Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Was marriage about treating women as chattel?

When I debate women on social media it is surprising how often a particular view of the past emerges. There are women who hold firmly to the belief that prior to recent times women were viewed as chattel, i.e., as property, and that marriage as an institution existed as a kind of property transfer of women from one man to another.

I have just finished a book by Judith Hurwich, an adjunct professor specialising in family history. Titled Noble Strategies: Marriage and Sexuality in the Zimmern Chronicle, it focuses on the nobility of southwest Germany in the period 1400 to 1600, though she also makes many comparisons to the family life of nobles elsewhere in Western Europe. 

Recreating the Landshut Wedding of 1475

It should be noted that it is difficult to describe marriage practices exactly as they existed in the European past, because there was variation across time, place and social class. Nonetheless, a solid picture emerges in Judith Hurwich's book about the main motivating factors surrounding marriage in this era.

To summarise, there were two main influences on family life among the nobility at this time. The first was a lay model of marriage based around duty to kin. For the nobility, the main aim was to preserve the noble lineage, both in the sense of producing heirs, but also marrying upward rather than downward. To succeed in this aim was difficult and required a strategy that involved both sexes. 

The second influence, one that apparently grew in power over time, was an ecclesiastical model of marriage, in which the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, harmonious and even affectionate relationships was emphasised. The nobility was less influenced by the Church model than was the urban patriciate, but nonetheless it made inroads into the aristocratic culture of family life.

Dowries & morning gifts

In order for a woman to marry, her family had to pay a very large sum of money, the dowry, to the groom. The amount of money depended on the wealth and status of the family. The bride also brought her trousseau, consisting of clothing, jewelry and silver plate. The groom's family, for their part, provided the bride with a morning gift, usually between one third and one half the value of the dowry. This became the property of the bride and was used by her as income during the marriage. The bride was also entitled to a pension and an estate to live on, if and when she became a widow. The amount of the pension was a return on land equivalent in value to the dowry and morning gift.

The dowry was a sizeable sum of money for noble families - a considerable drain on the family assets. Therefore, it was considered to be a "premortem" inheritance, i.e., an inheritance given to the bride whilst her parents still lived. Daughters receiving a dowry were therefore expected to renounce their right to a postmortem inheritance, though they could do so with conditions attached. For instance, daughters might still inherit the parental estate if they outlived their brothers.

What all this suggests is that financial considerations were indeed an important aspect of marriage, but not in a way that made of women themselves "chattel". 

Noble strategies 

In Germany there was a system of partible inheritance rather than primogeniture. It was considered unfair for the oldest son alone to inherit, and therefore estates would be divided among all the sons. This meant, however, that families needed just the right amount of sons. Not enough and the lineage might die out. Too many and the family estate would lose too much land.

And so there was a system in which many sons were not allowed to marry. The sons who were not chosen to marry might join the church as cathedral canons. They might as unmarried men have concubines, i.e., they might have a long term relationship with a woman of lower social status who would bear them illegitimate children. But these children had no claim on the family estate.

Similarly, a certain number of daughters could not marry. A family had to think strategically. They could give all the daughters a smaller dowry, which meant that they would marry downwards into a lower social caste. Or the family wealth could be concentrated into one or two larger dowries, allowing some daughters to marry upward and gain prestige and powerful social connections for the family.

In general, a higher percentage of daughters than sons were able to marry. What I believe this demonstrates is that marriage was not so much organised around "women as chattel" but around maintaining the lineage and noble prestige of the family. Both sexes were expected to play their role in achieving this aim.

Harmony & affection

Among the nobility marriages were arranged, often through an intermediary, who might be an older relative (of either sex) or a powerful connection. Older bachelors with no living parents might sometimes take on the role of arranging a marriage themselves.

The fact that marriages were arranged does not mean that they were always without affection or even that the parties concerned did not have some influence in the process. The  Christian ideal of marriage as a loving, personal, faithful spousal union gained increasing acceptance in society, albeit more gradually in the noble class:

Medieval German marriage sermons had long emphasized that the goal of marriage was "loyalty, peace and harmony," which could be achieved only through the efforts of both spouses. For example, a sermon of 1449 describes emotional harmony (concordia animorum) as a major goal of marrige and gives a list of commandments on how to achieve love in marriage. (p.149)

Some noble marriages most certainly achieved a genuine marital love:

The Danish princess Dorothea wrote in 1535 to her husband Duke Albrecht of Brandenburg, "I cannot conceal from you how every night, and especially when I have just received your letters, all I dream is that I am lying with my husband, dearest to my heart, and share all joy and pastime with you." The funeral sermon preached for Dorothea in 1547 said, "There was such mutual love between the spouses that one can truly use the old saying, "Though their bodies are two, their hearts are one". (p.151)

There were also unhappy marriages. One historian has estimated that about 10 percent of noble marriages broke down. Interestingly, 69 percent of legal applications made for judicial separation in the ecclesiastical court at Constance were initiated by women (p.166), a number that has changed little from today.

