Thursday, September 11, 2008

"O Promise Me!": Marriage Vows through History

This is a guest blog post by Virginia on the history of marriage vows. I've only added the hyperlinks, the illustration, and the description of the illustration.


O Promise Me!

The fundamental premise of the romance novel is that it will conclude with, or in some cases revolve around, a marriage or a betrothal. Since, for much of the course of European history, the betrothal was a legal contract, for all practical purposes as binding as the marriage vows themselves, it won’t be considered separately in this essay.1 Rather, the question considered here is precisely what, for the purpose of historical romances, the bride and groom were promising, considered themselves to be promising, and were believed to be promising by their families, the civil authorities, and the ecclesiastical authorities.2

In the 1960s and 1970s, when brides and grooms started to “write their own marriage vows,” most of their contemporaries looked upon this as a radical departure from tradition. “Traditional” marriage vows, for most English-speakers, were either those of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer itself or some derivation thereof. So, to start with those vows, there is a convenient reprint of the version of the 1559 edition in Mark Searle and Kenneth W. Stevenson, Documents of the Marriage Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), pages 215-226. These were essentially the same as Cranmer’s 1552 version and the post-Restoration 1662 version. Like their predecessor, the medieval English Sarum Manual (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 163-178), these vows were very elaborate by the standards of almost all others.

The introductory statement by the clergyman brings to the notice of the bride and groom that marriage was instituted for the procreation of children, as a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication, and for the “mutual societie, helpe, and comfort, that the one ought to haue of the other, both in prosperity and aduersitye” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 217).3

He then asked the groom if he would have the woman to be his wife and “love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health? And forsaking all others, keep only to her as long as you both shall live?” The question to the bride was formulated as, “Will you obey him and serve him, love, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health? And forsaking all other, keep only to him as long as you both shall live?” After this, the couple recited the vows of “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish [and, for the wife, to obey] until death do us part.” The groom then proceeded to say, “with all my worldly goods, I thee endow.” The exchange of rings was followed by the admonition to the witnesses, prayers, and Bible readings. The entire sequence covers several printed pages.

How did these vows develop? How widespread were they?

During the first three or four centuries of the development of Christianity, it does not appear that there was any kind of church marriage service at all. Matrimony remained a matter for the families to arrange in accordance with the provisions of secular law. A priest might be asked to bless the marriage, but it certainly was not a requirement (Stevenson 1983, 13-21; Searle and Stevenson 1992, 253). By the fourth and fifth centuries there was the option of having a marriage ecclesiastically blessed (Stevenson 1983, 27; Searle and Stevenson 1992, 253-254), but it was not a requirement for a legally valid marriage (Stevenson 1983, 31; Searle and Stevenson 1992, 5, 253-254). During the early medieval period, in Europe, the customs of the Germanic peoples also saw marriage primarily as a private, domestic, matter arranged by the families (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 257), although the Catholic church continued to encourage the practice of an ecclesiastical blessing in a church ceremony.

There’s a general overview in Chapter 4, “Weddings,” in Beatrice Gottlieb, The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 68-88. It’s particularly relevant when pointing out that in southern Europe, especially Italy, well into the 1300s, the actual consent by the couple was often made either in the office of the notary (for UK terminology, think solicitor) who drew up the marriage contract or in the bride’s home. Only after that, sometimes as much as a year later, did the couple proceed to obtain a blessing of the ceremony in church. [LV - for the situation in medieval Castile see the chapter on marriage in Heath Dillard's Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300.]

It was probably not until the fourteenth century that the ceremony, held at the door of the church, in which the couples recited vows to one another in the vernacular language, became a part of the liturgy, at least in French and English rituals (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 13). The ritual from the Abbey of Barbeau (Diocese of Sens, France) from the late fourteenth century reads for the betrothal that, if both parties consent,
the priest shall take the right hand of each of them and say:
N., say after me:
N., I pledge to you that I will take you to be my wife and spouse within forty days, if holy Church agrees.

