Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages

Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages
Joseph and Frances Gies, © 1987
Harper & Row, New York
369 pages.

This week I continued reading Gies, this time one of their books concerning changes in the family during the middle ages -- from late Roman times until roughly 1500 and the Renaissance. The authors begin by looking at the way three institutions shaped the medieval family: the Roman family, the Germanic family, and the Christian church. After this, the book moves chronologically -- Early Middle Ages, High Middle Ages, and Late Middle Ages. The Gies deal with peasants and aristocrats seperately, using specific towns to explore differences.

The book is well-written, which is what I have come to expect from the Gies. In certain sections, the Gies focused on particular families and I found some of the more extended passages to be uninteresting, but for the most part the book is captivating. What I enjoyed most about the book is that it broke the simplistic idea that medieval culture was monlithic. The impression that I had was that the lords and churchmen held absolute sway over the peasants and that the church have this massively strong cult of anti-sexuality going on, so much to the point that even sex outside of marriage was frowned upon.

The authors show that reality varied tremendously in all aspects. I'll mention a few points from the book as an example:
  • While marriage is regarded as a religious institution, it did not become customary for people to take their vows inside a church until the late 1400s.
  • Some medieval personalities maintained that such vows were unnecessary -- that so long as two people committed themselves to one another, consumated their union, and showed 'marital affection' toward one another that they were married.
  • In the realm of disicpline toward children, not all attitudes were 'medieval'. Two men were mentioned as having rather 24th century attitudes toward raising children -- treating them with respect, sympathy, and responsibily rather than with fear.
  • Gies again wrote on the life of peasants and their limited self-government.
The Gies don't only just write about family structure and relations: they also describe the physical makeup of homes that medieval families lived in. There's a lot of information here, and it's presented quite well. Were I ever in the position of reccommending a book on this subject, this particular book would be a recommendation.

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