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Moments in Time The real inquisitor

By Gary Macy

Medieval canon law is not usually the first institution that springs to mind when one thinks of great advances in the rights of women. However, it was precisely this unlikely source that insisted that women must have the right to consent to their own marriages in an age that understood matrimony as a financial and political alliance arranged by families.

A minor revolution occurred in the 12th century when canon law deemed “that two people were married when they exchanged mutual consent to marry, provided they were free to marry, their consent was voluntary and it was given in the present tense. No registration, no license, no prior announcement, no witnesses, no wedding ceremony -- none of these were necessary for a valid marriage” (to quote the leading scholar in the field). And the lawyers meant it; law texts make it absolutely clear that a daughter cannot be given in marriage against her will. As you might guess, this made clandestine marriages very popular with young lovers and drove parents crazy (one thinks of Abelard and Heloise or even Romeo and Juliet). One result of this odd custom of respecting women’s (and men’s) right to marry whom they choose was the strange cultural tick of marrying for love. An interesting experiment started in part because of medieval canon law! Time will tell if it actually works.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000