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Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages

Ruth Mazo Karras

296 pages | 6 x 9
Paper 2014 | ISBN 9780812222982 | $28.95s | Outside the Americas £21.99
Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
A volume in the Middle Ages Series
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Awarded the 2012 Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women's History by the American Historical Association

"This fascinating study of heterosexual pair bonds over a thousand years of European history is a timely argument that while indissoluble monogamous marriage blessed by the Church was culturally dominant in the Middle Ages, it was by no means universally accepted or practised. Ruth Mazo Karras convincingly challenges the common assumption that pre-Christian practice involved clearly delineated categories of marriage in which the transfer of property determined validity."—TLS
"Karras challenges the modern notion that "traditional marriage" was the only acceptable sexual relationship between a man and a woman, and the only alternative to a life of solitude in the Middle Ages. . . . An impressive and complex undertaking."—Law and History Review

"A carefully researched exploration of the variety—and ambiguity—of marriages in the Middle Ages. Karras combines rigorous scholarship with fascinating personal stories that are often as engaging as a good novel."—Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage

"Ruth Mazo Karras turns the history of medieval marriage upside down and inside out, demonstrating the ubiquity in medieval Europe of male-female couples who did not marry. . . . In a sweep that stretches from ancient Rome to Reformation Europe and from Italy to Iceland, Karras has again produced a must-read for medievalists. Unmarriages cracks open the myth of 'traditional' marriage and reveals a truer, messier world of opposite-sex coupling. It should be assigned reading for all who bewail the decline of so-called traditional marriage values."—Judith M. Bennett, University of Southern California

"This important book summons from the shadows those heterosexual relationships that were destined to become marginal. Through an admirably wide array of sources, Karras retrieves forgotten arrangements like concubinage, clerical marriage, bigamy, and clandestine unions, and in so doing reanimates the couples who shunned conventional marriage. This work is a must for historians of gender, sexuality, and marriage. It helps us understand not only what society would become, but what it might have been"—Dyan Elliott, Northwestern University

"Imaginative and masterfully executed, Umarriages reveals the talent of an accomplished scholar. The book ranges boldly and widely across the Middle Ages and beyond, from slave marriages in the later Roman Empire to reimaginings of the marital bond in the era of the Reformation, and investigates sources as diverse as Icelandic sagas, canon law, and criminal registers from fifteenth-century Paris. Karras peppers her analysis with fascinating vignettes that personalize her findings, illuminating the impact of law, social custom, and religious thought on a sampling of women's lives: Augustine of Hippo's unnamed concubine, the Frankish aristocrat Waldrada, Abelard's Heloïse, Katherine Swynford (an ancestor of King Henry VIII of England), and others less socially significant but no less compellingly studied. Her conclusions about changing definitions of the marital union, its imprecise boundaries, and the varied alternatives to it—cohabitation and concubinage, clerical marriages and marriages between individuals of different faiths, to name but a few—bear meaningful repercussions for modern debates about marriage."—Mathew Kuefler, San Diego State University

The Middle Ages are often viewed as a repository of tradition, yet what we think of as traditional marriage was far from the only available alternative to the single state in medieval Europe. Many people lived together in long-term, quasimarital heterosexual relationships, unable to marry if one was in holy orders or if the partners were of different religions. Social norms militated against the marriage of master to slave or between individuals of very different classes, or when the couple was so poor that they could not establish an independent household. Such unions, where the protections that medieval law furnished to wives (and their children) were absent, were fraught with danger for women in particular, but they also provided a degree of flexibility and demonstrate the adaptability of social customs in the face of slowly changing religious doctrine.

Unmarriages draws on a wide range of sources from across Europe and the entire medieval millennium in order to investigate structures and relations that medieval authors and record keepers did not address directly, either in order to minimize them or because they were so common as not to be worth mentioning. Ruth Mazo Karras pays particular attention to the ways women and men experienced forms of opposite-sex union differently and to the implications for power relations between the genders. She treats legal and theological discussions that applied to all of Europe and presents a vivid series of case studies of how unions operated in specific circumstances to illustrate concretely what we can conclude, how far we can speculate, and what we can never know.

Ruth Mazo Karras is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe and coeditor of Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe, both available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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