Customs of the Family
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Feudalism is the most important establishment in the campaign. However, the laws of property and marriage, though, are still vital.
The laws of patriarchy are based on Roman models and are reinforced by the beliefs of both the Judeo-Christian and the Germanic warrior traditions. These three systems uniformly hold men and male things as inherently more important than women and female things. The property belongs to the father or patriarch. Thus the system is called patriarchal, in which everything of importance revolves around the family’s leader.
Women in this system are degraded by the Church and diminished by the legal system. They are promised as pledges of friendship between men who would be allies. Their only power comes from overseeing the household and the family lands.
Marriage and Inheritance
Marriage is a sacred and legal institution that is supposed to secure certain inheritance rights for all members involved. It is sanctioned and blessed by the Church, and is recognized by all government authorities. Divorce is not allowed.
Note that there are absolutely no emotional requirements for marriage. It is an entirely political act, with little care evident for individual feelings. Thus it is not surprising that both men and women seek love, emotional expression, and satisfaction in extramarital affairs. These affairs eventually acquire unofficial sanction in the Courts of Love, wherein the art of fine amor is developed and exercised.
Rules of Marriage
In marriage, a woman leaves her blood relations and takes up residence with her husband, thereby joining herself and her children to his family. A critical function of marriage is to produce an heir (a son being vastly preferable) who will obtain control of the properties of both father and mother, as ordained by law.
Marriage is a legal institution, and children born to a legally married couple are legitimate, or “within the law,” and can inherit things without problem or question. Children born outside of wedlock are illegitimate, commonly called bastards (see Illegitimacy, below). Marriage also serves to increase property holdings, and is thus usually arranged for political ends; on rare occasions, however, it serves emotional needs as well.
In general, marriage and love are entirely separate matters for most medieval couples. Many marriages are arranged, and some couples see each other for the first time on their wedding day. The occasional happy marriage inspires bards to write poetry, spiteful overlords to become jealous and cruel, and other lovers to take heart. Most, however, are not so loving.
Marital fidelity was a constant issue in the Middle Ages. The desire for the lord to maintain his bloodline demanded complete fidelity from his wife, and fearful punishments could be invoked upon her for having a lover. Churchmen thundered constantly about chastity from their pulpits. Undoubtedly, most women followed the social norm and remained faithful to their loveless marriage, just to keep things simple and safe.
Such fidelity was not expected, however, or at least not as expected, from married men. The now-infamous “double standard” was in its heyday. Women could be murdered for having a lover, but men were, in some circles at least, admired for their capacity to engender children upon numerous women.
Many children are born out of wedlock. Noblemen seem especially subject to propagating this vice. Their partners are sometimes called lovers, concubines, courtesans, or paramours, and are frequently of a social class significantly lower than that of the nobleman.
Children of such issue are illegitimate, or, basely said, “bastards.” The issue is not one of knowing one’s father or not. Often the children know quite well who their father is, but because they were born outside of marriage they have fewer rights than legitimate children. Most importantly, illegitimate children have no right to inherit any property from their fathers.
Illegitimate children can be legally adopted and therefore allowed to inherit, but only if no legitimate children are living. Even then, other kinsmen close to the deceased father can challenge their rights.
Noblemen, at least the truly honorable ones, often provide for their concubines after they are dismissed. Sometimes such women are married off to one of the noble’s retainers as a reward for his loyalty. The women might even receive valuable properties to be passed on to the bastards afterward. Noble fathers often keep half an eye on their illegitimate sons, too, and might even use their own influence to help their unacknowledged children advance in station beyond their mother’s class. This influence may be quite overt. In many cases, illegitimate sons help their legitimate brothers as loyal, reliable retainers.
Divorce is the dissolution of the sacred bond of matrimony. It is a legal matter, but more importantly a religious one. However, the parts are so bound together that no one in the Middle Ages ever gets a legal divorce without Church approval; that doesn’t occur until Henry VIII.
Divorce is allowed only in cases of adultery and consanguinity. Adultery means the woman had or has a lover; the term is never applicable to men. Occasional annulments are granted on grounds of consanguinity — i.e., the person whom you married is more closely related to you than you originally believed. In general, marriages between any persons more closely related than third cousins are prohibited. Proving consanguinity is an expensive and laborious option, usually available only to kings or others who can afford the immense cost of the pontifical procedure.
Strict laws govern inheritance. These laws may be bent, but they cannot be broken without considerable intervention. Parties who defend the laws are usually the next of kin, who stand to inherit the property, and the lord, who has much to say in its governing.
The British culture follows the custom of primogeniture: The eldest son of the father is held to be the heir. As a rule, the eldest son gets everything. If the father is rich, then the younger sons might get something, although if they are knighted and merely receive sets of armor, they should be grateful. If a lord is very rich, he is more likely to give small parts of his wife’s property to his younger sons, but keep his patrimony intact.
The eldest son also inherits his father’s coat of arms. Thus his arms are exactly the same as his father’s, but with a small mark called a difference to set them apart for as long as both father and son live. The difference is established by tradition as a horizontal stripe with downward tabs. Although a tradition of other differences for younger sons is present, younger siblings can also choose their own coats of arms. Again by tradition, though, these are similar to the fathers.
If there are no sons, the eldest daughter often inherits the land, or the widow might keep it. There is a good chance, however, that some other male of close kinship receives it instead. Likely candidates are the brother of the dead lord, or his bastard son, or even the father if he still lives. In all cases, the lord of the lands has some say about who gets disputed property. If a woman, whether daughter, widow, or mother, retains property rights, a lord always has the final say as to whom she marries.
Wills may specify the inheritance preference of a deceased property holder. Your character sheet has a place for Will to be written in. Use it.
Second, only to war, litigation is a lord’s favorite activity, although few of us desire to play out constant legal wrangling in our games. If legal disputes do arise, they should be settled through trial by combat, or be referred to the judgment of the next highest common lord — or perhaps even the king himself.