When I chose a family of pagan Saxon peasants as my main characters for The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, I also needed to decide on the relationship, my heroine, Leova, had with her husband. Leova is fictional, so she and Derwine could have any relationship I wanted—abusive, apathetic, comfortable, or loving.
Medieval marriages were arranged, and among aristocrats, they were a means to build alliances. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were considered marriageable, and parents often betrothed both sons and daughters at even younger ages. If the bride was a 15- or 16-year-old Christian, the Church required her consent. However, in an epoch that didn’t recognize child abuse and considered wife-beating a right, consent could be beaten or starved from a girl. It’s easy to say that girls were pawns. An alternative perspective is that they were important partners for their families when having the right in-laws could prevent feuds or wars.
Whether the couple was Christian or pagan, social considerations always came first. Heck, the couple didn’t even need to like each other. So if your husband didn’t leave you bruised and bloody and didn’t get so drunk he couldn’t work the farm, you’d consider yourself lucky. And a man would think himself fortunate if he could trust his wife not to stray and to take care of his children and the household.
In Leova’s case, her older brother married her off to his good friend to appease his wife, who was jealous of the siblings’ bond. At first, I thought Leova and Derwine were going to have a comfortable relationship like I just described but not much more than that. My characters decided otherwise, that they would love each other.
A happy medieval marriage is not as unusual as you might think. Some historic marriages were loving, even if the reason to wed was political. When authors of the Royal Frankish Annals typically did not trouble themselves with how a couple felt about their reunion after months apart, the 787 entry says King Charles (Charlemagne) and Queen Fastrada “rejoiced over each other and were happy together and praised God’s mercy.” In a letter from Charles to Fastrada, composed before he went to war with the Avars in 791, he greets her as “our beloved and most loving wife,” and when you read the letter, you get the feeling this is not an empty platitude.
Leova and Derwine’s deep love for each other improves the story. It makes Leova’s losses all the more devastating, heightens her guilt when she gets involves with another man, and makes her decision on what to do about Hugh, the Frankish friend who killed her husband, all the more difficult. In other words, love raises the stakes.
Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)
Carolingian Chronicles (includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories), translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers
P.D. King’s Charlemagne: Translated Sources
This post was originally published Sept. 17, 2014, on author Samantha Holt’s blog.
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