Friday, January 29, 2016

Question from Candace - Importance of virginity before marriage for noblewomen

How important was virginity before marriage for noblewomen? If a nobleman discovered on his wedding night that his wife was not a virgin, how would he react? Would he try to seek an annulment, or if he could not get one, view her as unchaste and of 'loose' morals?

What happened to women who were raped before marriage? Would they still be able to make a good marriage? Would being sent to a convent or a nunnery be a mercy or a sign of disgrace? Were there any possibilities that a woman would be raped but not blamed for 'enticing' the man?

1 comment:

PhD Historian said...

The question seems to assume that all noblewomen married only once in their lifetime, yet that was very often not the case. And obviously any woman entering into a second or subsequent marriage was unlikely to have been a virgin. So we need to re-frame the question slightly. The issue was not one of virginity, but of sexual continence. How important was the sexual continence of ANY woman entering into any marriage, whether or first of fifth?

Recall that religion was of much greater concern to persons living in the Tudor era than it is today. In the Tudor period, both appearance and behavior (all kinds of behavior, not just sexual) were considered markers of one’s moral character and thus of one’s social credit or worth. For example, men with physical deformities were barred from the priesthood in the belief that the physical deformity was an outward marker of an inner moral flaw. And so it was with sexual behavior. Any woman who was discovered to have engaged in sexual behavior outside of marriage was deemed to be of low moral character and an undesirable marital partner. Popular beliefs of the period held that a woman of imperfect morals could, and probably would, transmit her sub-standard morality to her future children. There were even those who advised wealthier parents to investigate carefully the moral character of any wet nurse hired to tend to infants lest an immoral wet nurse transmit her flawed character to the infant via her breastmilk. All children born outside of wedlock were barred not only from inheritance, but also from many other activities of life. An illegitimately-born man could not become a priest or enter into certain other trades or professions, for example, because he was judged to have, in effect, inherited his mother’s immorality.

So the issue was not really one of virginity, but rather one of sexual restraint. Women were expected to refrain from any sexual behavior outside of the bonds of marriage, and from extra-marital sex when married. Those who transgressed those strictures were considered inappropriate as marital partners. And if their behavior became common knowledge or the focus of scandal, they could potentially face charges and punishments in both secular and ecclesiastical courts.

The portion of the query regarding rape seems to be applying modern perceptions of rape to a pre-modern context. Rape was already a crime in the Tudor era, but social perceptions of victims of rape varied according to the respective social classes of both the victim and the offender, as well as the specific circumstances in which it occurred (peacetime vs time of war, for example). It is therefore not possible to offer a blanket response to the question.