Then the priest shall say to the woman:

N., say after me:
N., I pledge to you that I will take you to be my husband and master, etc. (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 157).
For the marriage itself, the husband to was recite after the priest, in a ceremony at the entrance to the church:
I take you to be my wife and my spouse and I pledge to you the faith of my body, that I will be faithful to you and loyal with my body and my goods and that I will keep you in sickness and in health and in whatever condition it will please the Lord to place you, and that I shall not exchange you for better or worse until the end

The woman shall say the same words after the priest
(Searle and Stevenson 1992, 159).
This was followed by a portion of the ceremony in which the priest asked for the rings and thirteen pieces of silver. He gave some of the money to charity, put the remainder in the bride’s purse, supervised the exchange of rings, and had the groom say:
N., with this ring I wed you, with my body I honor you, and I endow you with the dowry agreed upon by my friends and yours (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 160).
The full rite in the Sarum (Salisbury) Manual in England is printed in the original fourteenth-century English, with some explanatory material, in Searle and Stevenson (163-178). In the betrothal ritual, the fiancée agrees to be “buxum [obedient or compliant] to hym,” while in the marriage ceremony she promises to be “bonoure and buxum [agreeable and compliant], in bed and at borde” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 165-166).

For the Catholic church, the formalization of matrimonial procedures came in the decree Tametsi issued in 1563 during the Council of Trent, which required the parish priest to be one of the witnesses to a marriage. The Missal that followed in 1570 (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 179-183) contained an order for a nuptial mass, since by this time Catholicism clearly defined marriage as one of the seven sacraments–a matter that had been in some dispute until the Council of Florence in 1439. The mass was not, however, yet a requirement – the mutual consent before the priest and other witnesses brought a valid marriage into existence.4 Tametsi allowed for continued use of local customs beyond the essential kernel of the the ceremony (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 14). One essential purpose of the new Tridentine requirements was to ensure that marriages were public, not clandestine or private exchanges of vows between the couple, which brought a renewed emphasis on the prior publication of banns and the formal keeping of parish marriage registers. Searle and Stevenson describe the ceremony in the 1614 Rituale Romanum as “the irreducible minimum that had been defined in 1563, . . . in liturgical form” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 14). By contrast to the elaborate Sarum ritual, the priest was simply to obtain consent:
N., will you take N., here present, to be your lawful wife, according to the rite of holy mother Church?

The bridegroom answers:

I will.
with an exact mirror vow for the bride (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 185). The rubric emphasized that the priest was to make sure of the free consent of both, pointing out that the consent of only one did not make a valid marriage.

The allowance for local variants in the vows and ceremonies associated with matrimony continued to be used in the Catholic church throughout the early modern period, especially in France. In France, also, wide differences developed between Catholic requirements for valid marriage and those under secular law, particularly in regard to the age of consent. This resulted in situations in which two teenagers, or indeed any couple who married when one of them was under twenty-five, might have a marriage which was valid from the perspective of the church, but invalid from the perspective of the state, because the guardian(s) had not given permission.

Searle and Stevenson, 189-209, reprint the 18th century Ritual of Coutances for both the betrothal and marriage rites. With the same pragmatism that had marked the French four centuries earlier, the priest prays, “O Lord, sanctify these coins, offered as a symbol of the settlement which has been agreed” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 195). The French rituals did not use the hyperbole of the the English “with all my worldly goods I thee endow” (which manifestly, under English common law, was not a truthful statement) or even the earlier English “with all my chatthel [personal property]”. The vows, in the Coutances ritual, were mirror images: of the man, the priest asked, “Do you promise to be faithful to her in all things as a man should be faithful to his wife, according to the command of God?” while of the woman he asked the same question, substituting only the word “husband” for “wife” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 198-199).

