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To wrap up my comments on The White Queen, I’ll end with two small points about late medieval religion.


We’re Going to the Chapel and We’re Gonna Get Married

In the first episode, Edward IV (Max Irons) has a clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) before a priest, with her mother as the only real witness. Elizabeth assumes this means they are married, but then her brother Anthony (Ben Lamb) warns her that the whole thing could have been a sham marriage with a fake priest. That allows the rest of the episode to milk drama out of whether Edward will acknowledge the marriage or not.

But it’s a serious misrepresentation of the way medieval marriage law worked. By the 9th century, it was becoming established that marriage was governed by canon law, the law of the Church, making religious officials the final arbiters of who was and wasn’t married. Initially, the emphasis was placed on two basic principles: only monogamous marriage was permitted and divorce was not. Other issues quickly got draw in as well, including the famous prohibition on consanguinity—medieval canon law defined a wide range of relationships as within the bounds of incest and therefore unacceptable as marriage partners (eventually, one could get a dispensation on this from high religious officials).


Edward and Elizabeth consummating their marriage

But it wasn’t until the 12th and 13th centuries that canon lawyers and theologians began to tackle one of the thorniest and most surprising questions. Was sex required for marriage? The obvious answer was ‘yes’. Since reproduction was seen as the purpose of marriage, it stood to reason that an unconsummated marriage was not a true one. But that ran smack up against one of the most celebrated pieces of medieval theology, the assertion that Jesus’ mother had remained a virgin her entire life. If sex was required for marriage, then Mary and Joseph were not married.

Such a conclusion was unacceptable, because it meant that Mary and Joseph were living together immorally and Jesus had been raised in sin. So by the 13th century, canon lawyers had figured out a work-around–there was more than one way to make a marriage, and it all depended on what vows were exchanged. If the wedding vows were phrased in the present tense, then they constituted a legitimate marriage regardless of whether sex happens or not. If, on the other hand, the vows were phrased in the future tense, they constituted a legal marriage only if consummation happens later. So if Edward said to Elizabeth something like “I marry you” (using words of the present tense), they were married, even if they never have sex. But if he said “I will marry you” (using words of the future tense), the marriage was not truly made until the couple has sex. So medieval theologians could be certain that Mary and Joseph had been legally married because they must have exchanged their vows in the present tense.

On the other hand, canon lawyers said that there was one thing that wasn’t required for a legitimate marriage, and that was the presence of a priest. Unlike any other sacrament (except emergency baptism), marriage did not require the presence of a priest, although the Church strongly recommended that one be present to bless the couple and to act as a witness. This meant that clandestine marriages (like the one Elizabeth and Edward had) was a huge issue in late medieval law courts. There were numerous cases in which a person came forward claiming that they had secretly married someone else years before. This was most common in matters of inheritance, but other issues could come up as well.


A medieval marriage (note the absence of a priest)

The fact that clandestine marriages were still valid ones is the main reason for that old cliché in Hollywood marriage scenes—the moment when the priest says “If anyone can show a good reason why these two should not be joined in marriage, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” What it’s basically saying is “Does anyone know if either of these people has already participated in a clandestine marriage?” That’s also why the traditional wedding vow is “I do,” not “I will.” It’s words of the present tense, to eliminate any uncertainty about whether the marriage was legitimate.

I suspect that most 15th century nobles would have known this, since marriage was a huge issue politically and socially for them. So it’s likely that Anthony, Elizabeth, and Edward would probably all have understood that the language used at the ceremony was what mattered. So when Anthony is questioning his sister’s marriage, what he would have focused on is not whether Edward provided a fake priest, because a fake priest can still preside over a real marriage. What he would be asking is “what words did you use in the vow?” And if Elizabeth says “I will marry you,” he’d follow up with “have you had sex since then?”

The episode skips the actual ceremony but shows the couple in bed together soon afterward, so regardless of which vows they exchanged, by the time Anthony is talking to his sister, Edward and Elizabeth are husband and wife legally.


Shuffling Off This Mortal Coil

Several characters die in their beds in this series: Isabel Neville, Jacquetta, Edward IV, Lady Beauchamp, and Anne Neville. Isabel’s happens off-stage, but Anne shows up immediately afterward. and Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) walks out of Lady Beauchamp’s before her mother dies. The other three all get to die on camera. But there’s something missing in all of these scenes. The priest.

