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Medieval Canon Law

Medieval Canon Law

One of the primary areas of concern for medieval family law was the regulation concerning the formation and dissolution of marriage. Paper Masters can custom write a research paper on any aspect of Medieval Canon Law, not just marriage. You tell us exactly what you need written.

The secular authorities generally ceded jurisdiction over the issue of marriage formation to the canon courts, whose right to hear such matters was well established in the majority of European lands by the ninth century. In general, the issues regarding marriage formation focused on whether the individuals were legally capable of marrying and whether an actual marriage had taken place, while the issue regarding dissolution centered on whether there were legal grounds to annul the marriage.

Determining whether a marriage existed and when it had been formed was particularly important to the nobility in medieval society due to its legal rules regarding primogeniture and patrilinear inheritance. In this system the following applied:

  • The eldest son received the full estate of the father less allowances for the widow such as dower.
  • Daughters and younger brothers produced in the marriage receiving no inheritance, but may have had property settled on them during the lifetime of the father.
  • If the first-born son of the union had been born before the marriage had taken place or if the marriage was invalid, the son was no longer entitled to inherit the estate.

Under medieval canon law, a marriage was accepted as valid when a man and a woman exchanged mutual consent to marry, provided that they were free to marry, their consent was voluntary, and it was given in the present tense. An individual was free to marry by being of lawful age, not currently married to anyone else, not bound by a vow of chastity and not prohibited from marriage by the rules of consanguinity. If the individuals exchanged vows in the future tense rather than the present tense, the marriage was recognized when it was physically consummated.This type of arrangement was often used in political marriages when one or both of the marriage partners were very young. The age of consent was generally related to the onset of puberty, but in some circumstances was considered as low as seven years of age. In addition, canon law had evolved a very complex set of consanguinity rules to determine if a close family relationship between the prospective partners prohibited the marriage. Canon law further required that couples announce their intention to marry before exchanging vows, that the exchange of vows occurs publicly and that a priest be present to witness the vows. These secondary conditions, however, were not considered essential for a valid marriage. Nonetheless, some of these elements had to be established in order to validate a secret marriage in order to prove that the exchange of vows had actually taken place. This became an issue when the right of an heir produced by a clandestine marriage to inherit was challenged.

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