Let’s take a look at Martin Luther’s 1529 Order of Marriage for Common Pastors (in: Ulrich S. Leupold, ed., Luther’s Works: American Edition, Volume 53, Liturgy and Hymns. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1965, 110-115).5 This pamphlet, addressed to ministers, contained a lot more explanation of the assumptions on which the rite was based than it did vows. Luther did not mention the preceding betrothal and the marriage contract by which the families regulated the financial aspects marriages, but appears to have taken their existence for granted as a matter of secular law rather than church practice. He starts out:
Many lands, many customs, says the proverb. Since marriage and the married estate are worldly matters, it behooves us pastors or ministers of the church not to attempt to order or govern anything connected with it, but to permit every city and land to continue its own use and custom in this connection. Some lead the bride to the church twice, both evening and morning, some only once. Some announce it formally and publish the banns from the pulpit two or three weeks in advance. All such things and the like I leave to the lords and the council to order and arrange as they see fit. It does not concern me (Leupold 1965, 111-112).
Nonetheless, pastors had civic obligations. If asked to publish the banns, they should do so. If asked to witness the vows and bless the couple, they should do so. Luther’s version of the entire marriage vows, which the bride and groom were to exchange at the entrance to the church, consisted of:
Hans, do you desire Greta as your wedded wife?
He shall say: Yes.
Greta, do you desire Hans as your wedded husband?
She shall say: Yes.
This was followed by the exchange of rings and a reading of Matthew 19:6 (What God has joined together, let man not put asunder). If the wedding party desired it, everyone could then proceed into the church for a sequence of scripture readings and prayers (selections from Genesis, Ephesians, Proverbs, etc.). Luther’s selections were not the same as those of the Church of England liturgy. Those from Genesis included the man’s need to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow; those from Proverbs included, “He who finds a wife, finds a good thing.”

For those accustomed to the English rite and its derivations, the ceremony appears starkly simple. Many regional and national German and Scandinavian ecclesiastical ordinances elaborated it somewhat as the 16th century progressed, in accordance with the proverb that Luther had quoted at the beginning of the pamphlet. One example of this is the continuing use of the bridal crowns in the area around the Baltic coast, but the most frequent addition was the addition of the introductory homily on the three purposes of marriage. Less common, but sometimes occurring in Lutheran rites, was a brisk pastoral reminder that the Biblical grounds for divorce were adultery and desertion, and some theologically phrased warning that “what’s sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander.”

Both Luther and his contemporary John Calvin were anxious to ensure that in marriage ceremonies, the Protestant doctrinal position that marriage was not a sacrament be made clear. Calvin wrote, at one point,
Lastly, there is matrimony, which all admit was instituted by God, though no one before the time of Gregory regarded it as a sacrament. What man in his sober senses could so regard it? God's ordinance is good and holy; so also are agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, hair-cutting legitimate ordinances of God, but they are not sacraments (John Calvin, Institutes, IV, xix, 34).
Nonetheless, the actual ceremony that Calvin prescribed for the Genevan church in 1542 had the husband promise to be faithfully “loving and caring” for his wife, whereas she promised to “obey, serving him and being submissive to him” (Stevenson 1983, 131). This order of service was later largely adopted into the Scots Presbyterian ritual (John Knox’s 1564 Book of Common Order, see Searle and Stevenson 1992, 227-233), which, like the Genevan order, omitting the ring, contained vows that have considerable similarity to those of the Book of Common Prayer (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 16). Knox omitted the blessings but had an extensive “exhortation” addressed to the spouses. The man promised to:
kepe her, to love and intreate her in all thynges accordynge to the dewtie of a faythful howsband, forsakyng all other duryne her lyfe; and briefelie, to lyve in holy conversation with her, kepynge faythe and trewthe in all poyntes (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 231).
The wife’s promise did not involve love, but rather “subjection and obedience” (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 231). It’s possible that many Presbyterians found this a bit much, for the order for the solemnization of marriage issued by the Westminster Assembly in 1645 had the groom promise to be a “loving and faithful” husband, and the bride a “loving and faithful” in addition to “obedient” wife (Searle and Stevenson 1992, 237). Not all Calvinist marriage orders omitted the rings. Several in the German states, such as that of the Palatinate, retained the practice of exchanging them (Stevenson 1983, 132).