Noblemen of that era had the option of taking a concubine. They could install a woman from a lower social class in a house outside the castle and visit her and his illegitimate children. It was considered socially acceptable among the nobility as long as protocol was not violated: it was improper for the concubine to be treated better than the wife. Interestingly, it was thought a deep violation of the social code if the concubine exercised the type of sway over the nobleman that was thought to be the proper preserve of his wife. Over time, and under the influence of Christian morality, laws were passed against concubinage, but the nobility were powerful enough to resist these measures.

What caused marriages to break down? Interestingly, there are historians who believe that the shift toward companionate ideals of marriage might have played some role:

Stone regards the increase in marital breakdown in the course of the sixteenth century as the product of middle-class and Puritan values - rising expectations of affection and companionship in marriage, coupled with increasing public disapproval of the mistresses and illegitimate children who had previously provided a relief, at least for men, in arranged marriages.

Finally, there is the issue of choice of marriage partners. The extent to which young people had a say in marriage partner seems to have varied. Judith Hurwich cites examples where young nobles had no choice at all, but were expected to follow the wishes of the family. However, increasingly young people were able to exercise at least some choice. By the late 1400s, the children of the urban elite were actively participating in their own marriage negotiations. According to Judith Hurwich, they wanted the potential for affection to exist and could veto parental choices when this was absent (pp. 105-106).

Judith Hurwich summarises recent research on the customs of the English aristocracy as follows:

even before 1550, there was some room for personal affection and free choice of partners, and daughters as well as sons had the power to veto partners they disliked. Many sixteenth-century English peers in their testaments cautioned executors against forcing their daughters into marriages to which the women objected. (pp. 106-107).


You could not read Judith Hurwich's history and come away thinking that noble marriage was organised around the concept of women as chattel. Rather, both sexes shared the aim of maintaining a noble lineage, and it is clear that marital practices were organised to a considerable degree to achieve this outcome. Nor was the ideal of concord and affection in marriage absent. Much of Judith Hurwich's history is focused on how these two distinct aims were managed and reconciled.


  1. I suspect that the central issue at play is not whether women got any say in their marriages or how good or bad their treatment in such marriages was or even how similarly or dissimilarly men were treated but that in our modern age we are absolutely allergic to any concept of authority. After all, nearly identical arguments could be made for children (who are passed around to different authorities (“guardians” is our less offensive-to-moderns euphemism) in nearly the same way) and yet in that case I suspect most would see that calling children “property” because of this would be absurd (at least until it becomes the vogue to eliminate parental authority entirely).

    For similar reasons particularly ideologically liberal men in the past (and to some extent today, when illiberal proposals are suggested) will make silly claims that in a monarchy every man is “property” of the king, i.e. his slave. Since the revolution to abolish any authority over men has been complete for many decades now, I think we’ve become unaware that we’re even allergic to it, unaware that it could even exist, unaware that we’re even rebels since there’s no one visible we’re rebelling against.

    An authority that has remained (because it is inherent to marriage) is that of husband over wife, and so the fact that nearly all women are in rebellion is much more obvious. The female allergy to any authority, the notion that under previous (non-liberal) social orders being passed from the authority of a father to the authority of a husband was equivalent to slavery[1], is also therefore much more obvious because they’re still fighting the fight. Women still have husbands to resent and rebel against and the still very real possibility that they might end up under the power of a man.

    Fathers have largely given up the job, as the job of preventing daughters from self-destructing is a difficult and thankless one if they’re willfully for it, but husbands by nature are likely to still end up with power over their wives. The only remedy is to try to give women as much power over their husbands as possible, as this is the only real guard against husbandly power over women; no doubt why feminists advocate it. We don’t have to worry about kings, but we do have to worry about husbands.

    [1] Itself imagined to be something other than what it was and is, a sort of inverse of or Hell-on-Earth to the absolutely “free” liberal superman where he passes from a state of total “freedom” to total “unfreedom”, and therefore might as well be a reduction to subhumanity. I suspect this is why moderns seem to think that “slavery” is the worst state a human could ever be in.

    1. Spot on. I almost added a postscript of my own that I didn't expect the post to persuade any feminist readers because "women as chattel" really just stands in for "women did not have the power to do whatever they had a will to do". Which is true. Women were not chattel but there was a patriarchy in the sense that a senior father in the family did have authority to lead the extended family.

  2. Marrying up was mostly aspirational as only one person in a marriage can achieve it. The other had to necessarily marry down.

    A marriage could be looked at as joining two families not individuals. You gain a spouse as well as a host of in-laws, nieces, nephews, cousins for your children. Separating from a spouse cost you valuable connections.

    For centuries, Anglo-Saxon peasants chose their own spouses. Their choices were generally very limited. The possible partners included other peasants mostly from your own village except for the few able to travel. With no family fortune to lose, families had less interest in the outcome.

    No photographs and peasants rarely saw paintings so the prettiest face you saw was alway up close, in person.