Date of Degree
Literature in English, British Isles | Medieval Studies | Women's Studies
British Isles, Middle English, Late Middle Ages, family studies, gender
Studies of marriage and family can help us learn how medieval women lived. This dissertation focuses on “consent theory,” which explains the medieval definition of marriage. According to the Church, a marriage was made valid by the couple’s consent, not outside pressures. This theory, as we might expect, conflicted with practice: children—daughters especially—were expected to be obedient to their parents and marry approved partners.
Medieval England’s legal system came down on both sides of the issue. Rape accusations were made by parents who disapproved of their daughter’s choices, and court cases evaluated the validity of a marriage made without parental approval. Scholars such as Shannon McSheffrey and Frederick Pedersen have shown us how medieval women navigated such a dilemma. But although these historians have discussed marital consent in depth, scholars of medieval English literature often only allude to it, with studies of literary consent centering on rape, not marriage. Additionally, for many of the texts in which this issue features prominently, such as the 14th-century romance The King of Tars and William Caxton’s Blanchardyn and Eglantine, these topics are explored little in favor of others like conversion and patronage.
For this project, therefore, I bring historical knowledge of marital consent to bear on how it is portrayed in literature. I examine literary works in the context of laws, court cases, conduct v texts, and letters to see how the literature both reflected and critiqued historical practices. I also consider medieval literature in conjunction with modern theories, particularly Jacques Derrida’s work on the “decision.” The medieval decision to marry is a clear example of the ethical dilemma Derrida says is inherent in all decision-making between earthly obligations and those to a higher power. In this case, the sacred vows made to one’s spouse (or to someone like a spouse, such as a courtly lover) could take precedence over filial obedience.
I begin with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women, which conflict over this dilemma, and show how the issues brought up in both texts are resolved in “The Man of Law’s Tale.” This leads me to Chapter 2 on The King of Tars and John Gower’s “Tale of Apollonius of Tyre” in the Confessio Amantis, which combine parental support and filial obedience to satisfy both individual desire and political needs. The texts of Chapter 3, Blanchardyn and Eglantine and the Charlemagne romance The Sultan of Babylon, further show how female characters, in these cases, Saracen princesses, could affect their countries’ political futures through marriage. This message likely resonated with the patron of the former, Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother. Patrons also figure in Chapter 4, as Osbern Bokenham’s Legendys of Hooly Wummen, which I read next to John Capgrave’s Life of St. Katherine, were written for married women and couples. I conclude looking at mother’s perspectives throughout these texts.
Through my reading of this wide variety of works, I find that consent is very much emphasized in literature, with “good” parents supporting their children’s choices and “bad” parents, who were also often non-Christian, trying to prevent these marriages from occurring. This emphasis thus suggests that we reconsider the opposition between medieval and modern ideas of gender, with marriage as one area in which medieval women could have some freedom.
Alberghini, Jennifer R., "Divided Loyalties: Family and Consent to Marriage in Late Middle English Literature, 1300–1500" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.
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