Calvinism, like Lutheranism (but unlike the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England) acknowledged the existence of “biblical” grounds for divorce – namely adultery and desertion. This can be of importance to authors and readers of romance novels, because it meant that the Scottish secular laws covering the termination of a marriage developed quite differently from those in England.6

Throughout the early modern period, all European Protestant countries had state churches. In some regions, such as in Switzerland and most of the German Protestant states, matrimonial (consistorial) courts consisted of both lay and ecclesiastical officials. They had the task of sorting through the debris of failed but legally binding betrothals, abandonments, and adulteries, many of the lawsuits and petitions being introduced by women.7

In this context, the possibility of termination allowed for considerably more civilized endings to matrimonial debacles than those of Henry VIII in England. In 1574, William the Silent divorced one of his wives, Anna of Saxony, for adultery, after thirteen years of marriage and six children. The survival of the co-respondent, who later became the father of the artist Pieter Paul Rubens, made a big difference to the art world. Johann Casimir of Saxe-Coburg divorced another Anna of Saxony, also for adultery, in 1593.

In England, the system was somewhat different. Essentially, however, from the Reformation onwards, the English church operated under legal provisions established by laws passed in Parliament. The marriage vows in the Book of Common Prayer, summarized at the beginning of this essay, were a part of the civil laws of England as well as of the church ceremony. When the Church of England was “in,” they were a legal requirement. During the period of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Parliament abolished them and substituted a system of civil marriages. At the Restoration, the Book of Common Prayer was, like the Merry Monarch, restored. Nearly a century later, such a significant procedural change in regard to matrimony as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 was a civil law that was implemented and executed by ecclesiastical authorities.8 It was Parliament that determined the complex, multi-stage, mixed ecclesiastical and secular, procedure which was the only mode by which an Englishman could obtain divorce during the early modern period.

It was also Parliament which determined that in England, when it came to matters of divorce, the matrimonial vow of fidelity made by both man and wife in the church applied only to the woman when it came to obtaining a divorce on grounds of adultery.

So much for promises.


1 For a general discussion, see Kenneth Stevenson, Nuptial Blessing: A Study of Christian Marriage Rites (Oxford University Press, 1983).

2 Since the overwhelming majority of historical romance heroes and heroines are presented as European and therefore presumably belong to some variety of church that falls within the Christian tradition, whether or not it plays a significant role in their beliefs and actions, the issue here is the promises made within that context. Even when one or the other comes from a non-Christian tradition (e.g. Thomas B. Costain, The Black Rose, 1945), the relationship is almost shown as involving an ultimate monogamous commitment and ultimate settlement of the couple somewhere in Europe. It is statistically astonishing how many of the “sheikhs” from the original to 21st century series romances turn out to be of at least partly European ancestry, educated at European, usually English, schools and universities, and adherents of some form of the Christian faith.

3 This formulation was adopted by John Wesley. In 1792, the Methodist Synod in the United States removed the preface from the wedding ceremony on the grounds that it was “too indelicate.”

4 This led in the French context to the occasional mariage à la gaumine (left-hand marriage) in which a couple who could not obtain permission to marry, perhaps because one of them was excommunicated, or they were more nearly related than canon law permitted, etc., would meet the technical requirements of Tametsi by standing up at a regular Sunday mass and rapidly exchanging the words of consent in the presence of the priest and congregation. Such a marriage was “irregular” in the sense of not occurring through the forms prescribed by law, but was not invalid. If the couple later returned to good standing in the church, obtained the necessary dispensations, or otherwise completed their paperwork properly, they could have the marriage “rehabilitated,” as could Catholic couples who married by exchange of vows in the present tense before non-ecclesiastical witnesses only in the unavailability of a priest (in frontier conditions or, for example, in colonial New York, where it was illegal for a Catholic priest to enter the colony).

5 There’s another version of this reprinted in Searle and Stevenson 1992, 210-214.

6 See Leah Leneman, Alienated Affections: The Scottish Experience of Divorce and Separation, 1684-1830 (Edinburgh University Press, 1998) as compared to Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce, England 1530-1987: A History of the Making and Breaking of Marriage in England (Oxford University Press, 1995).

