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Medieval Family Law

Medieval Family Law

During the medieval period, laws regarding family, children and same sex marriage were based on the concurrent jurisdiction between the secular authorities and the church. The jurisdictional boundaries between the secular and religious aspects of the law, however, were often indistinct, which resulted in a degree of overlap and interrelated influence. In this context, medieval church courts claimed and often exercised authority over the majority of the matters that impacted families, such as marriage regulations, issues regarding the legitimacy of children and laws regarding sexual behavior. Secular law generally exercised jurisdiction over issues of property rights, relying on the findings of the canon court on controlling issues such as the validity of a marriage or the paternity of a child.

The underlying objective of family law during the period was to address the following issues:

  1. Insure conformity to the norms established by both the religious and secular authorities for family behavior
  2. To remove from society anyone who harbored heretical beliefs regarding the established norm.
  3. Medieval family law was coercive in that it attempted to prompt members of society to behave in a particular manner based on fear of punishment.

The way in which canon law affected secular law and the extent of its jurisdiction was often dependant on the level of authority that custom and tradition granted to the secular courts in various European lands. In general, the greater the distance from Rome, the greater the authority of the secular courts to adjudicate family issues, and the lower the influence of cannon law in shaping the outcome of family issues. The Bishops' courts heard the majority of family issues, with the decisions used as a basis for any further litigation regarding property rights that took place in secular courts.

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