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"Faire les noces": Le mariage de la noblesse francaise (1375-1475).

"Faire les noces": Le mariage de la noblesse francaise (1375-1475). By Genevieve Ribordy (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004).

This is a excellent study that does even more than what it claims to do: investigate the practice and celebration of marriage among the French nobility from 1375-1475. The sources used are not the usual ecclesiastical court cases, but those generated by criminal cases in the Parlement of Paris between 1375 and 1474 (for which Ribordy found 48 cases concerning marriage from all parts of France). This was the court to which the great lords might have recourse in situations of murder or rape and its records concern the most aristocratic stratum. She also uses requests for letters of remission to have cases dismissed from the courts (52 new cases found by reading every other year through the same period, plus 11 requests providing more information on the 48 cases before Parlement), and over forty literary sources, including the seven major chronicles that cover this period in the history of France widely construed (to include border areas under the control of the Dukes of Burgundy, as well as Brittany, Savoy, Gascony, Provence, and Flanders.) The common factor among those sources is that all concern the vision and creation of a marriage, and the practice of its negotiation and celebration, and provide considerable detail about noble marriage at the time. She finds that three marriage stories were particularly fascinating to the chroniclers of the time: that of Richard II of England to Isabelle of France, the two successive marriages of Jacqueline of Bavaria (first to John of Brabant and then while John was still living, to Humphrey, duke of Gloucester), and that of Henry V of England to Catherine of France.

The book is organized to follow noble marriage from the first negotiations by family members to the nuptial bed, but interspersed are chapters on the pitfalls to aristocratic negotiations: issues about clandestine marriage and abduction, ecclesiastical impediments to marriage, and on the consent in the present tense required by the Church from both husband and wife. Ribordy explores both formal legal strictures of canon law and the extent to which aristocratic practice paid only lip-service to such canons, as well as how much and on what issues contemporary Churchmen upheld, or caved in, on matters of canon law. What Ribordy is asking, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, is whether the two models of medieval marriage proposed by Georges Duby as the twelfth-century paradigms were still at odds in the late middle ages. (1) Ribordy's work is most fascinating in its examination of this rivalry between ecclesiastical and royal or aristocratic marriage notions. She shows that in the fifteenth century there may have been a stalemate, but that neither one nor the other side won out totally. The aristocracy continued to ignore certain parts of the ecclesiastical program, such as canonical age of marriage, but did yield to certain ecclesiastical strictures about very close consanguinity, such as not marrying one's sister. This was, however, as Ribordy reminds us (pp. 65-6) the era of the notorious case of Jean, count of Armagnac, who was turned down by the royal court in his attempt to marry his sister Isabelle, the mother of his three children; while the King was obviously intent on and successful in seizing the property of a powerful rival, marriage to a sister Ribordy concludes was thought by all to be going too far.

While such notorious cases of incest would not be tolerated by Church or King, on many other issues it was the Church that went more than half way to meet what the aristocracy perceived as its needs, particularly to control the marriage of its sons and daughters. While aristocrats respected some rules of the Church--avoiding very close relatives, those already married and ecclesiastics, consent by the bride and groom before a priest was much less important than the earlier arrangements of the parents, who assumed that the daughter, in particular, would be an obedient and submissive bride. Although consent by both parties in the present tense was an ecclesiastical requirement, choice of partner invariably hinged on the political and economic issues, dominant actors in marriage negotiations are found to have been men and their families while women had only a secondary role, and Church ritual was much less important than the secular celebrations that witnessed to the wealth and influence of the newly-married and their families. One cannot then speak of a total assimilation by either Church or Aristocracy of the marriage practices of the other side, but as Ribordy suggests, only of a superficial agreement between the two. Giving dispensations for consanguinity, averting its eyes from marriages at too young an age, dissolving non-consummated unions, the Church (or its various practitioners) adapted its legal doctrine in many individual cases.

What Ribordy's study of the fifteenth century suggests, moreover, is a rethinking of the earlier material. Looked at from the viewpoint that she adopts, it is difficult to calibrate to what extent Church attempts at enforcement in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had been any different from what happened later, except for a few notorious cases such as that of Philip Augustus and Ingeborg of Denmark in which it was papal claims to authority over the entire world which were really at stake. Ribordy's approach, in which different aspects of canon law are explored separately, suggests an effective way of re-examining how widespread was enforcement of Church doctrine about marriage during other periods when we have assumed that canon law was enforced. As Ribordy explains for the fifteenth century, for aristocrats the risks were too great that they would lose control of a central political and economic institution for them to allow Church law, particularly with regard to the consent of children to their marriages, to get in the way of their own choices in marriage negotiations. When we consider that it was from this same aristocracy that Churchmen were recruited, it becomes easier to see why canon law was not necessarily universally enforced.

This is an excellent study, containing an impressive bibliography, nicely produced with footnotes rather than end-notes. It is based on extensive reading in the literature on marriage and on sources in Old French extensively cited within the text, and brings clear thinking to a much vexed issue not only for the late middle ages, but for the central medieval period as well.

Constance H. Berman

University of Iowa


1. Georges Duby, Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth-century France (Baltimore, 1978).
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Author:Berman, Constance H.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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