7 Joel F. Harrington, Reordering marriage and society in Reformation Germany (Cambridge University Press, 1995); Jeffrey R. Watt, The Making of Modern Marriage: Matrimonial Control and the Rise of sentiment in Neuchâtel, 1550-1800 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992).

A Catholic territory, such as Bavaria, did not have the option of divorce with the right to remarriage, but both men and women could petition for “separation from bed and board” if they found their marriage intolerable. See Rainer Beck, “Traces of Emotion? Marital Discord in Early Modern Bavaria,” in: Richard Wall, Tamara K. Hareven, and Josef Ehmer, eds., Family History Revisited: Comparative Perspectives (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, and London: Associated University Presses, 2001), 125-160.

8 Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1987); R.B. Outhwaite, The Rise and Fall of the English Ecclesiastical Courts, 1500-1860 (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

The picture is by Pietro Longhi (1702 - 1785), dates from c. 1755 and is titled "Il Matrimonio." It forms part of a set of seven paintings about "I Sette Sacramenti." The paintings of all seven sacraments can be found at the Querini Stampalia virtual gallery. I obtained a copy of this particular painting, however, from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. What a brilliant article! Thanks so much for the effort that went into this piece. I'll be passing it along to all my friends.

  2. That's fascinating, Virginia. I had a good chortle at "bonoure and buxum [agreeable and compliant], in bed and at borde".

    I'd never heard of the "Protestant doctrinal position that marriage was not a sacrament". A very timely issue, isn't it, with some nations attempting to define marriage.

    You also remind me why angry feminist heroines in historical romance sometimes *do* make sense:
    in England, when it came to matters of divorce, the matrimonial vow of fidelity made by both man and wife in the church applied only to the woman when it came to obtaining a divorce on grounds of adultery.

  3. A very useful summary, Virginia: thank you.
    I have always wondered about the position within the Anglican Church (and others, I suppose) relating to the 'procreation of children' principle if a priest is marrying a couple which will obviously be unable to reproduce.
    The re-marriage of widows past the age of childbearing, or perhaps of a person with an injury or physical condition that makes reproduction impossible (e.g. some types of paralysis) must have taken place from time to time even in the medieval period. After all, regradless of the religious justifications, marriage was chiefly about alliances and property. Is there some liturgical variation that allows for this?

  4. Sorry for the typo; should have proof-read.

  5. Agritigress, the "procreation of children" was just one of the purposes of marriage [associated, in many instance, with "and nurture them in the admonition of the Lord].

    In most times and places of European history, it was considered appropriate for couples to marry for the other purposes (though there were occasional limitations, such as no ecclesiastical blessing for the remarriage of widows in numerous wedding rites, or in the Eastern Orthodox traditions, a prohibition on the remarriage of clergy who became widowers).

    That's one reason that, from the ecclesiastical standpoint, infertility was not considered a reason for either annulment (no matter how many medieval monarchs deeply wished that it was) or divorce.

  6. As a footnote to footnote five, so to speak, there's a handy article on "Clandestinity (in Canon Law)" in Vol. 4 of the 1908 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia ( indicating where and when "Tametsi" was and was not published and considered to be in force by the Catholic church since it was issued by the Council of Trent in 1563.

  7. 'Agtigress, the "procreation of children" was just one of the purposes of marriage'.

    Yes, I know, but if I remember the C of E marriage service correctly (I don't have a copy of the Book of Common Prayer in my library, so can't check the wording), it is the very first thing listed.

    Even though the purposes for which god allegedly 'instituted marriage' would not be affected by the individual circumstances of any given couple, one cannot but feel that a couple that was not in a position to breed would feel rather disturbed by that emphasis, as though they were sadly inadequate candidates for matrimony.

  8. Excellent research, Victoria! Thank you for sharing your work with us.; it's great to have the details of various traditions made so clear. There was quite a bit more diversity to historical European marriage than I had realized!

