15

How common was it during the Middle Ages for European nobility to marry peasants or serfs? I am aware that during the era, the institution of marriage was considered a severely practical matter rather than romantic, with stratification between social classes being very strict.

I'd like answers to be contextualised with examples, and any historical evidence of how society reacted to these events.

  • 4
    Rarer than hens' teeth, I imagine! Marriages were alliances between noble families, the participants had little choice in the matter. They were married at their parents' will, for land, money or power. The men (and occasionally, if dangerously, the women) took peasants etc as extra-marital partners, mainly for sex, sometimes for love. – TheHonRose Nov 10 '16 at 14:02
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    There is one famous example - I can't recall the names, but a French noble (Count?) married a peasant whom he saw working in his fields when she refused to submit without marriage. Perhaps someone who is more knowledgeable about French history will recall based on that sketch? – Mark C. Wallace Nov 10 '16 at 14:21
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    @MarkC.Wallace You might be thinking of William the Conqueror's parents Robert, Duke of Normandy, and Herleva. Having caught the Duke's eye, she refused to enter the castle by the back door but only through the main gate on horseback. They didn't marry although it's not impossible Robert might have done so, had he lived longer, in order to secure his son's rights. – TheMathemagician Nov 10 '16 at 15:29
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    I think you're right - Harleva sounds familiar; thank you for supplementing my aging memory. – Mark C. Wallace Nov 10 '16 at 15:56
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    I did say they didn't marry ... it wasn't my example. – TheMathemagician Nov 11 '16 at 14:19
14

Probably more common than you would think.

Lots of nobles were little more than farmers with a coat of arms. Peasants could acquire a lot of wealth. Were the division between the two classes fell varied enourmously between countries, as well as the relative status.

To give an example:

In Sweden, the noble class was created in 1280, when anyone who would equip and keep a war horse in the service fo the King was declared to be exempt from other taxes. Thus, the entire nobility was created straight from the peasantry, so there difference between "peasant" and "noble" was not a matter of blood, but rather one of exactly how much money you had. Marrying someone slightly less rich than you would not be a great deal.

Note that even if you want to restrict "nobility" to having some sort of conferred title, the only ones that really existed in Sweden were "duke" (almost exclusive for royals) and "knight", and a person like Bo Jonsson (Grip), who controlled two thirds of the country, never attained either (and he was, BTW, married to the daughter of a knight).

  • Very interesting about Sweden, and very true about how it varies between societies. Russia with its strict serfdom is a pretty stark contrast to Sweden, and interesting how these medieval practices still continue to influence how the people of those countries think about politics today. – inappropriateCode Nov 11 '16 at 12:04
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    All noble classes originated more or less the same way you described in Sweden. – sds Nov 11 '16 at 13:27
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    True, I should have written something about how the difference varied in time as well as across places. – andejons Nov 11 '16 at 13:33
9

It's hard to prove a negative (outside of math, of course), but let me try to show why this would be extremely rare (and mostly exist in legends).

The institution of marriage exists to protect the woman and to seal a family alliance. Neither reason would apply to a marriage of a high-born and a low-born:

  1. There is no alliance to seal (there is nothing the low-born's family can offer to the high-born family).
  2. If a nobleman lusts for a low-born woman, she would, of course, need the protection of marriage, but there is no reason for the nobleman to provide it: he has enough power to take her by force or blackmail.
  3. If a noblewoman lusts for a low-born man, she needs no protection; it is also an exceedingly rare situation for her to have a say in her life - nubile women were treated as assets to be traded to neighbors in marriage for an alliance.

Two other possible reasons are:

  1. Give legitimacy to existing children
  2. Religion

They require fairly specific combinations of circumstances which probably never arose together, e.g., a nobleman marrying a low-born girl (instead of taking her as a mistress) for religious reasons requires that he has high religious conformance but low social conformance.

PS. The above assumes "established feudalism". All royalty and nobility stems from warlords and their warriors and originally the boundary between high-born and low-born was relatively fluid.

PPS. Another aspect is the level of stratification. No duke has ever married a commoner, but many squires did.

  • 2
    Any contextual examples or evidence to discuss the issues you raise? – inappropriateCode Nov 11 '16 at 7:57
  • @inappropriateCode: what are "contextual examples"? – sds Nov 11 '16 at 11:12
  • Any examples which put what you're saying into context, case studies on what was considered normal and abnormal citing people from the time. – inappropriateCode Nov 11 '16 at 11:59
2

Since I have a great memory and access to the internet I quickly found a case of the child of a mighty noble and a peasant becoming his father's successor, but unfortunately they don't seem to have been married.

Oldrich, Duke of Bohemia 1012-1033 and 1033-1042 apparently had no surviving children with his unnamed wife, but had his son and heir with his mistress Bozena (d. 1052), daughter of Kresina. Bozena is said to have been a peasant. And Wikipedia claims that Bozena became Oldrich's second wife. Their son Duke Bretislav I (died 1055) was the ancestor of later generations of Bohemian rulers.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bo%C5%BEena_(K%C5%99esinov%C3%A1)1

Fredegund (died 597), the notorius queen and widow of King Chilperic I, Frankish king of Soissons, was said to be of lowly birth.

Fredegund was born into a low-ranking family but gained power through her association with King Chilperic.1 Originally a servant of Chilperic's first wife Audovera, Fredegund won Chilperic's affection and persuaded him to put Audovera in a convent and divorce her. Gregory of Tours remarks that Fredegund brought with her a handsome dowry, incurring the immediate affection of King Chilperic.2

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fredegund2

Of course it is unknown if Fredegund's family was low enough in status to make her a peasant.

Emperor Romanus II (938/39-963), ruled 959-963, married 2nd, 957, Anastasia/Theofano, daughter of Krateros, a poor tavern keeper from the Sparta region of Greece, who was the mother of his three children. Of course it isn't known if her original home was rural enough for her to be called a peasant.

http://fmg.ac/Projects/MedLands/BYZANTIUM.htm#_Toc3595786323

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theophano_(10th_century)4

These are some examples I could think of and find of medieval nobles' wives of lowly birth, though two of them were wives of monarch's.

2

There are some examples. King Erik XIV of Sweden married the servant Karin Månsdotter in 1567 (not really middle ages, but quite close). Karin Månsdotter was the daughter of a soldier/jailkeeper and a peasant. Only two of the six marriages Henry VIII made to secure an heir were with royal brides, and Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV of England, was also a commoner.

  • 1
    Good answer; a great answer would provide sources. The issue isn't so much to avoid dispute as to facilitate further research. I had never heard of Erik XIV; if I were intrigued, we want to make learning more about him as friction free as possible. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 23 '18 at 10:13
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    @MarkC.Wallace They are not disputed facts, but I see your point. – liftarn Aug 23 '18 at 11:02
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    The article you linked to says Woodville was not a commoner but was "mid-ranked in English aristocracy". She was an aristocrat. It also says the marriage was so unusual as to be a *"cause célèbre" of the day and the cause of much hostility and division. Also the Q asks about marriages to peasants - none of Henry VIII's wives were peasants! – RedGrittyBrick Aug 23 '18 at 14:39

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