Medieval Madness: Marriages Made in Hell

Meet Lucrezia Borgia. Born out of wedlock in 1480 to Rodrigo Borgia and one of many his mistresses Vannozza dei Cattanei. When Lucrezia was twelve, her father became pope and assumed the title Alexander VI.

By the age of thirteen, she had been betrothed twice. Both times her father had broken off the engagement to pursue a better match. After becoming pope, he arranged her marriage to Giovanni Sforza whose family ruled Milan at the time. When they were married, Giovanni was in his mid-twenties.

Lucrezia quickly got bored of Sforza. Her family was notorious for their rambunctious and ambitious natures. Sforza on the other hand was steady and a bit mundane. While he would have probably made an excellent, faithful husband, he was not up to meeting Lucrezia’s increasing demands, nor was their match ideal for Alexander’s ambitions.

In 1497, Cesar and Alexander forced Sforza to flee Rome and to eventually petition for a divorce from Lucrezia. He was made to state that not only had their marriage not been consummated but the reason was that he was impotent. This was a blow to the status of any Italian statesman at the time, and Sforza initially refused to make the statement and even accused Lucrezia of incestuous relationships with her brothers and fathers. Eventually, however, Sforza acquiesced and Alexander annulled their marriage.

(In 1500, Alexander excommunicated Giovannia Sforza and supported the French king Louis XII in his campaign to capture Milan.)

Lucrezia’s second marriage was much happier. Her father arranged a marriage with Alfonso of Aragon, the illegitimate son of Alfonso II of Naples and related to the royal houses of Castille and Aragon (Spain). Lucrezia and her new groom were married in 1498. Unfortunately, Lucrezia’s brother Cesar disliked Alfonso and that dislike turned to hatred. In 1500, Cesar’s men attacked Alfonso in the street. While recovering from his wounds, Alfonso repeatedly accused Cesar and even attempted to kill him with a crossbow bolt from a window. Eventually, Cesar tricked Lucrezia to leave her husband’s bedside and his men strangled Alfonso.

Despite Lucrezia’s protests, Alexander arranged a third marriage for her. This time, her groom was the Duke of Ferrara Alfonso d’Este who had previously been married to the Sforza family and was reluctant to accept the match. Ultimately, Alfonso accepted Lucrezia and her 200,000 ducat dowry.

By the age of twenty, Lucrezia was betrothed unsuccessfully twice and married three times. Her marriage with Alfonso d’Este lasted mostly because he was constantly campaigning against the enemies of Ferrara and she spent most of her time in bed with Alfonso’s brother-in-law Francesca Il Gonzaga and the poet Pietro Bembo.

When Lucrezia died in childbirth in 1519, she had born ten children. Her first, an illegitimate child named Giovanni (b. 1498), was probably the result of an affair with a servant named Perroto. Alfonso of Naples fathered her second, Rodrigo, who died at the age of thirteen. While married to Alfonso, she bore eight children although there is no way to know which of them were actually Alfonso’s.

Medieval Madness

Our society has a terrible view of marriage and it stems mostly from the medieval view of marriage, of which Lucrezia presents an apt image. In the medieval mind, marriage was a legal way to bind one state to another, to increase one’s family holdings or to acquire wealth. It could also be used to punish those who have wronged you. Love took a second seat to ambition. Marriage was, first and foremost, a legal contract. Thus, the most sacred covenant of mankind was reduced to bartering a girl’s virtues for the advancement of her father’s ambition.

We tend to think of ourselves as so advanced and so progressive. We like to think of ourselves as superior to the medieval man – benighted fool that we take him to be (incorrectly by the way). But we inherited this view of marriage, and it is the reason why marriages fall apart so readily in our society. We view marriage as legal contract FIRST, and because of that, we rarely get to the deeply spiritual meaning of marriage.

Spiritual Marriage

When you read the first accounts of man and wife in the book of Genesis, it is a spiritual and physical thing. Man needs to share his existence with someone who is of the same stuff as he is. In fact, the Genesis one account makes the genders inseparable: “Man and woman he created them.”

I often counsel people struggling with honoring their marriage vows. Their view of marriage is so legal, so grounded in the idea that it is separable by the state and that, really, they would be better off if the state would grant them their separation. But in reality, the state has no power over marriage.

I know that our legal system allows the courts of each state to grant divorces and annulments; but just because the state SAYS it has the power to do things does not mean it has them. Nowhere in the Scriptures does God or Jesus impart the power to grant divorces to human government. This is a medieval shift born out of a theology that equated human government with ecclesiastical authority and placed the power of the Torah and the Hebrew priesthood in the hands of the church. This theology, known as covenant theology, sees our modern states as heirs to Israel and it is erroneous. It is medieval.

Search the Scriptures and you will find it to be true. In ancient Israel, the power of divorce was given to the head of the household. He could, if he could show proof of infidelity, divorce his wife. And what did that divorce mean? It meant that the union of flesh and spirit from Genesis 2 was severed. Under Torah, he still provided for his wife and cared for her unless another man was willing to assume that responsibility and the stigma. It also meant that the man was free to remarry, provided that he never returned to the first wife because the bill of divorce had severed their connection.

Serial Polygamy

What is practiced today in the name of divorce and remarriage is serial polygamy. Men and women seek permission from the courts to pursue new mates. They rarely seek any kind of validation for their divorces from the church or spiritual leaders because they know that the Biblical grounds for divorce are much stricter than those of the courts. (Irreconcilable differences do not exist in Scripture.)

Now, I must confess that the Scriptures never specifically condemn polygamy. Many of the Hebrew “heroes of the faith” had marriages and mistresses a plenty.