  9. Agritigress said:
    "Even though the purposes for which god allegedly 'instituted marriage' would not be affected by the individual circumstances of any given couple, one cannot but feel that a couple that was not in a position to breed would feel rather disturbed by that emphasis, as though they were sadly inadequate candidates for matrimony."

    Well, all I can really say is that it was intended as a generic, one-size-fits-all, marriage ceremony, rather than being tailored to individual circumstances. From the biblical citations used, such as "go forth and multiply," to the desire of families for heirs, the fact is that historically, one of the main reasons that the majority of people married, throughout European history, was the desire for legitimate children. There's no use blinking our eyes about this.

    Last summer, my husband and I toured the restored "Huckleberry Finn" house in Hannibal, Missouri. One of the quotations on the wall, explaining to tourists why the museum wasn't whitewashing past living conditions for the eyes of school children, warned against whitewashing the past to make it seem more appropriate to modern tastes.

  10. Here's something else you can look at, Agritigress --
    Charles Donahue, Jr., Law, Marriage, and Society in the Later Middle Ages: Arguments about Marriage in Five Courts (Cambridge University Press, 2007). The printed book is 672 pages. The editors made him take a lot of detail out, so he's put pages 673-976 online at

    The five courts are York, Ely, Paris, Cambrai, and Brussels; the time period is from the late 13th into the 15th centuries.

    The procreation of children simply was important in the medieval and early modern legal view of the purposes of marriage. Donahue points out that although impotence (impotentia coeundi) at the time of marriage -- unlike infertility after marriage -- was a grounds for annulment according to Catholic canon law, unless one of the partner's complained, it was never publicly known. Consequently, there were probably many older couples who married for land/alliance/power etc. who lived in marriages that were never "perfected" in the view of canon law by the occurrence of intercourse, but nonetheless functioned to the satisfaction of the husband and wife.

    As a side note, this book, especially the online section, is an absolute gold mine of medieval names for authors.

  11. Thanks for the reference, Virginia, but if I were to get deeply and seriously into marriage law and custom, I should really spend the time on 'my' period (1st-5thC AD) rather than that recent medieval era... ;-)

    "The procreation of children simply was important in the medieval and early modern legal view of the purposes of marriage".

    Of course it was: that has been the case in most societies, for a multitude of reasons. I think we are slightly at cross purposes here. I am not challenging the role of reproduction as a major purpose of marriage, but only the way in which that is expressed in the Anglican liturgy.

    Other pretty important reasons for marriage, at least amongst the privileged classes, such as the accumulation of wealth/land and the cementing of important social and political alliances, don't make it into the Christian liturgy at all. The bit about love and companionship - I forget how it is expressed - does get in there, but it is the last thing on the list of god's assumed aims, after the bit about marriage being jolly useful for preventing promiscuity (I forget the wording of that, too. Damn, I don't want to have to buy a Book of Common Prayer).

    The fact that marriages might be barre, some predictably so, has always seemed to me to make that insistence of reproduction, right up at the top of the list, curiously tactless, to say the least. But I suppose tact and sensitivity to people's feelings is not very high on the priorities of those who believe themselves to be passing on the word of the deity!

  12. 'Barren', I meant to write, of course.

  13. The bit about love and companionship - I forget how it is expressed - does get in there

    As you say, it's the third and last item on the list of reasons given in the introduction:

    Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

    and in the vows themselves there's the promise to "love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her" and the one to "love, honour, and keep him" (which comes after the promise to "obey him, and serve him").

    after the bit about marriage being jolly useful for preventing promiscuity (I forget the wording of that, too.

    That's second on the list:

    Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body

    Though there is another bit, earlier in the introduction, in which the couple (and congregation) are informed that marriage is

    not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding

  14. This story made the news recently:

    Impotent paraplegic told: no church wedding

    June 9, 2008 - 3:52PM

    An Italian bishop has reportedly told a young paraplegic he cannot have a church wedding because he is impotent, despite his fiancee being aware of the problem.

