One of the most important and central institutions in any society, marriage was a custom that underwent profound and lasting change during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Traditions common among the Germanic peoples, including polygyny and concubinage, were gradually worn away by the influence of Roman civilization, and especially Christianity. Certain Germanic customs continued, but the institution of marriage came to be defined as an indissoluble union between two people. Although women lost a degree of social mobility as a consequence of the new practice of marriage, they gained greater security and a more important role in the family.
   Perhaps the earliest account of the marriage practices of the Germanic peoples is to be found in the Germania of the great first-century Roman historian, Tacitus. He explains that the German peoples possess a very strict marriage code that is most worthy of praise. The barbarians, as he calls them, each take only one wife, with the exception of those whose status brings them many offers of marriage. The dowry, he says, is brought to the wife from the husband and not, as it in Rome, to the husband from the wife. The gifts presented are quite revealing of the attitudes of the barbarians, according to Tacitus. The dowry generally consists of oxen, a horse and bridle, or a shield, spear, and sword. The bride bestows gifts of arms on her husband, thus establishing a bond between the two in which they willingly share hardships and good times. The new bride joins her husband's household and shares in all its labors.
   Tacitus explains that the marriage is a permanent bond, and that secret love letters are unknown. Adultery, he says, is seldom practiced and severely punished. And women generally remain committed to one man; Tacitus does not mention the fidelity of men, making it likely that men were less faithful than women. Tacitus's view of Germanic marriage, however, must be accepted only with extreme caution; he was, after all, as much a moralist as a historian. For Tacitus, the Germanic people were noble savages, whose moral and ethical behavior stood in stark contrast to the immorality of the Romans of the first century. His moralistic agenda notwithstanding, Tacitus's depiction of marriage among the Germanic tribes on Rome's frontiers offers at least a glimpse into early Germanic marital customs.
   It is generally held that the early Germans recognized two forms of legitimate marriage, one that involved parental participation and one that did not. The latter form has been traditionally known as Friedelehe, a practice in that Chilperic murdered her rather than divorce her and return it.
   The institution of marriage from the fifth to eighth centuries was relatively unstable and marked by ease of divorce, polygyny, and concubinage among the German peoples who took over the Roman Empire. Divorce was a fairly simple affair, at least for the man. A wife could be repudiated for a variety of things, including adultery, inability to bear children, and "bad" behavior. She could also be divorced for no reason, provided the husband was willing to give up control of her property. The woman had to endure the worst behavior; she could not even divorce her husband for adultery. Moreover, as Tacitus notes, the wealthier Germans practiced polygyny, and this practice became increasingly popular among the Germanic peoples who took over the Western Roman Empire. Although not practiced by all Germanic peoples in the post-Roman world, polygyny was quite common among the Franks. Ingunde, the wife of Chlotar I, asked her husband to find a husband for her sister and, liking his sister-in-law so well, Chlotar married her himself. And he may have married others as well while still married to Ingunde. Chilperic was expected to renounce Fredegund and his other wives in order to marry Galswintha, and Dagobert I had many wives and concubines. There is evidence that even the early Carolingians practiced polygyny before they implemented the rule of monogamy. Along with multiple wives, Frankish rulers possessed concubines, and they were emulated in this practice by members of the nobility.
   The instability of marriage among the Germanic peoples, especially the Franks, was particularly disadvantageous to women. Women were particularly vulnerable to divorce and had an insecure position in the marriage. But the instability of marriage did offer some women the opportunity of social advancement, particularly lower-class or slave women like Fredegund. Women did have rights to the property they brought into the marriage, and a wife could keep this property if she were divorced through no fault of her own. Unlike their ancient Roman counterparts, Germanic women had greater economic and legal independence from their husbands, and like Roman women they were released from paternal authority when they married.
   Marriage customs, however, underwent dramatic change during the eighth and ninth centuries as a result of reforms implemented by the Carolingian dynasty. The church had long struggled to limit multiple marriages, concubinage, and divorce among the Franks and other Germans, with only marginal success. Beginning with Pippin and, with greater force, his son Charlemagne, Frankish law came to conform to church law. The Carolingians instituted a reform of marriage laws and custom that established marriage as an indissoluble bond between two people. The Carolingian rulers continued the practice of concubinage, but they practiced serial marriage instead of multiple marriage. Charlemagne himself had several concubines and a series of wives, but he remained with each until her death. His personal example of monogamous marriage was translated into law. In his Admonitio Generalis he forbade remarriage after divorce, and in a law passed in 796 eliminated adultery as a reason for divorce. A man could separate from an adulterous spouse according to this law, but he could not remarry while his wife lived. Although Carolingian legislation limited the social mobility open to some women, it made marriage a more stable and secure institution and strengthened the role of the woman in the family.
   See also
 ♦ Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. 2d. Edition. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
 ♦ Herlihy, David. Medieval Households. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.
 ♦ Reynolds, Philip L. Marriage in the Western Church: The Christianization of Marriage. Leiden: Brill, 1994.
 ♦ Tacitus. The Agricola and the Germania. Trans. H. Mattingly. Trans. Rev. S. A. Handford. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1970.
 ♦ Wemple, Suzanne. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500-900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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