This anthology focuses on the agreements that marrying entailed in Western Christendom from 400 to 1600, and on the documentation of such agreements. It is appropriate at the outset, therefore, to reflect synoptically on the process of marrying. What agreements were made and who made them? What was the function of such agreements in the process of marrying? Which agreements were documented and which were oral? What other actions did the process of marrying entail, as well as agreements, and what were their functions? The following sketch is intended to provide an overarching historical and conceptual framework for the specialized chapters that follow, to explain some of the terms, concepts, and institutions that the authors presuppose, and to direct the reader to some of the pertinent secondary literature.
Marriage brought about three kinds of social change, pertaining respectively to a core relationship, to a redistribution of property, and to a reconfiguration of family connections. First, and most fundamentally, a man (or boy) and a woman (or girl) entered into the core relationship that was marriage itself. They became, in certain respects, a social unit, forming a partnership (societas) characterized by a cluster of sexual, collaborative, parental, and familial obligations. Because the couple became a new family unit, marriage severed a son from his parents even in virilocal societies. Thus according to Genesis 2:24, a text that surely presupposed a virilocal norm, the man who marries leaves his father and mother to be united with his wife: he does not need to leave his parents' home, but he does leave their embrace.