Thursday, 30 June 2016

JEH 67/3: Marriage and other capital crimes

Normally the Journal of Ecclesiastical History stipulates that articles should be no more than 8000 words in length, so running to under 20 pages. Occasionally, for a really strong piece, we’re willing to stretch that a little, especially if the extension is in response to our recommendations for revision. So it tells you something that the new edition includes a 55-page article. André Vitória’s ‘Two Weddings and a Lawsuit’ is really quite a piece. More than half of that page extent consists of appendices, transcribing in full a set of court documents in Portuguese found in the Vatican archives.
A Portuguese matrimonial dispute from 1369 involving nobody anyone has ever heard of might not seem to be the most promising basis for an article. But a three things set this apart.
First, Vitória can write. This is academic prose at its best – precise, scholarly, but full of life and spirit. All too rare, especially when united with top-notch research as it is here.
Second, he has a terrific story to tell. The unfolding mess of bigamy, secret marriages, theft, family feuds and deception is as gripping as any court-based microhistory you may care to name.
This is not a new Martin Guerre, however, since the documents aren’t extensive enough to allow it. What it is, and this is the third and the genuinely important point, is a window into how both ecclesiastical law and civil law touched everyday life in an ordinary corner of medieval Europe. What Vitória has done is to demonstrate how closely all the participants in the dispute – except perhaps the hapless bigamist at its centre, whose crime could have and possibly did cost him his life – understood where the legal fault-lines were, and shaped their testimony and their behaviour accordingly.
Much of this hinges around the tension between marriage as a public event, defined socially, a matter of family and property; and marriage as a sacrament, a private and perhaps secret commitment between two individuals. The theology was clear and, in the medieval social context, terribly impractical. Secret marriage was easy to contract and impossible to prove. Or, as Vitória felicitously puts it: ‘A slip of the tongue was all it took to create an indissoluble marriage; stout denial all it took to end it.’ We’ve rarely been shown with more care how those problems actually played out in the reality of people’s lives.

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