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Medieval Sourcebook:
Byzantine Marriage Contract (726)


The Contract of Marriage, in the Ecloga of Leo III, (726)

Marriage, in both legal and social senses, underwent considerable development throughout the course of Byzantine history. Perhaps the greatest impetus for change was the progressive migration of marriage law from civil to church courts, and the eventual requirement that marriage services be conducted by the Church. The family, especially the aristocratic family also underwent changes. There were some continuities as well, of course. The basic family unit, consisting not only of parents and their immediate children, but also grandchildren, uncles and aunts, as well as family relationships established by a whole series of religious acts - adoption, godparentship, suntechnia (co-godparentship), and adelphopoiia. Such alliances were planned with care, with an intent to strengthen the position and material well-being of a family.

The following selection, quoting from the laws of the eighth century Ecloga (726) concerning marriage contracts, indicates some of the considerations involved, especially those of property, and implies that romantic love as a factor in choice of spouse was very low on the list of priorities.

The marriage of Christians, man and woman, who have reached years of discretion, that is for a man at fifteen and for a woman at thirteen years of age, both being desirous and having obtained the consent of their parents, shall be contracted either by deed or by parol.

A written marriage contract shall be based upon a written agreement providing the wife's marriage portion; and it shall be made before three credible witnesses according to the new decrees auspiciously prescribed by us. The man on his part agreeing by it continually to protect an preserve undiminished the wife's marriage portion, and also such additions as he may naturally make thereto in augmentation thereof; and it shall be recorded in the agreement made on that in case there are no children, one-fourth part thereof shall be secured in settlement.

If the wife happens to predecease the husband and there are no children of the marriage, the husband shall receive only one-fourth part of the wife's portion for himself, and the remainder thereof shall be given to the beneficiaries named in the wife's will or, if she be intestate, to the next of kin. If the husband predeceases the wife, and there are no children of the marriage, then all the wife's portion shall revert to her, and so much ofher husband's estate as shall be equal to a fourth part of his portion shall also inure to her as her own, and the remainder of his estate shall revert either to his beneficiaries or, if he be intestate, to his next of kin.

If the husband predecease the wife and there are children of the marriage, the wife being their mother, she shall control her marriage portion and all her husband's property as becomes the head of the family and household.

from E- Freshfield, trans., A Manual of Roman Law: The 'Ecloga" (Cambridge, 1926) pp. 72-74. Reprinted in Deno Geanokoplos, Byzantium, (Chicago: 1984), 266-67


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© Paul Halsall June 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu