How easily are Carolingian women ruined?

In a discussion over on Jon Jarrett’s site on early medieval masters having sex with their slaves (doesn’t everyone have those kind of conversations sometimes?), I said that probably not all the concubines that young noblemen had before marriage were of low social status. And I mentioned that I could talk more about virginity for Carolingian noblewomen if anyone was interested. Somebody was, so here is what evidence we have for how easily Carolingian women were ruined.

What I’m looking at is pre-marital sexual activity by women and its consequences. If a woman loses her virginity before her marriage what happens to her? Does she become unmarriageable or almost unmarriageable? Is she even liable to honour killing, for having brought shame on her family? (Note: in what follows when I refer to honour killing it is as a strategy within a society for dealing with family relationships, one that is visible in many different cultures, with different religious traditions. Considering it from a theoretical perspective in this way is not in any sense condoning what is an evil practise).

The evidence we have for the Carolingian period is (as usual) limited, but it does all point the same way: women who had pre-marital sex did not therefore become unmarriageable. The most specific comment is from the Council of Pavia 850 (MGH Conc. 3 no 23 p 224) c 9. This complains about fathers who keep their daughters unmarried for too long in order to obtain advantageous marriages, ‘whence it often happens that they are corrupted in the paternal home itself.’ If these daughters make a legitimate marriage afterwards, they are to be denied the nuptial blessing.

Other comments are more indirect, but hint at the same thing. Some of the bishops at the Council of Aachen 862 (MGH Conc. 4 no 9D) when discussing the case of Lothar II and Theutberga argued that the sexual history of a wife before marriage is irrelevant if she is chaste during the marriage, and her past could not be used to justify a divorce (as Lothar II tried to). As the bishops commented (p 86): ‘To say nothing about women (Ut de mulieribus taceamus) there are few or no men who meet with a wife as a virgin.’ Alcuin’s worries about the ‘crowned doves’ in Charlemagne’s palace being a sources of sexual temptation are well known (though it’s not clear whether he just means Charlemagne’s daughters or their wider entourage). So it’s revealing when he tells Gundrada (MGH Epp 4 no 241 p 386) that she should be an example to all the other virgins in the palace, so that they may learn from her how ‘to guard themselves, or falling, to rise up again (se ipsas custodire vel cadentes resurgere).’

The Carolingian legislation we have on raptus is also revealing. Raptus refers to a man taking away unmarried women in order to marry them, without the consent of the woman’s family. It can thus cover a range from consensual elopement, via abduction to abduction with rape. The Carolingian texts which discuss what should happen aren’t entirely consistent. Some argue that the abductor may subsequently marry the woman, some that he may not; an engaged woman is normally returned to her fiancé, (though it’s implied that he may not necessarily take her back). But what is never suggested is that the abductor *must* marry the woman (in contrast to Deuteronomy 22: 28 which demands this for a man who seizes and sleeps with a virgin who is not betrothed).

All this argues against the preservation of virginity as being essential for young Carolingian women. Nira Gradowicz-Pancer, ‘Honneur féminin et pureté sexuelle: équation ou paradoxe?’ In Mariage et sexualité au Moyen Age: accord ou crise? Colloque international de Conques, edited by M. Rouche. Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne (2000) has already argued this for Merovingian women, based on a comparison of Salic law with other barbarian laws. This isn’t to say that these societies were some paradise of free love: Gregory of Tours (Libri historiarum X 3-31) shows princess Amalasuntha beaten for running off with her slave. But even here, although her lover is killed, she isn’t. And there is only one case I know of in either Gregory or the Carolingian sources in which a woman is killed for (probably) pre-marital sex (Libri historiarum X 6-36). (This contrasts with killing of adulterous wives, which is mentioned quite frequently in narrative and normative sources for both periods.)

There’s also one curious story in Gregory’s histories which I think may give traces of the strategy which could be used to deal with such cases. That’s 9-27, when he discusses Duke Amalo’s attempt to rape a girl. In the story, Amalo rather implausibly falls asleep in bed before raping her and the girl kills him with a sword. Gregory specifically states her virginity was protected by God. But there’s a curious detail when Gregory describes how she’s being dragged to the bed by Amalo’s helpers and bashed around. At one point she’s punched ‘until her nose bled, so that Duke Amalo’s bed was stained with her blood’. Now, in Gregory’s depictions of violence, a nose-bleed is surprisingly low down in the scale to be mentioned. I think what we have here is a deliberate mis-remembering of a story (whether by Gregory or at an earlier stage), in which a virgin is raped, bleeds as a result, and subsequently kills her sleeping attacker. And I think it’s at least possible that other less-extreme cases could be ‘remembered’ in the same way to turn young women back into social virgins again.

If Carolingian and Merovingian women aren’t ruined that easily, why is that? Why do some cultures take extreme measures against women involved in pre-marital sex and some not? I’ll exclude here modern Western liberal cultures, which are a special case. The best answer that I can come up with at the moment is that it depends on the value of young women to families within a particular culture (or more precisely, the value to the elite within that culture, since the dynamics may sometimes be different further down the social scale). Put crudely, the more valuable young women are, the more likely families are to want to preserve them as marriage assets even if ‘blemished’.

There are several factors which make young women more or less valuable to high status families. One is the dowry arrangements: who pays what? If it costs a lot to marry off a daughter (as in Indian culture) there is likely to be less concern about preserving daughters (as reflected in the prevalence of both honour killings and female infanticide/abortion). Similarly, there’s less need to preserve daughters if it’s relatively easy to procure some more via polygamy (as in ancient Judaism). And daughters are more valuable as assets for marriage alliances if divorce is relatively hard (e.g. medieval Europe) as opposed to very easy (classical Rome).

Merovingian and Carolingian Francia had husbands rather than fathers giving endowments, and a marriage system that was increasingly monogamous and unfavorable to divorce. In such a system, it makes very little practical sense to kill off erring daughters (aside from any possible moral qualms). It also makes little sense to have daughters vastly devalued if they lose their virginity: you don’t want your valuable assets ruined in this way. (The devaluing of non-virgins also encourages raptus/abduction, as any Victorian cad knows: there’s no point in the parents preventing a subsequent marriage to the socially inferior abductor if the girl is unmarriageable anyhow). A system in which, as Gradowicz-Pancer puts it, ‘class transcends sex’ may well have had its upper classes decide that when it came to a desirable marriage alliance they weren’t going to look too closely at any embarrassing problems standing in the way. Carolingian women had a rough time in many ways, but the evidence suggests that at least in this respect they may have had an edge on some more recent cultures.


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