Monday 8 August 2011

How to steal a wife.

.By Richard Morley.

I have been researching the reconquista of Spain. That period when the Catholic Spanish rose up against their Muslim masters and took their country back. In one particular town, Colmanar de Oreja, in the south of the Comunidad of Madrid, the successful siege by the forces of Alfonso VII sent the Muslim residents packing and then required a repopulation of the town by new people. But how do you encourage them to come?

Well, one way is to grant sanctuary and immunity from prosecution to every murderer or thief who was on the run. You have to remember that medieval laws were almost excessively severe. Your crime could be minor by today’s standards, but the penalty would be harsh. Even if your crime was murder, it could just be that you were the survivor of a fight in which your opponent was unlucky enough to die. But there was no mitigation. If you wanted to live, you had to flee. Luckily there were places you could flee to.

You have to remember too that Medieval Sanctuary law was widespread in most of Europe and seen as a way to ameliorate not just those harsh legal responses to minor offenses, but also used by rulers to grant protection to those who did their dirty work for them. One way to lessen the expense of keeping an army was to allow it to benefit from the spoils of war, the taking of which could be considered a crime.

One of these crimes was abduction of another person, or kidnap. And it might be that you kidnapped a female. But did you commit a crime? Remember that women were regarded as property. A wealthy family would see their daughters as assets that could be traded for alliances, either political or in business. Conquering armies would see women as the spoils of war. And in some cases some young love struck Romero would spot the beautiful Julia across a market square and want to make her his own, and it’s possible the desire would be reciprocated, but not possible due to lack of wealth or status on the part of Romero.

If the couple chose to run away together the law made the man a kidnapper and a criminal, even though his stolen bride had colluded in the crime.

But, criminals from one place could make desirable citizens in another, especially when they arrived with a woman in a town where females were in short supply. It meant that the new arrival would not compete with the men already there for the existing women.

In fact, in the new town they might not be seen as criminals at all. They might have been technically guilty of kidnap in the town the woman came from, but if she came willingly in the event that the supposed “abduction” was in fact an elopement and while her parents might be screaming “kidnap” and the abductor a criminal in their eyes, in the new town he would be seen as a welcome and able citizen.

So, in 1133 Alfonso VII granted the “Abduction Privilege” to Guadalajara. A fugitive who sought sanctuary with an abducted woman was protected by a royal fine of 500 sueldos on his accusers. The crown could hunt down murderers, thieves and traitors, but abductors were hidden away from pursuers. Then, in 1139, Alfonso also allowed similar laws in Oreja, now known as Colmanar de Oreja, where a “colonist-abductor” could bring into the town any willing and marriageable woman, so long as she was not already married, a relation or was being brought by force.

But in fact this had been going on for years. In 986 Count Ramon Borel of Catalonia banned incoming abductors, but only those who came with women who were already married or betrothed to another. A girl free of obligations was therefore fair game.

And in 1076 Alfonso VI granted protection to the colonisers of SepĂșlvada when they brought in a “woman, girl, or other stolen goods”.

Towns close to the border with Aragon admitted killers, thieves and explicitly those importing women. In 1131 the town of Calatayuz granted asylum to known murderers and men bringing in abducted women. The townspeople would then vote as to whether to allow their pursuers admittance.

In some places this “abduction” was not even what it purported to be. In Lower Navarra it was said that a noble could make any girl a noblewoman by undertaking a ritual of abduction. He only had to carry her nine steps away from her home, provided she was dressed in a chemise and her hair was let down. She then became an infanzona forever. It could be claimed that our modern custom of carrying a new bride across the threshold of the couple’s new home is no more than an extension of this “rite”. And surely her “deshabile” would make it pretty clear she was a willing party to the abduction.

In some of the newly established communities a daring young abductor would be seen as just the sort of man they needed.

And how could it be wrong when the church allowed it. The Decretum Gratiani, a code of canon law decreed by the Roman Church in 1240 defended the validity of the marriage even though no parental consent had been given. Incidentally, this code lasted until  1918 although legal statutes had banned the practise of “Bridal Theft” (I love that phrase!) centuries before.

Communities, ironically even those who had been founded by abductors, sought remedies to stop the practise. One of the ways this was done was by the enforcement of arranged marriages where all parties consented to the union. But still kidnappers had to be dissuaded with the introduction of very severe penalties including large fines, exile and death. The death being carried out by the avenging family.

At Alba de Tormes the penalties were worst when the daughter of a property owning citizen was abducted. Apparently this distinction was made in cases of rape as well. And as virgin daughters were the main target, Castilian custom tended to disregard widows and the marriage of a widow against her family’s wishes was considered less offensive.

Where an abducted bride was in fact a runaway bride, in that she had colluded with her abductor, she was now considered a party to the crime and would be punished. In Cuenca disinheritance and exile were the normal penalties for the woman.  Cuenca also made provision for the abducted women already being someone’s wife. In which case the abductor, if caught, could expect to be burnt at the stake and all his possessions confiscated. This punishment was also exacted on the woman when she colluded with her kidnapper.

But now the law of the land came into conflict with the church. If vows had been exchanged and the marriage consummated the church decreed the union was legal. To the State, though, it was a crime and several kings sought to increase revenues by imposing severe fines on the perpetrators.

But you had to catch them before you could punish them. If a couple had slipped away unnoticed and travelled far, they could live happily ever after without fear of punishment. However, any property the man possessed in the town would be confiscated and the family were saved the cost of a dowry, which was recompense of a sort and perhaps a blessing for the father of the bride, who would remain that much richer.

The right of  “Abductors Privilege” in towns like Guaralajara and Colmanar de Oveja did much to encourage the settlement in new or depleted town taken from the Moors after the reconquista and probably did much to mix the gene pool of Spain. I imagine that many Spanish Romeros and Julias did live happily ever after.

I doubt us single males could get away with it now!


  1. You did it again, Richard. Fascinating read. Thanks for the history lesson.

  2. Brilliant as always, must take you ages to research - or you just read a lot ?