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Church Records: Marriage Investigations






Before performing each marriage, the Catholic parish priest conducted an investigation to ensure that the bride and groom met the church's requirements. Although not extant for all parishes, the written records of these investigations (mariage ou procédures matrimoniales) are available in separate books or files from the sacramental registers of marriage in many French parishes. These records are called dossiers de mariage in France, where they tend to exist only for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In each marriage investigation, whether conducted by the parish priest to the marriage or under the direction of the bishop's vicar general in the investigations for a marital dispensation, an effort was made to ascertain that this marriage was an exercise of free will on the part of the parties. In the case of the parish investigation, a declaration of consent by each party was obtained, stating that the party wanted the marriage of his or her own "spontaneous and free will."

Canonical Impediments to Marriage

The honor of the Catholic Church as an institution was maintained by being certain that a full investigation was conducted and the parties were free from (that is, they were not in violation of) the impediments imposed by Catholic canon law. Under canon law, there were a number of impediments to marriage, many of which could be dispensed with or forgiven by the bishop. Included in these were two major categories: diriment, which, even if discovered after marriage, voided the union, and preventative, which only stood as obstacles if discovered before marriage. Typical of the latter would be the objection that one of the parties had made a previous promise to marry another person. The following were the diriment impediments as they had developed by the end of the Middle Ages. In 1563 in the Twenty-Fourth Session, the Council of Trent codified most of these principles. Here is the decree in English, The Council of Trent a copy of that decree)1

  1. Consent
    1. Of the contracting parties
    2. Of the father if one of the contracting parties is not of age (after 1787)
  2. Incapacity
    1. Relationship
      1. By blood or consanguinity
      2. By marriage or affinity
      3. Spiritual or by god-parentage
    2. Impotence
    3. Crimes such as adultery or homicide
    4. Public honesty (illicit relation or public promise to marry another)
    5. Previous vow of chastity
    6. Ordination to the priesthood
    7. Another living spouse
    8. The banns were not ready
    9. One of the parties had not reached puberty
    10. One of the parties is not a Catholic
    11. Clandestine marriage - often initiated by abduction.

  1.  The Council of Trent, The Twenty-Fourth Session, The canons and decrees of the sacred and ecumenical Council of Trent, Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), 192-232.Hanover Historical Texts Project Scanned by Hanover College students in 1995. The page numbers of Waterworth's translation appear in brackets.

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