Skip to main content

‘A Miniature Marriage’

‘A Miniature Marriage’

‘A Miniature Marriage’

This month’s ‘Picture this…’ image is taken from a book of prayers made in England in the fifteenth century (HL 3-4) and depicts a scene that is still instantly recognisable more than five hundred years later. The miniature, which accompanies a prayer in English and Latin, shows the marriage of a couple, both dressed in red garments, in the doorway of a church. The priest, wearing a mitre and ceremonial robes, stands just behind them, joining the couple’s hands together as a sign of their union. The image is one of over thirty other miniatures that accompany the prayers in this book. Each prayer is in Latin, but is also prefaced by a description in English that denotes the situation for which the prayer is applicable. Thus, this image accompanies a prayer indicated in the English inscription as being ‘for hem that entenden to be maried or be now maried’. Passages written in red throughout the prayer book clearly mark both the start of each prayer and the use of English. The Latin prayer then follows this English description, beginning with a heading in blue and continued in black lettering.

The book measures only 115×80 mm, indicating that one person, or two people at most, would have been able to have read the prayers inside at any one time, making it a very personal devotional aid. The small size of the book also means that it would have been easily portable, and the reader would perhaps have carried it with him or her for daily reading. Possible evidence of this portability survives on the pages at the back of book, in which place names have been inscribed: towns from the Yorkshire area such as ‘ampleforde’ (Ampleforth), ‘langtoft’ (Langtoft) ‘laghton in morthing’ (Langton), ‘wystowe’ (Wistow) and ‘frydaythorp’ (Fridaythorpe) can all be made out. Though it is unclear why these place names were noted down in flyleaves, it is possible that the owner of the book has used these extra pages to record their places of travel in the local area. Two names have also been inscribed on the book, possibly at a later date: on f. 76 is the marginal note ‘Robarte Walbanck’ and on f. 106 in a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century hand the inscription ‘John Walker his booke’. Unfortunately, little other evidence remains as to the original ownership of the manuscript.

Though the prayer book is similar in size and style to many Books of Hours from this time, it does not contain the collection of texts appropriate for these kinds of devotions (these would normally include the Psalms and monastic offices of the day). Instead the prayers are tailored to aid an individual in a variety of different situations and circumstances; one prayer is said to be for those who are in great danger, another for those who wish to attain ‘a manner of parfitnesse and… goostly swetnesse’ and one states it is for protection against heretics. The Latin text or ‘prayer’ that then follows these English descriptions is based on passages from books of the Old and New Testaments, as well as several Apocryphal books. Biblical references in the floral margins of the book give an indication of the book and chapter number from which the prayer is taken, and suggest that the owner may have also had, or have been expected to own, some other form of Biblical text with which to compare the prayer book. The Latin text accompanying this miniature of a marriage is taken from the Apocryphal book of Tobias or Tobit, which tells of the life of Tobias and his marriage to Sarah. The themes expressed in the story of Tobias thus make it an appropriate text to use in the context of a prayer for marriage, and as expressed in the English preface before the prayer, the reader is encouraged to remember this Biblical example and ‘loue to gedre singulerli… as the ȝong Toby and Sare his wyf diden’.

The miniature that accompanies this text also serves to visually instruct the reader on certain marital values via the composition of the image. Both the church and the priest occupy a prominent position in the scene and in doing so exemplify a marriage conducted within the confines of an ecclesiastical ceremony. However, in contrast to the way in which it is depicted in this image, marriage in medieval England was often surprisingly unregulated and informal: the law required only an exchange of consent between the two parties for a marriage to be valid, meaning that it was not necessary for a public ceremony to be held, or for the family or the Church to consent, though these things were seen as desirable. From the thirteenth century onwards, ecclesiastic involvement in marriage regulations became significantly more pronounced and clandestine marriages (‘irregular’ or secret marriages conducted purely through the exchange of agreement between a couple, without the authorisation of the church or state) were condemned at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. From the thirteenth century onwards, conciliar legislation and diocesan statutes were widely circulated, providing one of the major means by which important developments in the understanding and practise of marriage were implemented. In the thirteenth century and afterwards each diocesan had to have a copy of legatine and provincial canons, and regular prelates and lower clergy were obliged to possess some sections of the law. Such attitudes in local legislation are evident in the statutes of Salisbury of 1217 – 1219, which state:

‘We similarly prohibit clandestine marriages, ordering that they shall be made in public in front of the church, in the presence of a priest who has been called for this purpose. If it has actually been done otherwise, it is not to be approved, except by our special authority.’ (1 Salisbury 85)

The church therefore became increasingly active in its championing of ceremonial, ecclesiastically approved marriages, but unregulated marriages nevertheless still continued even into the fifteenth century when this prayer book was made. In Canterbury for example, thirty-eight clandestine marriages were reported in the years 1411-20. The fact that the image in this prayer book shows an ecclesiastically performed ceremony, as opposed to a more unregulated one, is therefore significant. As the ceremony is conducted both in front of a church and in the presence of a priest, the image is a clear reflection of orthodox principles on marriage and would perhaps encourage the reader, who might be thinking of getting married themselves, to conduct their own wedding ceremony in such a way.

Sophie Kelly, MEMS, University of Kent
Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further Reading

  • D. L. D’Avray, Medieval Marriage: Symbolism and Society (Oxford, 2005)
  • C. Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford, 2002)
  • Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers 1240-1570 (London, 2006)
Back to top of page