The Sacrament of Marriage


Peace be with you!

I am currently taking a history class on medieval England from a teacher who I’ve had twice before and is a good teacher. In a class last term that covered the Reformation in England she was very fair and knowledgable about the Catholic Church, and she’s Episcopalian! Anyway, yesterday she made a comment about how marriage was made a Sacrament in the 1200s. Now, I know that marriage has always been a Sacrament and if something happened in the 1200s it was just to formally define it, so that’s not the issue (obviously, since the Eastern Church broke off a century earlier and they have the seven Sacraments). What I need to know is about something else she said. She said that until the Reformation the marriage ceremony was performed outside the church and then they went in to have Mass (and it changed because of what the Reformers were doing, if I recall what she said correctly).
Then she said that because there were many people who would become betrothed and never actually get married (but lived together, had children, ect.) the Church came up with a blessing for them that made them “basically married” but they weren’t actually married. I know the Church would never do this, so where is this coming from?

In Christ,


At Lateran IV (1215), marriage outside the Church was made illicit but not invalid for the universal Church. Prior to that time the prohibition existed in many places, but I don’t think it was universal.

At Trent in 1563, marriage outside the Church was made invalid.


Peace be with you!

Thank you! Anyone know about the second part (the non-married couples part)?

In Christ,



It may be wrong to paint the picture in black and white if the professor has indeed done that. Through the centuries, things were literally all over the map. There was chronological and geographical diversity.

The development of what constituted marriage, consent or consummation, had a long period of development in theology prior to the middle ages. There was flux over time and different practices or laws from one region to another. That was also true in terms of ecclesiastical ceremony and its relationship to what a man and woman actually did.

The imposition of a standard canonical form of marriage or even requiring the assistance of a priest (to prevent clandestine marriage and to guarantee the freedom of the parties from impediments) whether for validity or legality was a later development, and it took a long time before it became universally binding and effective. Despite Lateran IV and Trent, that issue really didn’t settle down until Ne Temere in 1907 (

To establish marriage in the first Christian millenium, it was considered sufficient by the Church for the couple to declare intent in some way and to set about the business of bringing children into the world. They were considered married by the Church and were not considered free by the Church to abandon the union or to marry another person. There was no prescribed form, and the Church generally followed tribal or regional custom. Those customs varied widely. The experience in England was not necessarily that of the Teutons or Franks in continental Europe nor that among Christians in Africa or Asia.

Given that the presence of a priest might be very infrequent in many parts of the world where Christians lived, people basically followed what we’d call the extraordinary form of marriage today — consent of some kind and witnesses. So if they consented, consummated, cohabited and procreated, they were considered married by the Church. That much is well established.

On one hand, there’s early evidence of ecclesiastical ceremony, but little indication as to how it might have related to betrothal and the manifestation of consent. Was it subsequent to that, or concurrent? Was a declaration of betrothal itself sufficient to manifest consent? There is some evidence, again, of variation.

But I would suggest looking as early as the ante-Nicean Fathers. Visit Tertullian (died about 220): ( for a start (Ad Uxorem Libri Duo). He is at least provocative when we consider his language carefully. Here’s an English translation from that site though I think the Latin might be more telling.

“Whence are we to find (words) enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the oblation confirms, and the benediction signs and seals; (which) angels carry back the news of (to heaven), (which) the Father holds for ratified?” (“Unde sufficiamus ad enarrandam felicitatem eius matrimonii, quod ecclesia conciliat et confirmat oblatio et obsignat benedictio, angeli renuntiant, pater rato habet? Nam nec in terris filii sine consensu patrum rite et iure nubunt.”)

I understand that provision was made for a ceremony coram ecclesiam (in the presence of the Church) in the Leonine, Gelasian, and Gregorian sacramentaries (Leo [440-61], Gelasius [492-6], and Gregory the Great [590-604]). You may want to pursue that although it doesn’t address the question of a couple expressing consent and consummating before hoofing it to the local parish.

On the other hand, in some jurisdictions, there was an early tradition requiring ecclesiastical ceremony to constitute a valid and lawful marriage. You might take a quick peek at the and the Catholic Encyclopedia,


John Cameron you are gem. I am going to copy and store your answer. In answer to the living together and having children and never having a ceremony, until the second half of the 20th century many states recognized what was called a “common law marriage”. In other words if a man and a woman co-habited for some defined period of time they were considered married and subject to the legalities applicable to that state(being married). I suspect that this had its source in English Common Law much of which transferred to the colonies and then the states of America. Your teacher may have some muddled version of this in her currriculum. I can’t help but chuckle at the mess we would have today if everyone who co-habits would be considered legally married after a relatively short time…


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