07 May 2008

Families & Children: Medieval Castilian Law

By Carrie Lofty

English law and custom regarding marriage and inheritance so thoroughly informs Anglo culture that we sometimes forget other nations did not develop the same practices. In medieval Castile, which is in present-day Spain, the Christian monarchs' plan of Reconquista--the process of reclaiming the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors, by force or by cultural influence--created an ever-changing frontier. Miles of territory in the center of the peninsula were contested for centuries. Towns fell to the Christians and were reclaimed by the Moors.

This constant state of cultural flux diminished Castilians' ability to remain rigid and fixed with regard to issues of marriage. Men greatly outnumbered women in frontier towns, and bachelor knights were considered as great a threat as Moorish invasion. Local towns enacted fueras, or laws, to promote local stability among these rogue and potentially dangerous knights, namely time off from military service after marriage, financial rewards for bearing children, and the social acceptance of illegitimate sexual relations.

A man's official mistress was called a barragana. She was afforded almost all of the rights of a wife. If the affair came to an end, the woman was not ruined. Frontier fathers still wanted their daughters to be able to find reputable matches, and frontier suitors did not want the relatively small issue of an affair to take a possible mate off the market. Any children born to such unions were considered legitimate. Even children born of slaves could be named by the father as an heir--anything to enhance stability and create domestic ties during chaos.

Not only was this relative liberality a product of near constant warfare along the frontier, it stemmed from Castilian inheritance laws, the basis for which extended back to Visigothic kings. Children inherited equally, regardless of gender. A man's six children, for example, would split his lands and worldly goods six ways. The only exception related to implements of warfare such as weaponry and horses, which went to sons alone. Daughters were compensated with gold.

With that sort of scheme in place, almost every woman stood the chance of marrying well, and sometimes even for love. Numerous records exist of so-called kidnappings, where an amorous knight would abduct a willing woman from her home and spend the night out on the frontier. These kidnappings did not hold the official status of a barragana arrangement, so families relented and let the young couple wed. In some areas, a couple simply had to declare their state of marriage--no priest, no bans, no witnesses required. Again this returns to the issue of stability. If the young knight volunteered to enter into matrimony, he became a more stable and useful member of society. However, this unspoken tradition also made proving charges of rape incredibly difficult.

The other class to suffer under these customs were known as covigeras--illegal matchmakers. On occasion, a man developed a fancy for a married woman. He sought a convigera to make contact with the woman and aid in his seduction. The matchmaker would act as a go-between to present gifts and secret notes, and would arrange a place for their tryst if the married woman consented. Because the basic function of these matchmakers was to destabilize sound marital unions, inciting community discord, they were reviled and punished with their lives.

The liberality towards sexual affairs did not extend to other religions. Even Christian prostitutes were executed after two convictions of sleeping with a Moor. Respectable Christian women lost all hope of social acceptance, banished from their families, and Christian men who slept with Moorish women were killed, the women maimed. Such affairs went against the goal of Reconquista.