    Salvatore de Ciuco, spokesman for Bishop Lorenzo Chiarinelli of Viterbo in central Italy, told SkyTG24 television: "No bishop, no priest can celebrate a wedding when he knows of admitted impotence as it is a motive for annulment" of the marriage.

    The 26-year-old groom, who took part in a civil marriage ceremony on Saturday in Viterbo, has been paraplegic since he was involved in a car accident.

    The curate of the parish who was banned from marrying the couple was present at the ceremony.

    There was a similar incident in Brazil; and I remember reading about one some years back in the US, I think. I don't know if that one was Roman Catholic or some other denomination.

  15. You don't need to buy the Book of Common Prayer. It's online and Laura put in the link:

  16. Tal: notwithstanding the fact that failure to consummate a marriage is grounds for annulment, I should have thought that the Bishop concerned (and the Churches concerned) should think this through more.

    If the REAL reason for refusing a marry a couple is that it is known that they cannot breed, then the churches concerned should be refusing to marry post-menopausal women. Are they?

    And the other side of the coin is that paralysis that makes it impossible for a male to have intercourse does not in all cases destroy his fertility; he may still produce viable sperm, with which his wife could be impregnated by medical means.

    I'm not sure why I am discussing this, really: as you will all have noticed, I despise and resent the wording of the Anglican marriage service (and no doubt the RC too, if I were familiar with it).

  17. Note to Virginia: It's AgTigress, not AgriTigress: she's a silver feline, not a farming feline!

    And we hear all the time about senior citizens getting married, sometimes when both are in nursing homes. I suspect that RC rules are more liberal in the US, as well as those of other churches.

    I DO wish I could remember the original story, which I came across years ago; I'm reasonably sure it did NOT deal with a Catholic marriage, because I think that that fact surprised me.

  18. If you check the secular laws of most states in the US, you will find that non-consummation (but not infertility) is grounds for annulment. In most states, it makes a marriage voidable.

    I apologize for mis-reading AgTigress' name. May I blame it on my bifocals or should I do penance?

  19. Very interesting article and debate; though I don't have much to add to it I've enjoyed reading the discussion.

  20. Virginia said: I apologize for mis-reading AgTigress' name. May I blame it on my bifocals or should I do penance?

    Penance. Go out and catch her a couple of dik-dik.

    WV: hixcb--redneck cellphone substitute

  21. "If you check the secular laws of most states in the US, you will find that non-consummation (but not infertility) is grounds for annulment".

    That's true elsewhere, too, but because in earlier centuries natural copulation was pretty well a sine qua non for conception, my point is that a ridiculous logical muddle has developed about which aspect is the one that negates a marriage - failure to mate, or predictable/deliberate failure to conceive. In the past, a man who was unable to have intercourse with his wife, or who refused to do so (cf. the biblical Onan - yes, I know, other elements there, but his 'sin' was to refuse to attempt to impregnate his deceased brother's wife, as custom required) would be, by definition, refusing to allow any chance of pregnancy.

    I think that the primacy of the 'procreation' rule is what is at the root of all this, confirmed by the official stance of the RCs on contraception. In other words, I think that the Christian point of view is chiefly about reproduction rather than coitus. If that is the case, then marriages in which conception can now take place without sexual intercourse should be valid, and those in which conception cannot take place, even with sexual intercourse, should not (known infertility of either partner, hysterectomy, menopause).

    I am simply saying that I think the Churches - Anglican and RC at least - have got their knickers in a twist over this. They are still applying the standards of the Middle Ages to the Modern era: they are ignoring the possibilities of sex without babies and babies without sex, and they have not stated clearly whether it is breeding or bonding that now matters most to them. Of course, it was breeding (hence the order of that list in the C of E service - and ultimately the 'breeding, but only within marriage' rule is a property rule), but do they hold to this? I think there is a lot of sloppy, non-rigorous thinking behind it all.

  22. AgTigress, they are not ignoring it: the RCC has officially come out against in vitro fertilization, surrogate pregnancies, artificial insemination, and the rest of the "unnatural" options.

