Marriage Wars in Late Renaissance Venice


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For secular authorities, the institution of marriage was an important means of retaining and enhancing power and position. For church, marriage was an unbreakable Holy union. The arranged marriage system was especially beneficial to the noble class as it helped them keep their property and political position secure. This is why the secular authorities always held a strong opposition against clandestine marriages.

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A Clandestine marriage was a marriage of choice undertaken mostly by a young nobleman, in order to save him from the trauma of a forced arranged union. Earlier the church was more resistant to appeals for separation and annulment, but Tridentine reforms, council of Trent Council of Trent that decreed a priest was required to perform the betrothal ceremony provided Venetians with an opportunity of freeing themselves from undesirable marriages.

Canon law itself stated the marriage was acceptable only when both parties extended mutual consent to say their vows. In spite of the reformations, both ecclesiastical and secular courts tried their best to save the marriage in each case in order to preserve their respective interests. This implies that protection of marriage was useful to both ecclesiastical and secular courts.

The petitions went through easily and were more successful for ordinary people; noblemen had greater problems severing marriage ties. The Petitioners presented numerous grounds on which they demanded separation or annulment. Stories of Forced union, sexual impotence, relationships with courtesans and concubine and violence were common for demanding separation. The petitions were filed by both men and women, but mostly women started the process to protect their marital rights. Most applications came from middle to low class.

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In demands of separation on the basis of forced union, the forcing parties were usually the parents of bride to be. If a woman could prove in court that these rules were not followed during her marriage, then the marriage was declared null and void. Women also petitioned for separation from impotent and violent husbands and those with sexual disease. According to canon law, unconsummated marriage was invalid. Men petitioned mostly to save their honor, or property.

For a man, being declared impotent was worse than being recognized as someone having an affair with a prostitute.

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Men under some circumstances, filed petitions to save the dowry they had received from their wives. In such cases, secular courts were partial towards women. They were independent; they could work and earn their living. Women, on the other hand, were completely dependent. This is one of the main reason for which the Court favored women.


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A woman had to rely on her husband for her survival. Husband was responsible for taking care of wife.

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A woman without male financial helper often ended becoming a prostitute. Prostitution was considered the worst fate that could fall on a woman. They were far from being powerful, but they were strong, willful and well aware of their interests. Mothers were often behind the annulment petitions.

The mothers depicted in the book were strong willed and determined which suggests that they enjoyed a certain high degree of power in their social circles. Women also had to be careful about their welfare because they did not have an independent means of survival.

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The petitioner or the affected women also showed an unusual change of attitude during their life cycle. They waited until they reached a mature age for filing the petition. It was easier for them to pursue the case, because old things were easily forgotten, and they could conveniently preserve personal interest by purposely changing stories.

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