn in a different place. Her marriage would be an honourable thing. A novelist has to tread carefully in keeping to the historical truth while not sending readers away in droves. Indeed, the novelist becomes a kind of bridge between the past and the present, allowing readers and characters to meet in the middle.

There are existing wedding contracts from the period I study that stipulate the marriage is not to be consummated until the bride has reached a certain age, and I chose to go with that scenario in To Defy A King because it fits the known history.

Mahelt and Hugh’s first child was born before the end of 1209 when the couple had been married for a little over 2 years and Mahelt would have been 15 at the youngest and 17 at the oldest when their son Roger arrived, but was probably about 16. Subsequent births are interesting because they happen at clean 3 year intervals. Hugh Junior, their second child, turned up in 1212, Isabelle in 1215 and Ralph in 1218. Both the writer and the researcher in me suspect that Mahelt and Hugh were taking precautions, and that it wasn’t just coincidence.

In the medieval period the default view was that sex was not for pleasure, recreation, or to demonstrate love for one’s partner. It was for procreation; intercourse was not supposed to take place for any other purpose. Of course it did, and rules were there to be bent and broken, but the guiding belief was no sex without the possibility of conception. Mahelt was one of ten children and Hugh one of eight. Did Mahelt and Hugh take precautions? I think they did, and I have a scene in the novel where Mahelt discusses contraceptive practises with the women of the household. Below is a short excerpt from the novel that explains some of the contraceptive methods advocated at the time should one choose to go against the teaching of the Church. The suggestions include coitus interruptus, barrier methods, and somewhat dubious external objects that were thought to prevent pregnancy. Some, I suspect, were more successful than others!

Marie leaned forward with a glimmer of interest. ‘So what do you do?’

Mahelt darted a glance at her mother in law, then threw caution to the wind. ‘The usual things. Abstinence, because the church says it is good for the soul.’ A wry grimaced accompanied her remark. ‘A small piece of moss….Not riding all the way to London…’

‘Why should not riding all the way to London…’ Ela began in puzzlement and then blushed fire-red as understanding dawned. ‘Oh,’ she said.

Marie wrinkled her nose. ‘Someone told me to tie a weasel’s testicles in a bag around my neck. I suppose that might keep Ranulf away, but everyone else too! I also heard that putting lettuce under a man’s pillow makes him less amorous.’ Her eyes twinkled. ‘Or at least less able to be amorous.’ She made an illustrative flopping gesture with her wrist and forearm. ‘It doesn’t work,’ she added. ‘I’ve tried.’

Although Hugh and Mahelt were fruitful, I was fascinated while researching, to come across what might happen in cases where a man had difficulty fulfilling his part. There is a court case on record where a man’s wife complained that he was incapable and he had to appear in public and prove it wasn’t the case to a group of women summoned for the purpose. When he couldn’t rise to the occasion despite manipulative encouragement when tested by one of their number, he was judged a charlatan and the marriage was dissolved. Another man was tested and his equipment found to be ‘large enough for any woman living in this world.’ So he stayed married!

I love it when I find similarities between their time and ours, but I am also very, very fascinated by the differences. The above ramble is just a short sample of life from their perspective, but I think you can understand why I so love writing historical fiction!

For any readers interested in knowing more about medieval marriage and sexual practices, I can recommend these two books as further reading.

LOVE, SEX AND MARRIAGE IN THE MIDDLE AGES. A Sourcebook edited by Conor McCarthy. Routledge 2004 ISBN 0415307465

SEXUALITY IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE. Doing unto Others By Ruth Mazo Karras. Routledge 2005. ISBN 9780415289634

Visit Elizabeth Chadwick to read more about her, her work and visit her fascinating blogs at http://www.elizabethchadwick.com/

Leave a comment for your chance to win a print copy of TO DEFY A KING. (one winner, US/Canada only)


Renee Vincent said...

There is a court case on record where a man’s wife complained that he was incapable and he had to appear in public and prove it wasn’t the case to a group of women summoned for the purpose. When he couldn’t rise to the occasion despite manipulative encouragement when tested by one of their number, he was judged a charlatan and the marriage was dissolved. Another man was tested and his equipment found to be ‘large enough for any woman living in this world.’ So he stayed married!

That was just great! I got a kick out of that. Thanks for great laugh, Elizabeth!
Your book looks like a wonderful read! I'm going to your website right now!

Slave Driver said...

Elizabeth, I love you books! I downloaded "The Greatest Knight" free for Kindle and enjoyed your voice so much I had to get "The Scarlet Lion." I look foreword to reading all of your back list and new novels.

