Unlike marriages of today, Anglo-Saxon marriages and "home life" were just as public and their business lives. Therefore, everyone in the community knew each other's affairs. If there were problems within the marriage, the people of the community took it upon themselves to help settle the problems. But, more importantly, the community did their best to prevent unhappy and/or arranged marriages from taking place, because it wasn't just the problem of the husband and wife, but the problem of the entire community.
Gifts at the time of marriage - called morgengifu - were occasionally given from husband to wife. These gifts were usually large sums of money or land. They were considered sole property of the wife, she could sell it, trade it, give it away, or keep it as she pleased. She also co-owned any/all of her husband's property after marriage. These gifts were seen as a way to insure men didn't mistreat their wives, but if they did, and the woman left him, she'd have a way to support herself.
Women's Rights Within Marriage
While there were arranged marriages in Anglo-Saxon times (especially within those of the upper classes,) most marriage contracts were made clear that who a woman was marrying was chosen by herself, as to a kinsman choosing for her. The Law of Cnut stated: "neither a widow nor a maiden is to be forced to marry a man whom she herself dislikes, nor to be given for money, unless he chooses to give anything of his own free will."
Cnut's law also specified that if a woman’s husband died before they had any children, she was entitled to one-third of his land (called "dower," under common English law,) plus her morgegifu.
Despite religious expectations, divorce laws were considered lax: Anglo-Saxon King Ecelbert passed specific laws that gave women the right to abandon a marriage if she found it "displeasing."
Some unmarried (usually upper class) women in Anglo-Saxon times inherited land at birth. This, of course, lead to many arranged marriages for land. Not only on the bride's side, but also the groom's. These arranged marriages started very young, before anyone else could arrange the marriage and gain land. Sometimes parents arranged marriages that were solemnized while children were still in cradles. There are many cases of eight year olds marrying each other, as well as 14 year olds marrying seven year olds. Children were considered capable of consent to marriage at the age of seven, but marriages could be voidable, as long as a girl was under the age of 12 and the boy under 14. At these ages, kids could be rid of their marriage, but most were pressured to into staying in the marriage, because of the land opportunities.
Although it sounds like only the males had something to gain through these arrangements, there were advantages for the females, too. Though she had to give up her land to her husband during marriage, if her husband died, the wife was able to gain her land back and at least one-third of her husband's land, under English common law "dower." If a young husband died, his wife could claim dower at age nine. The husband could claim at any age, "albeit he were but four years old."
Comparably, peasant women had their marriages arranged for them, though were better off than those of the upper class. Arranged marriages among peasants happened later in life, usually when women were in their twenties, and happened with men they knew. These marriages weren't arranged for land, but for money, cattle, etc.
A specific type of arranged marriage was that of a peace-weaver ("fricwebba.")
The term "peace-weaver" means exactly what it says: it was the role of a woman (usually a noblewoman) to marry someone (usually a nobleman) from a rival tribe or clan to weave peace between the two groups.
Though not exactly portrayed in the greatest light through Anglo-Saxon literature, (peace-weavers are usually seen as doomed tragic figures who are depressed and weeping all the time,) peace-weaving queen was considered an ideal role for aristocratic women in Anglo-Saxon times. Peace-weavers had more power and influence than the average Anglo-Saxon woman. She is the sole means of linking two different tribes together. By marrying someone from a different tribe, she ideally has the power to bring peace to both tribes. And, in doing so, she is insuring a good future for her children, who are the physical proof of these two tribes coming together. They had the ability to influence decisions made by the king and act 'as intermediary between king and warrior, both politically and socially.'
The most important job of a peace-weaver is (obviously) to become a mother – just for the simple fact that having a child blends the bloodlines of the two tribes, physically making them one.
Perhaps the reason that peace-weaving is seen in such a negative light in Anglo-Saxon literature is the fact that there were so many wars. The Anglo-Saxons were a warrior-based people. There were wars constantly going on. Logic says that if a peace-weaver was doing her job correctly, there would be far less wars. Yet, peace-weaving was more of a job of tradition, whether or not peace was kept.
Gender Roles within Marriage
In marriage, husbands and wives were expected to work together – in all aspects, including business. Because of this, there were laws passed specifically for women, in a chance of husbands committing crimes unknown to their wives. It was specified that a wife was "not guilty if property stolen by her husband was found unless it was under her lock and key: 'she must look after the keys of the following: namely her store room, her chest and her coffer.'" Basically, there had to be great reasonable proof that a wife was working as her husband's accomplice.
