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Marriage at the Time of the Council of Trent (1560-70): Clandestine Marriages, Kinship Prohibitions, and Dowry Exchange in European Comparison

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A close analysis of marital dispensations granted by the Holy Penitentiary shows that so-called clandestine marriages were widespread all over Catholic Europe before the Council of Trent. Only in Italy and perhaps in France were domestic partnerships rare, while they were very common in Portugal and Spain. This essay argues that the popularity of the dowry system in Italy made it difficult for women to choose their partners without parental consent. On the Iberian Peninsula, where forms of joint ownership in marriage and equal inheritance were predominant, free-choice marriages were widespread. The lively debates preceding the abolition of clandestine marriages at the Council of Trent show how divided the church was on this issue. While parental consent was not made mandatory for a marriage to be valid at Trent, post-Tridentine church administrators promoted parental involvement by acknowledging dowry exchange as a vital component of social reproduction. After Trent, applicants had to specify a reason for their intended violation of kinship prohibitions; the most often quoted obstacle to an exogamous union was the bride's lack of a competitive dowry. This change in rhetoric suggests that after Trent, the Penitentiary promoted dowry exchange as a proven means to facilitate arranged marriages among "strangers," while at the same time acknowledging problems with this mode of social reproduction. As an alternative to dotal marriages, the bureau of marital dispensations offered easy exemptions from kinship prohibitions at exponentially increased rates, promoting "cousin" marriages in lieu of exogamous unions. In promoting endogamy and/or dowry exchange, the post-Tridentine church promoted two varieties of marriage behavior indiscriminately which in the past had not only been seen as mutually exclusive, but also as diametrically opposed to the ideals of the Catholic church. Ironically, after Trent marriage had become less rather than more stable, since ecclesiastic courts were now more likely to separate badly married couples than unite them.


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