Edward dying

Why is no one bleeding this man? He’s obviously dying!

Later medieval religion had a highly-developed body of rituals around the process of dying, because dying was one of the most spiritually-perilous things that could happen to a person. If the Devil tricked a dying person into abandoning their faith in a moment of despair, there was a strong chance that person would go to Hell. So it was assumed that the dying process was a moment when a person needed as much spiritual support and assistance as possible.

The ideal death, in the late medieval mind, was dying in bed surrounded by family and community and priest. This is not because it was a chance to say goodbye, but because these people would help the dying person to die well. In a full death-bed ritual, when it becomes clear (or seems likely) that someone will die soon, a priest is sent for and the local community and family of the person will gather at the death-bed. The priest will arrive and will do a variety of rituals: saying the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary with the dying person, anointing the person with consecrated oil, presenting the person with a crucifix and asking him or her to kiss it, asking the person to affirm their faith, and performing a final confession. Unlike the normal private confession, this confession is usually public, so the dying Edward will be asked about all his sins toward his loved ones gathered around him, and those gathered may well suggest things he ought to confess. Final reconciliations with those he has quarreled with may be sought, to reduce the time in Purgatory.

In the case of a king or queen, there’s an added political dimension. The king needs to make clear who is going to succeed him. This would already have been legally determined, but a death-bed statement helps strengthen the new king’s legitimacy. If the heir is a minor, the king needs to declare who ought to govern and have charge of his son. The death of a king or queen needs to be above reproach and clearly not a case of murder, so witnesses needed to be present who aren’t just the family, such as the Chancellor or the Treasurer.


Jacquetta’s death-bed

The White Queen mostly gets that part right. Edward is asked about who is going to governing for his son and so on. But for some reason, none of these important people die with a priest present, and the emphasis is entirely on the emotional reactions of their loved ones. There’s no hint these men and women lived in a society in which religion played a major role and that they probably had some concern for the state of their souls. The only character for whom religion seems to matter is Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and even she barely seems to interact with a priest; there’s no priest at her mother Lady Beauchamp’s death-bed and she spitefully quarrels with her mother, which medieval society would have seen as horrificially impious. Every high noble family would have had a chaplain on its staff, and kings and queens would have had personal confessors who functioned as spiritual advisors and guides, but none of these characters meet with a confessor.

Obviously, the religious elements have been largely stripped out of the story because modern audiences aren’t generally interested in such things, and elaborate death-bed rituals would get in the way of what modern audiences really want to see, which is lots of tearful goodbyes or final turns of the knife (in the case of Lady Beauchamp and her bitter daughter Margaret). But in a series that genuinely tried to get the basic historical facts right, it’s a damn shame that they didn’t include at least a few elements of the late medieval death ritual.

Also, because I doubt I’ll ever have a genuine reason to post it, I feel compelled to post what is, in my opinion, the greatest graphic for a scholarly book ever printed. It’s from James Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, and it flowcharts the sexual decision-making process that early medieval penitential manuals theoretically expected a couple to go through when deciding whether to have sex. By the 10th century, these manuals were no longer being so fussy, so there was only a period of about 200 years when this model might have applied. But it’s too beautiful to pass up.



Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

If you want to know more about medieval ideas about marriage, a good starting point is Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and Family in the Middle AgesTheir books are directed more at laymen than scholars, and this one does a pretty good job of surveying the evolution of medieval ideas about marraige and family structure.

If you really want to dig into the legal issues around marriage, there is no better book than James Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval EuropeI had the pleasure of having Brundage as my undergraduate advisor, and that flowchart is absolutely typical of his dry sense of humor. But don’t be fooled; this is a very scholarly book and not for the faint of heart.

If you’re curious about late medieval dying rituals, John Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History might be a good place to go. Although it’s specifically about the Bubonic Plague hitting England in 1347-48, it has a very good chapter on the rituals of dying (which the Black Death proved a perfect storm against).

Purchasing any of these books through their links is a great way to support this blog, since I get a small percentage of the proceeds and you get to learn something.