Clancy said...

Love it... interesting that we still have naive children who don't know much more than these people did. Some things never change :)

Loni Lynne said...

I Googled information for my book (time travel for a ghost/romance) in which I needed information on Condoms . . . I read that their history is quite extensive too (animal skins) going back into ancient times . . . would they have used them during this period of time? I found it interesting they had been around so long but very few people mention them if that was the case.

Thanks for your wonderful post! Very informative and sounds like a great book!


Stephanie Dray said...

Wonderful post! I just started reading The Greatest Knight. I'm wondering if threes any difference to you on writing from the POV of a man as opposed to a woman such as in this book. Are there tips you can give for capturing the voice of a gender not your own?

Nicole North said...

Fascinating post! I love learning about marriage and sexuality in different time periods. I just downloaded one of your books and look forward to reading it! Thanks!

Chicks of Characterization said...

What a FASCINATING and informative post!!! I loved it! I will definitely be checking into your books! I love ANYTHING and EVERYTHING from this time period, and you definitely hooked me with your excerpt!!! Loved the humor!

Thanks so much for sharing!!!


Audra said...

Just bought To Defy a King and I can't wait -- this post made me esp excited for it!

Jena Lang said...

Great post! I recently bought FOR THE KING'S FAVOR and look forward to reading it.


Sarah Hoss said...

Thanks for posting here today Ms. Chadwick. Your books are wonderful.

I find it interesting that for ever there has been contraception, for ever there has been pros and cons about it and for ever it will be a topic of interest. Even though some things change, I guess some never really do.

I will definately be checking out these books.

Lucinda Brant said...

Fabulous post! Informative and funny!
Weasels testicles!!! Who'd have thought...
Thank you for a fascinating glimpse into the Medieval period.
As a fellow author, your comment about writing particularly resonated with me:"Indeed, the novelist becomes a kind of bridge between the past and the present, allowing readers and characters to meet in the middle."
Thanks for sharing.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thank you everyone for all your responses and I'm so glad you all liked the post!
To answer specific questions:
Loni - yes I had read about condoms but not having come across them as often as some of the other suggestions, I kept to the better trodden path. I don't know how common their use was - I guess they haven't really survived in the archaeological record and we have to go with obscure references.
Stephanie - re writing in a different gender. I never think about it other than to put myself into the body of the person I'm writing about, and to observe the behaviour of men and women around me in general. A lot of stuff depends on personality, but there are broad general differences to behaviour. I remember seeing a couple of little clips on Youtube called How To be the Perfect Boyfriend and How To Be The Perfect girlfriend. It might be worth Googling. They're a good laugh and very true! They're not medieval, but despite many changes in society and attitudes, the basic human animal is the same I'd say.

Laura's Reviews said...

Fascinating post!! Researching medieval marriages and sexuality would be fascinating. It's something that I think I take for granted while reading historical fiction and don't realize that the author has researched into the practicalities of how it all worked back in medieval times. It will give me a new prospective when I read To Defy a King!!


So interesting! I love reading historical fiction and guess it must cost a great amount of resarch. But the result is such great delight, I'm so grateful for. Just reading a very pleasant one, these days. Back to it now.

robinintheuk said...

I have read many of your books and loved To Defy a King but especially love this article! Thank you for taking the time to share such fascinating information.

Marg said...

I look at my son who is 12 and the girls who are in his class and can't possibly imagine them being deemed adult!

Another fascinating post!

dolleygurl said...

I loved this post - I am about 3/4 of the way thru the book and I love the way that their marriage and relationship is portrayed. It is true that it is so hard to imagine when 12 year olds today are no where near ready to be adults.

Aislinn said...

Fascinating blog. I just love books set in the medieval period.

She said...

Interesting post. I loved medieval history but somehow, in class, the professor never talked about sex. Bubonic plague, yes, sex, no. Thanks for sharing.

Tamara said...

What a great post, Elizabeth! Thanks for educating and entertaining us about sexuality in the Middle Ages.

Barb H said...

Enjoyed the information in your post, Elizabeth. I've been a fan for a long time but haven't read this new book yet. I'm looking forward to it. The Greatest Knight was a favorite--I grew 'attached' to William Marshal sometime back as I was researching Richard I.

Carol N Wong said...

Thank you for all the information about the marriage of medieval brides. It was the same in China. Girls of twelve or young had to marry very old men. It must have been very frightening.
Please enter me for this fascinating book.