304 pages | 6 x 9
Cloth 2006 | ISBN 9780812239386 | $59.95s | Outside the Americas £46.00
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A volume in the Middle Ages Series
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"A superb book, not only in terms of its sympathy with the evidence and concern for context but in showing us that our knowledge of how the church courts interacted with society must be based on more local case-studies of this kind."—EHRAwarded honorable mention for the 2007 Wallace K. Ferguson Prize sponsored by the Canadian Historical Association
How were marital and sexual relationships woven into the fabric of late medieval society, and what form did these relationships take? Using extensive documentary evidence from both the ecclesiastical court system and the records of city and royal government, as well as advice manuals, chronicles, moral tales, and liturgical texts, Shannon McSheffrey focuses her study on England's largest city in the second half of the fifteenth century.
Marriage was a religious union—one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and imbued with deep spiritual significance—but the marital unit of husband and wife was also the fundamental domestic, social, political, and economic unit of medieval society. As such, marriage created political alliances at all levels, from the arena of international politics to local neighborhoods. Sexual relationships outside marriage were even more complicated. McSheffrey notes that medieval Londoners saw them as variously attributable to female seduction or to male lustfulness, as irrelevant or deeply damaging to society and to the body politic, as economically productive or wasteful of resources. Yet, like marriage, sexual relationships were also subject to control and influence from parents, relatives, neighbors, civic officials, parish priests, and ecclesiastical judges.
Although by medieval canon law a marriage was irrevocable from the moment a man and a woman exchanged vows of consent before two witnesses, in practice marriage was usually a socially complicated process involving many people. McSheffrey looks more broadly at sex, governance, and civic morality to show how medieval patriarchy extended a far wider reach than a father's governance over his biological offspring. By focusing on a particular time and place, she not only elucidates the culture of England's metropolitan center but also contributes generally to our understanding of the social mechanisms through which premodern European people negotiated their lives.
Shannon McSheffrey is Associate Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal and author of three other books, including Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420-1530, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.