Alaysia of Manosque: Adultery and Incest in Late Medieval Society

S. Hartman

In the Provançal town of Manosque in the year 1400, a man named Antoni Oliverii denounced his new wife for adultery before the local monastic court of St. John of Jerusalem.[1]  Alaysia, widow of Marius Barralerii, had given birth to a son only three months after her marriage to Antoni.  The jealous husband claimed that she had not only engaged in sexual intercourse and conceived a child outside of wedlock, but also that she had concealed the pregnancy while contracting her marriage to him.  Although it may surprise modern readers that a carnal offence committed prior to marriage would constitute adultery, church law acknowledged an extensive range of marital offences under this definition and the Manosquin court’s primary concern was promoting marital stability by limiting illicit sexual activity.[2]

When Alaysia testified in her own defense, she first claimed that she had been raped and impregnated by a knight (cavalcator); however, the court did not immediately accept her testimony and required further depositions to be taken from the accused.  After making several official statements, Alaysia decided to amend her story.  She indicated that during the time between her marriages she had often shared a bed with Marius’ first cousin Jehan, but strictly maintained that she had not known him carnally.  The court can hardly have accepted this odd revelation with much credulity.  The new information complicated matters because Alaysia had opened herself up to accusations of incest, ultimately confirmed during the course of the trial, while attempting to defend against a charge of adultery.

The late medieval definition of incest was much broader than that which currently prevails in Western societies.  Incest existed not only between persons with close blood ties, but also through affinity.[3]  Affinity represents a spiritual connection that is familial in nature such as that between an individual and their in-laws or their godparents.  In light of this understanding, a godparent would be obliged to treat their godchild as a child by blood and a widower would have to treat his sister in law as his own full sister.  Canon law proscribed marriage (and sexual activity by extension) between persons related by blood or affinity within seven degrees before 1215 when the Fourth Lateran Council reduced the prohibitive degrees to a more manageable four.[4]

Because the medieval Church recognised no distinction between incest by affinity or by blood, the court could indeed find a widow guilty of incest with her dead husband’s cousin, and yet Alaysia deliberately implied an incestuous relationship.  This case provides opportunities to explore late medieval perceptions of incest and of sexual transgression generally.  The accused’s willingness to hint at an incestuous affair combined with her hesitation to immediately disclose the full extent of the relationship also raises questions about law, society, and reception of Christian teaching.   This paper will utilize Alaysia’s story to demonstrate the successful dissemination of Church teaching, reveal social responses to Canon law, and to reflect upon the navigation of illicit sexual experience during the Middle Ages.

[1] The case of Alaysia the Adulteress is recorded in the Manosqe court rolls 56H 1005 beginning circa folio 73/74 (unfoliated) and has been treated in

[2] Steven Bednarski, “Curia: A Social History of a Provençal Criminal Court in the Fourteenth Century,” (Montellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2013) 89, note 3.

[3] Johnathan H. Turner and Alexandra Maryanski, Incest:  Origins of the Taboo, (Boulder:  Paradigm Publishers, 2005), 6-10.

[4] Norman Tanner and Sethina Watson, “Least of the Laity:  The Minimum Requirements for a Medieval Christian,” Journal of Medieval History 32 (2006): 411-2, doi:10.1016/j.jmedhist.2006.09.005.