    I think a major element in the Christian view of sex, in and out of marriage, is a bass-ackwards reading of Genesis that makes intercourse the cause of the Fall rather than the result--the cause being DISOBEDIENCE. Part of this is the theological ukase that they could never have unfallen sex, because such an act would inevitably have resulted in procreation, and their firstborn was Cain. And the whole bit of God's judgement pronounced against Eve---"I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee"---is taken literally; in the early days after the invention of ether, doctors often refused to administer it to women in childbirth, no matter how difficult and painful the labor, even if it killed her, because of the "curse of Eve." It didn't become a routine part of childbirth until Queen Victoria had it, I think with the birth of her fifth child.

    Christianity (unlike Christ) has always associated sex with sin and punishment, its existence justified only by the necessity of procreation. The opposition to contraception is based in part on the fact that it allows "sinful" women engaging in illicit sex to escape the consequence of their actions.

    1. Not "always;" more like "the vast majority of the time from the entrance into the church of converts from Stoicism up until the last couple of centuries." The Bible makes no such association (and the New Testament documents speak straightforwardly as though Mary was assumed to have been a good wife after the birth of Christ and to have presented Joseph with several other children); but you find Clement of Alexandria saying "We Christians believe..." and then spouting Seneca rather than Paul. Look up the 1559 Anglican Prayer Book online: you will find it baldly stated that marriage "is an honorable state, instytuted of God in Paradise, in the time of manes innocencie [note: NOT after the fall, despite the rather desperate attempts of celibate clergy to turn sex, rather than divorce, into a post-Fall innovation of a God who was as disgusted by sex as the monks were], signiflyng unto us the mistical union that is betwixt Christ and his Churche: which holy state Christe adourned and beautified with his presence and firste myracle that he wrought in Cana of Galile, and is commended of sainct Paul to be honourable emong [that is, held in honor by] all men." When Jesus is discussing marriage with the Saducees he discusses God's original design for marriage and contrasts it to the special arrangements made to deal with mankind's fallenness; but it is divorce, not sex, that represents the deviation from the original design. It is foolish to speak as though "the Christian view of sex" is a monolithic view defined and controlled by post-first-century neo-Corinthian Catholics.

  23. Yes, yes - I understand all that, Tal, but it still appears to me fundamentally illogical.

    If reproduction (only within marriage, so that the father's property rights are observed) is such a desirable aim, it is simply not logical to reject assisted conception - just as it is not logical to refuse to marry an impotent male, but not a post-menopausal woman.

    Indeed, since sex is looked upon with such a jaundiced eye, it would be a more rational response to declare that conception without coitus is particularly meritorious.

    I just think that they have not thought these things through according to any kind of logic that appears reasonable to the detached bystander.

  24. Thanks for this! helpful for an essay I am writing about Margery Kempe. (I'm not a fan of hers, full disclosure) but thank you!

  25. Talpianna, 11 years after your comment, I note it and, with no quibbling, I concur. At one time, I was as narrow and curmudgeonly as any, but as I have seen more of life, I have come to realize that many of the most spitefully and superciliously prudish people, have missed the most urgent and essential basis of morality:due regard to unselfish live of neighbor.
    Foisting misery upon two consenting adults, where their quality of life and the enjoyment of its abundance, includes mutual intimate, activity, is hardly conducive to respect, joy, peace, or free-will, the which is, above other matters, the hallmark of human definition. I daresay, to the extent that usurpation of free-will, where exercise thereof does not imperil the actual rights of other humans, does itself infringe upon the personal and private freedom of another, such limitation is itself immoral. Indeed, wherein the expositors of these limits are themselves often not practitioners of any sort of such intimacy, I consider it to be, to some extent, prurient and base. I equate it with the indignation of a congregational matron, at the sight of a skirt above the knee, who has no hesitation to ask young couple why they have no children (which alludes to a specific hypocritically inappropriate interest). I am sorry to say, that I hardly think it was for spite that humans were created capable of venery more than twice a year, and I find it rather illogical that anyone should suddenly put strictures on a pleasant and unifying interaction just because of the appurtenances involved.