Once married, a wife had to be prepared to take her husband's place at any moment. Wars often broke out, forcing the wife to take over her husband's roles. She would become the provider of the family and home. It would be her responsibility to look after the home and/or farm, and see to any repairs that might be needed. If her husband became a prisoner, it would be up to the wife to collect ransom, indulgences, or whatever other source of money she could to pay her husband's debt. She would also be responsible for any lawsuits that would occur and, if needed, become the executor of her husband's will.
An unmarried Anglo-Saxon woman ("femme sole") had the right to do business on her own, without husband or man. She was considered 'on par' with men. Not only was she able to hold land, but she was also able to make wills and contracts, and could sue or be sued.
Outside Sources for More Information
Andrade, Anthea. "The Anglo-Saxon Peace Weaving Warrior."
Chance, Jane. "Peace-Weaver, Peace Pledge: The Conventional Queen
and Ides." Woman as Hero in Old English Literature.
Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1986.
Fell, Christine. Women in Anglo-Saxon England. London:
British Museum, 1984.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Women in the Middle Ages.
New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1978.
Jewell, Helen. Women in Medieval England.
New York: Manchester UP, 1996.
Sanburn, Keri. "The Indexing of Medieval Women: The Feminine
Tradition of Medical Wisdom in Anglo-
Saxon England and the Metrical Charms."
Motherhood in Anglo-Saxon Times
Although it's unfathomable in today's culture, it's possible that Anglo-Saxons didn't show their children typical love and affection. A possible, logical explanation was the high rate of child mortality. It was easier for Anglo-Saxons to not get too attached to their children, because they were unsure of how long that child was going to live.
Foster-parenting was an accepted occurrence in Anglo-Saxon times, especially in the upper (noble) classes. It wasn't uncommon for a the family of a woman's brother or father to raise her child. With all the infidelity that occurred in Anglo-Saxon times, sometimes that was the only way for people to know that the child was actually kin. A man can be certain that his sister's baby has his blood, but he can't be certain that his wife's baby does.
Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon's most famous literary character was a foster-child. He relates in lines 2430-2434 that he was raised by his kin, King Hrethel.
Children's Roles in Anglo-Saxon Times
From as early as the sixth century, children were seen to many as "miniature adults" all over Europe. There are records of child monks and nuns, called oblates. Oblates were as common in Anglo-Saxon England as anywhere else. St. Wilfrid (in the seventh century) thought it was acceptable for boys to become monks at the age of seven. Bede – a well-know Anglo-Saxon scholar, author, and monk – (in the eighth century) writes various accounts of these "miniature adults," including at least one that was "not more than three years old."
Bede himself was an oblate, and relates:
I was born on the lands of this monastery,
and on reaching seven years of age,
I was entrusted by my family first to
the most reverent Abbot Benedict and
later Abbot Ceolfrid for my education.
I have spent all the remainder of my
life in this monastery...
But, Anglo-Saxons did realize that oblates weren’t quite equals with monks or nuns – they always had to have an adult "master" with them for supervision.
The use of oblates could have been a necessity. Asser, a biographer for King Alfred, relates that children were often the only volunteers for monastic orders, "because they had not yet become accustomed to the materialistic pursuits of adults."
But, in the sixth century, St. Columban shared that he felt children were somewhat more qualified for the jobs than their adult counterparts. He listed four reasons:
- Children do not persist in anger
- Children do not bear grudges
- Children take no delight in the beauty of women
- Children express what they truly believe
Though it seems like much too large of a job for a child to handle, children that were oblates were much better off than a lot of Anglo-Saxon children. Child slavery was common practice – occasionally children were taken, then put into slavery, or if their parents were extremely poor, they be sold.
Children's Rights in Anglo-Saxon Times
Despite it all, Anglo-Saxons were concerned for their children, and this is seen in the sheer amount of laws that protected Anglo-Saxon children.
These laws covered the most simple and basic ideas – things like children being guaranteed:
- support by their father’s kind if he died when they were young
- support by their father if their parents separated
- support by the crown if abandoned by their parents
- legal protection from rape and incest
- the right to remain with their mother if their father died
- to be the first to get paid the wergeld if their father was murdered (within 21 days
Needless to say, most Anglo-Saxon children were incredibly well protected within the law.
By contrast, illegitimate children had very few legal rights. Infanticide was common practice, and those who were born with disabilities (like being born deaf and mute) weren't treated well.
Outside Sources for More Information
Keufler, Mathew S. "'A Wyrded Existence': Attitudes toward
Children in Anglo-Saxon England."
Journal of Social History, 24.4. (Summer, 1991), pp.823-834.