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Contentious consent. Abduction, control over marriage and legal strategy in the late medieval Low Countries

Boek - Dissertatie

Church law explicitly allowed individuals to marry without familial consent from the twelfth century onwards. That much we know, but what impact did these canon law rules had in a society characterized by strategic marriage? In this dissertation, I engage with this scholarly debate by examining partner choice conflicts, particularly abductions for marriage, within middling sorts of families in the late medieval Low Countries. It is in such conflicts that contrasting evaluations of what mattered when selecting a spouse came to the fore. Abduction was a strategy used to force a marriage that one of the spouses did not initially agree to, and/or that lacked the agreement of one or more of their relatives; a man 'abducted' a woman with or against her will, withdrew her from the control of relatives, and married her via an exchange of words of consent, the only requirement for contracting marriage according to canon law. The issue of the alleged consent of abductees is of particular concern to scholars. Depending on the abductee's consent, abduction could have been either tool of female repression or, contrarily, of emancipation and self-determination. The question of the extent to which the woman could play an active role in her own abduction (which then should rather be labelled as an elopement) therefore arises. It is this dissertation's goal to examine why abduction was practiced, how individuals and their families used it, were affected by it and reacted to it and how and why different authorities targeted perpetrators. Historians have hitherto largely limited themselves to studying these partner choice conflicts via one type of legal record or via literary texts, thereby mostly focusing on the elites. The fact that the abductee's involvement and her ability to choose her own spouse via abduction has been accessed through a limited use of legal records is especially problematic, as these sources' narratives have a twisted relationship to the social realities upon which they were based. Moreover, medieval jurisdictions were extremely patriarchal institutions and it is unclear to what extent we can recover these abducted women's voices from court records drawn up by male judges, attorneys and scribes. To meet the challenges posed by the use of legal sources, I combine a large body of different legal records issued by different legal bodies (Duke, city and bishop) in Antwerp, Leuven and Ghent. Moreover, I supplement these legal records with these cities' aldermen's registers, a highly unique type of record that includes private contracts and statements made by abductees, abductors and their families themselves, often without the involvement of any legal body. This allows me to surpass the coloured and mediated narratives in court records and gain access to the perspectives of the different parties involved in the abduction. The thesis consists of six chapters divided into three large sections. The first section explores the legal framework regarding marriage making and abduction by studying canon law, custom, local laws and the language used to describe abductions in these texts. The second section focusses on the abduction's protagonists, being the instigators of abduction for marriage and the targets. This important section examines what motivated abductors and what the abductee's consent meant, viz. if her consent in these cases meant that she chose her partner freely and wanted to consciously determine her marriage without any familial interference. The final section zooms out and examines the actions taken by different authorities and by the abductor and abductee's relatives after the abduction and subsequent marriage had taken place. Taken together, these different sections' chapters show that although mutual consent was fundamental in marriage formation, which was very well-known among Low Countries' middling sorts of families, people struggled with its central position in marriage law. Female abductees could act as legal agents but they only had limited room to manoeuvre after being abducted as the influence relatives and abductors exerted on them weighed heavily and limited their scope of action. This all reveals that marriage was still very much a matter of strategy, contrarily to recent assessments, also in middling families. Nevertheless, people had a good knowledge of the law, were aware of the tension between contradicting legal stipulations on consent and familial involvement and played with them in court.
Jaar van publicatie:2020