Women and Marriage in Medieval Italy

Marriage in Medieval Italy was was more about cementing an alliance between families than finding love, and women had very little say in selecting a husband.


Marriage in Medieval Italy was a social not a religious institution and was presided over not by the church, but by the civil authorities. Nor did it represent the union of two people in love but the joining of two families. Though principally meant for the procreation of children, marriage was also important for maintaining the continuity of the male line, for the preservation of inherited property and in making useful political, social and economic alliances.

Although both canon and civil law required the consent of both partners, in reality the family controlled their children’s marriages. They chose their partners, they could dictate when they married, or they could deny them the right to marry at all and send them into the church as priests, monks or nuns. There were instances where families were unable to control stubborn children, but these were rare and parents, believing they had the right to do so, were known to force their daughters to break marriage vows they had made privately or even try to annul marriages made without their consent. Though before we condemn them, parents had some justification in being concerned when their children disobeyed them. Marriage contracts broken or marriages that went wrong could lead to intergenerational vendettas, even war.

Men were married at a much later age than women, and so for the most part, would have had some choice in the selection of a wife. Women however, who married for the most part while still in their teens, would have had little say in the matter and, both by law and custom, their silence was accepted as consent. Women, in fact, were the subject of the contract and marriage was considered the giving of women as gifts from one family to another, and sometimes women from both families were exchanged. Marriage between social unequals was rare. Though a man might marry down for the sake of property or making strategic alliances, it was considered better for a woman to become a nun rather than marry her social inferior.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife by Jan van Eyck
Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife by Jan van Eyck

An important part of any marriage negotiation was settling on a dowry and the exchange of gifts. Dowries were a major expense on any family, so those with more daughters than they could endower would send their excess daughters into nunneries. The size of the dowry reflected the prestige of the groom’s family. However, it would be balanced by costly gifts from the groom’s family to the bride which might include jewellery, clothing and furniture. In her turn, the bride would provide a cassone, a colourfully decorated box containing her trousseau of clothing and linen for both the couple and their future children. These exchanges were meant to avoid any undue obligation by one family to the other.

While the groom’s family might have effective control of the dowry for the duration of the marriage, the dowry was not granted to them outright, but was rather given in trust to provide for the support of the bride. The marriage contract might stipulate, for example, that a certain proportion of the dowry be reserved for clothing the bride during her marriage. Laws protected the wife’s rights over her dowry and after her husband’s death the dowry would be returned to her.

The actual rituals surrounding marriage made it clear that the marriage was about alliances and property rather than love. Technically, a wedding in Medieval Italy was carried out in four stages and the length of time between stages could be as little as a day or extend to years. (Even to this day Italians undergo two wedding ceremonies, one civil and one ecclesiastic.) These lapses of time would make it possible for the young couple to meet and get to know each other, but it would also give their families time to negotiate over the dowry.

The first stage, the Impalmamento, or the handshake, was the preliminary undertaking between the two families in which the marriage was agreed upon. In the next stage, the Sponsalia, the males of the two families would meet before witnesses and sign contracts in which the dowry was agreed and payment arrangements were stipulated. At the same time, the bride’s father or guardian would undertake to get her consent to the marriage. The third stage was the Matrimonium, or ring day, on which the couple exchanged vows. While a priest might be on hand to give the union the church’s blessing, it was a civil ceremony presided over by a state officer, such as a notary or magistrate.

Although the couple were now legally married, the public celebration of the marriage and the consummation did not occur until the Nozze. The public celebration of the Nozze ensured that there would be no doubt about the validity of the marriage and was an occasion for such conspicuous consumption and lavish display that many cities enacted sumptuary laws to curtail excesses.

After their marrying under such circumstances, it could hardly be expected that the couple would find the kind of love we expect in marriage today. Late marriages for men and high mortality for women in childbirth meant that many marriages were short-lived. High infant mortality meant that emotional investment in children would be delayed until they were past infancy and deemed viable. One’s love and family feelings were thus not concentrated on one’s spouse or even one’s own children, but spread across the whole extended family.

However, there were always exceptions, and as we approach the Renaissance, traces can be found of not only love in marriage, but marriage for love.


© Pauline Montagna 2015

Read more about Medieval Italy…


Marriage in Italy, 1300–1650 edited by Trevor Dean and KJP Lowe (2002)

Weddings in Renaissance Italy by Clare de Estepa, Tournaments Illuminated, Autumn 2000



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