Multiple Spouses

The most frequently cited polygamist of the Hebrew Scriptures was Jacob/Israel who married two sisters and had active, sexual relationships with both of them. Among the other polygamists of Scripture are David and Solomon, both of whom were married to a number of women. It does appear that David practiced serial polygamy, marrying women and then “retiring” them to have children with other women; but this is not much different from Solomon’s harem.

Handmaidens

Every time you read the word handmaiden in the Old Testament, you should know that she was essentially a sex slave for the husband. This was common practice in the ancient world. A bride would bring another women into the marriage for the express function of having sex with her husband when she was incapable of it. The children were considered legitimate and in return, the husband provided for the handmaiden as a member of his household. Many of the tribes of Israel claimed their descent from such unions.

Confronting Polygamy

Here’s an amazing fact for you. A married couple can engage in swinging or polyamory with consent and it is not grounds for divorce. It is not even illegal. A man can have sex with as many women as he wants to as long as he wife gives him consent. But if that man tries to enter into a marriage with one of those women even with his wife’s consent, it becomes a crime. He can even, with his wife’s consent, draw up a will that gives equal portions of his assets to the wife and the mistress. But if he calls it a marriage, then it is illegal? Does that sound right to you?

We glorify philandering men in the media. We even exalt women who manage to carry on multiple sexual relationships at the same time. But if a legally define marriage comes into play then suddenly the rules change? I think that if our society is going to adopt legal marriage/divorce, then we need to stop mixing it with pseudo-religious morality and redefine it. But I digress…

The problem with polygamy, whether it is contemporary (many spouses at once) or serial (in a sequence), is that it is not the way we are made. Yes, we must accept that it has occurred and does occur in human society. Yes, it never specifically condemned in the Hebrew culture or Torah. Yes, it is legal in our society (as long as you don’t call the additional relationships MARRIAGES).

We need to stop viewing legal divorce/remarriage as if it were spiritual. It is no different than a man or woman having multiple sexual partners without the legal consent of the state. The veneer of legitimacy that the state grants to these escapades does not make them any different in God’s eyes.

How Do We Decide Today?

Remarrying Divorced People

I have done weddings for divorced people. The decision to do the wedding is a case-by-case one. We often interview the bride and groom and share with them the view of spiritual marriage. We explain the difference between legal marriage/divorce and spiritual marriage/divorce. I have even gone so far as to discuss the nature of serial polygamy with men seeking to remarry. I have explained the obligation men have to care for their wives, even if the courts have ordered a divorce. Explaining that the end of the physical relationship does not end your provisional obligation is not my favorite thing to do.

In the end, serial polygamy is the nature of things in our modern world because divorce has been given to the courts instead of to the spiritual leaders where it belongs. In an increasingly irreligious society, we are confronted with these challenges constantly.

Husband of One Wife

There is a standard in the New Testament that a Christian leader – be it elder or deacon – is the husband of one wife. If we allow for the existence of serial polygamy (legal divorce and remarriage), then we have to ask what this term “husband of one wife” means. Under the strictest Hebrew definition of marriage (Genesis 2), it would that the man would have to be still in congress with the first woman he had sex with. According to the Torah, however, it would mean that he has entered into that covenant of marriage with only one woman and is honoring it, while allowing that he might have had sex with others before.

For myself, I believe that we must look at this through the lens of the realities of the ancient world. Paul is making a very clear statement that a Christian leader must be faithful to one wife. We must ask a few questions of men.

  • Were previous relationships/marriages entered into as covenant relationships? In other words, were they simply legal marriages with no spiritual significance?
  • Did previous relationships/marriages end because of sexual sin? If he committed adultery on or abused his wife, then he is excluded from leadership. If his current wife left her previous marriage because of the adultery or abuse of her former husband, that does not exclude the current husband.

Often, highly qualified individuals must be excluded from church leadership because of their legal divorces. We do this reluctantly but in submission to the authority of Scripture. As much as we might not like to admit it, Jesus frowned on this serial polygamy.

Gay Marriage

I am in the minority of evangelical Christians in that I believe that if the courts have the power to grant marriage/divorce then there is no legal grounds to protest the courts granting marriage to homosexual couples. While these legal marriages have NO spiritual significance and are simply legal recognitions of a civil union, then there really is no difference between a court granting civil union and granting marriage.

As a student of God’s Word, I know that true marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. But I also know that the courts do not grant true marriages or divorces, no matter how strong the law might be. Only God binds a man and woman together. In the end, this is a case where the state is doing something that God does not recognize.

Longing for a Return to Spiritual Union

The case of Lucrezia Borgia is extreme, I know. But it reflects the state of marriage better than any contemporary example could. To most of our society, marriage is simply a legal alliance and when it no longer serves our purposes, we discard it. Because it has been reduced to a legal transaction, there is nothing Biblical or divine about it.

Our practice of serial polygamy with the blessings of the courts does not change what it is. It is nothing more than physical union with multiple individuals with no consideration for the spiritual nature of those unions. This is why I absolutely refuse to state that the authority I have to marry individuals is given by the state of New Hampshire.

I long for a desire among people for the recognition of God in their unions rather than the state. A couple in our church, both of whom were divorced before their current marriage, came to me once and asked me to do a church wedding for them. The wife specifically wants to have a church wedding. They recognize that their union is strong because they are both Christ followers. Their legal wedding is fine for them; but they want to be brought together under the bond of God’s blessing. That is awesome!

That is what I long for. For all those people who have been hurt by the system of marriage/divorce in our court systems and even our churches who treat it as a legal transaction, I long for them to realize spiritual union.

Sorry if this posting was rambling – just some thoughts on marriage.

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