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As we in the U.S. debate what marriage is in the 21st century, a historical perspective might help. For example, take eighth-century Francia, the setting for my forthcoming novel, The Cross and the Dragon.

During this period:

          • Children could be betrothed by their parents. Hruodtrude, the eldest daughter of King Charles (Charlemagne), was 6 years old when she was engaged to Byzantine Emperor Constantine, also a child whose mother, Empress Irene, ruled as regent. Charlemagne or Irene later broke off the betrothal, to the groom’s great disappointment, and Irene ordered her teenage son to marry someone else.
          • Girls as young as 12 could be married. Charles’s third wife, Hildegard, was about 13.
          • Church law required girls age 15 or 16 to consent to marriage and could annul marriages in which the bride had not consented. But the brides still belonged to their families. In an age that did not recognize child abuse, consent could be beaten or starved out of the bride.
          • Wife beating was a right, not a crime.
          • Marriage was mainly a civil affair–among aristocrats, a way to build alliances, too important to trust to the teenagers about to be married. There were couples who were fond of each other, but love was not the primary reason to marry.
          • The first phase of marriage, betrothal, was legally binding. If the groom or the bride’s family failed to deliver, the wronged party could seek vengeance, a retribution that makes today’s ugly, dragged out divorces seem tame.
          • Marriage was not a sacrament at the time, and the presence of a priest was not required. Yet in an age that believed in divine intervention, couples would often say their vows in front of a priest, who would bless the marriage. This second phase was the nuptials.
          • The Church saw itself as the protector of marriage. It insisted the marriage be public. It also forbade consanguinity, the union of close relatives, even spiritual ones.  It allowed divorce only if the husband was impotent or the wife was unchaste.
          • That’s not to say people didn’t try to break up, especially if the wife wasn’t conceiving. It took Charles’s parents, Pepin and Bertrada, three years to conceive, and sometime during their marriage, Pepin tried to divorce Bertrada but failed. Yet after that, Pepin was a steadfast husband and made her a powerful queen.

A strongly worded letter from Pope Stephen III in 770 reveals attitudes toward marriage. Here, he urges Frankish King Charles and his brother, King Carloman, not to marry a Lombard princess, the daughter of his enemy.

“Moreover, most gentle and most gracious God-instituted kings, you are already, by His will and decision and by your father’s order, joined in lawful marriage, having accepted as illustrious and most noble kings, wives of great beauty from the same land as yourselves, that is to say from the most noble people of the Franks itself.

Bertrada and Pepin in the Basilica of St. Denis

Till death did they part: Thirteenth-century effigies depict Charlemagne’s parents, Bertrada and Pepin. From Wikimedia Commons, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, photo by Sailko.

“On the one hand, it behooves you to be bound to love them. On the other, you are assuredly not at liberty, having cast them aside, to marry other wives or to mix with the blood of a foreign race.”

Pepin, the kings’ late father, died in 768, when Charles was 20 and Carloman was 17. Both likely were teenagers when they got married.

As a novelist, I don’t judge the marriage traditions of another society. My responsibility is to accurately depict my characters’ reality and their reactions to it. But examining customs in another time teaches us that the definition of marriage–who is eligible, who gets to decide, why one gets married–has indeed changed.

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King
Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riché (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)
Carolingian Chronicles (Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories), translated by Bernhard Walter Scholtz with Barbara Rogers
Charlemagne: Empire And Society, edited by Joanna Story
Women in Frankish Society, Suzanne Fonay Wemple