So, Game of Thrones, am I right? (I am.) Oh, what is that, you are unsettled by marital rape? Excellent, that means you are not a worthless human being. Sadly, however, I’m going to welcome you to marriage in the medieval period, my friends.
OK, OK, let’s back it up. Perhaps when you think about marriage in the medieval period you’re all like …
Yeah, but no. The thing about chivalric or courtly love is that it was a construct that has nothing to do with people actually being married. Wait, no, it has a lot to do with people being married, but the people in love were never married.
When you think about courtly love who do you name? Probably Guinevere and Lancelot, no? Yeah think about who was married there.
I’ll give you a minute.
Now here’s the thing – marriage in the medieval period was not about love. Really really it was not. Instead it was about the getting of heirs, and establishing links between households. If you happened to not want to die every time you looked at your spouse then – congratulations! You had really hit the jackpot there. Otherwise you sat there and procreated.
What it breaks down to is that there’s this thing called primogeniture. That’s when the first son gets to inherit everything. In the earliest medieval period this was not so much a thing, but by the High and Late medieval period it was in full swing. So basically if you aren’t a first born son, you’re not going to be inheriting anything. Moreover, if you are a first born son, you need to wait until your dad kicks the bucket to actually inherit, so it might be a while before you actually get hitched.
So, say you ARE a first born son, your dad finally dies in your thirties, and you get married. You’re probably going to marry a fairly young girl to up your chances of multiple viable heirs. (Remember, infant mortality is super super high at the time.) So now you have married a sixteen year old girl, and you’re twice her age. To be clear, that means the average marriage is looking a lot more like this than otherwise.
Maybe, just maybe, that sixteen year old is not going to want to get down with you. But you need heirs, and you are living in a society that consistently tells you that women are basically responsible for all the suffering in the world because of Eve. In addition, your wife is essentially seen as having no intrinsic value at all whatsoever except as a baby machine. How do you think this wedding night ends, exactly?
Now, let’s say you are not a first son. So maybe you join the Church instead, in which case I’ll see you in the brothels, homeboy. Otherwise, perhaps you go to seek your fortune elsewhere in the hopes that someday you’ll make enough money to get your own wife and household. You become a knight, and start living in the house of, let’s say, a Lord. Said Lord is in his thirties. He has a hot young wife who is sixteen. You are eighteen. You sit there and make puppy dog eyes at each other, and THAT is where this idea comes from.
You never actually get it on with the lady of the house, however, and maybe eventually you do manage to put together enough money and land to start your own household. By the time you do this you’re probably going to be in your thirties at least, and you need to think about heirs. You decide it’ll be best to get yourself a young wife. The cycle repeats.
Now, we’re all super upset about Sansa. (I didn’t hear y’all bitching when it was Jeyne Poole, but hey I guess you aren’t reading the books or whatever.) I’m not saying you should think it was awesome, that’s not my point. What I am saying is that what went down this week is a fairly accurate depiction of what sex was among the nobility in the medieval period. I’m not telling you that is good or right, but I am telling you that if you think it was all hearts and flowers, you are deluding yourself.
Ignoring the facts about the lives of women in the past only cheapens what they went through.
Now get out there and smash the patriarchy.
For more on women in the medieval period see:
On women and desire
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
On Hotline Bling and courtly love
For more Game of Thrones analysis see:
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 1: Byzantine Constantinople