Medieval Civil Unions?

medieval_civilunion.jpgDid the concept of a civil union originate in medieval Europe? That’s the intriguing possibility raised in the respected Journal of Modern History by Allan A. Tulchin of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. (Via Box Turtle Bulletin.)

As a recovering academic with a graduate degree in medieval history, I find this fascinating—though I’ve got the usual klaxon going off in my head warning against projecting the present back onto the past. If Tulchin is correct, however, this is at the very least evidence that opposite-sex marriage has not had a monopoly on legally recognized human pairings—a major blow to the argument that same-sex relationships are destroying the time-honored foundations of society. Science Daily has a synopsis:

In late medieval France, the term affrèrement—roughly translated as brotherment—was used to refer to a certain type of legal contract, which also existed elsewhere in Mediterranean Europe. These documents provided the foundation for non-nuclear households of many types and shared many characteristics with marriage contracts, as legal writers at the time were well aware, according to Tulchin.

The new “brothers” pledged to live together sharing “un pain, un vin, et une bourse”—one bread, one wine, and one purse.

While most of these arrangements were for brothers who lived together in an inherited family home, they could also be for non-relatives. When the men were unmarried and unrelated:

. . . these contracts provide “considerable evidence that the affrèrés were using affrèrements to formalize same-sex loving relationships. . . . I suspect that some of these relationships were sexual, while others may not have been. It is impossible to prove either way and probably also somewhat irrelevant to understanding their way of thinking. They loved each other, and the community accepted that. What followed did not produce any documents.”

As opposed to modern-day civil unions, which still require wills, powers of attorney, adoption papers and various other documents for dealing with the federal government or leaving the state. We may not have full equality, but at least we’ll leave a good paper trail for future historians.

Not that the Middle Ages were really all that enlightened, of course. As Boing Boing pointed out this week, sexual decision making according to the medieval penitentials was a truly mind-boggling progess. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about history, though, it’s that it rarely proceeds in a straight line. That in itself is a heartening thought.

(Image created with the Historic Tale Construction Kit.)