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A Marriage in Medieval London: The Brother’s Tale

A Marriage in Medieval London: The Brother’s Tale

By Danièle Cybulskie

While historians definitely rely on archaeological evidence, tax records, and literature to get a picture of life hundreds of years ago, a whole lot of what we know about medieval life comes to us through court documents. In them, we can find the facts of legal cases, the opinions of the people of the time, as well as biographical details that (although often incidental to the case) are both fascinating and intriguing. Medieval people, as any short survey of the documents will bear out, were definitely not shy about suing people, and this is a lucky thing for historians.

In Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London, Shannon McSheffrey has collected together depositions from a wide variety of marital cases: divorce; bigamy; adultery; and even disputes about whether or not a marriage took place at all. As McSheffrey points out, the scribes recording these depositions are concerned with establishing the witness’ credibility, their relationship to the aggrieved parties, what they witnessed, and whether or not what they witnessed constituted a true marriage. It is the testimony of one of these witnesses that stood out to me, especially.

On January 15, 1472, in the case of Elizabeth Isaak versus John Bolde (Elizabeth was suing John), the deposed witness was Elizabeth’s brother, Walter Isaak. Presumably, John was disputing the validity of the marriage, as Walter’s testimony is mainly concerned with the couple speaking and acting like a married couple. Although it’s tricky to be sure we’re hearing what we think we’re hearing (scribes translated most testimony from the English they heard into Latin later, so there is huge potential for human error in translation), if we read between the lines of Walter’s testimony, we can see him as what he is very likely to have been: a little brother eager to defend his sister by being as precise and helpful a witness as possible.

Walter is identified by the scribe as “of the parish of St. Mary Bothaw, patten-maker, illiterate, of free condition, twenty years old and more”. Immediately, we get a picture of a young man, free (as in, not a serf), and apparently established. He isn’t listed as an apprentice, but as a “patten-maker”; that is, he makes a specific type of wooden overshoe meant to keep people’s feet out of the mud (here’s an 18th-century example). It’s very likely that Walter is Elizabeth’s younger brother, as instead of saying he’s known her since she was born, “He says that he has known Elizabeth Isaak from the time of his ability to distinguish people”. Walter has known her husband, John, for much less time, saying he has known “John Bolde for the last two years and a third”. As many other medieval witnesses don’t bother with fractions, this suggest that Walter has thought about this carefully and is being precise in order to be helpful.

Walter reveals “that on a certain Sunday three weeks after the feast of Pentecost a year ago [i.e., 1 July 1470], in the afternoon,” Elizabeth and John discussed getting married while in the home of a friend, and then proceeded to speak the necessary words. Walter lists the four people who were present, and then describes the events:

At length John Bolde asked Elizabeth whether she could find it in her heart to have John as her husband, and she answered that she wished freely to have him as her husband if this deponent, her brother [Walter], would consent to it, and then this deponent gave them his consent. Then Elizabeth said to John, ‘I will have you as my husband and forsake all other men for you, by my faith.’ John answered her, ‘And I will have you as my wife and forsake all other women for you, by my faith.’

It was very important for Walter to have correctly remembered the words spoken, as it was critical for the two to have established that they both were clearly and unequivocally entering freely into the agreement. All that was required for a medieval marriage to be legitimate was consent, although consummation made it all much tidier. Given the rest of Walter’s testimony, Elizabeth and John did not likely consummate their marriage until shortly thereafter, as Walter recalls them exchanging similar words a few days later, with John saying, “I will take you as my wife before the next feast of Pentecost”.

As McSheffrey notes, it wasn’t necessary for a woman to gain the consent of her male relatives to get married, even though they were her guardians (much to their chagrin). It may have been for her own protection that Elizabeth had brought her brother to witness her making this contract with John, and it certainly helped that he was able to witness their exchange of words a second time. This would – she could reasonably have assumed – eliminate later doubt that the marriage was valid, an important consideration, given that they had said their vows privately. The very fact that this was later disputed before the courts, however, shows John still thought he could cast doubt on it.

It may be more likely (and more appealing to my own romantic heart) that Elizabeth asked for Walter’s consent as a sign of respect for him, and a chance for him to voice his approval. The approval of her family seems to have been important to Elizabeth, as Walter later testifies that Elizabeth had also taken John to see her mother, Beatrice, where “John Bolde asked Beatrice’s consent and good will, so that Beatrice would like John better, because he had taken Elizabeth as his wife.” Like Walter, Beatrice was supportive, and “immediately gave him her good will.”

Although Walter testified that “after these words were spoken between them, John and Elizabeth ate, drank, and spoke together as man and wife, as [he] saw many times,” evidently, something went wrong in the marriage for it to have ended up in dispute just one year later. Still, without this case having been before the courts, we might never have known about London’s keen and helpful Walter Isaak, patten-maker, little brother, and defender of his sister Elizabeth.

For this case, and many more fascinating depositions, check out Love and Marriage in Late Medieval London by Shannon McSheffrey.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Top Image: 15th century lovers – UBH Cod. Pal. germ. 359 fol. 61


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