- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

DUNMOW, England — Organizers of a medieval contest to find the happiest married couple are planning to admit homosexuals for the first time in 900 years, despite opposition from the vicar and other locals.

The proposal to invite same-sex couples in the next competition has fueled the fiercest debate about the Dunmow Flitch Trials since their inception in 1104 in the small Essex town.

The bizarre trials, which are mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath,” are held every four years and involve the award of “a flitch [side] of bacon to married couples if they can satisfy the Judge and Jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors that, in twelvemonth and a day, they have not wisht themselves unmarried again.”

Michael Chapman, a public lawyer and one of three members of the Flitch Trials Committee, supports the inclusion of same-sex couples after the legalization of civil partnerships in Britain this year.

“There is no reason a civil-partnership couple shouldn’t apply,” he said Monday. “We would consider everyone purely on their merits, although we could not guarantee that they would be selected.

“We have not yet had a Jewish, Muslim or Sikh couple apply, but we are such a diverse society that there is no reason why that day should not come.”

John Murphy, a local district councilor, is backing the move.

“If you go back to the original custom, it was for a Christian, heterosexual marriage,” he said. “But if it has already changed to reflect society, it is right that it should continue to do so.”

However, the Rev. David Ainge, vicar at the local St. Mary’s Parish Church and another member of the committee, is not happy at all with the proposal.

“A civil partnership is not a marriage,” he said. “The law of the land specifically says that. The Flitch Trials are about putting a couple’s marriage under the spotlight, not their relationship.

“If civil-partnership couples were allowed to enter, it would change the very foundation of the trials and require a significant rewriting of the whole event.”

The vicar’s stance is being backed by Fred Shepherd, 86, who won the flitch in 2000 after convincing the jury that he and his wife, Joan, had not quarreled in 62 years of marriage.

“It’s against the whole idea of it,” he said. “This dates back to the 12th century and it is about what marriage stands for and having children in wedlock.”

Mr. Chapman, a committee member for more than 20 years, said: “The problem is with the oath — it very clearly talks about marriage, and a civil partnership is not a marriage. We can’t change the oath.

“There are huge obstacles to overcome, but if gay people apply, we would consider them the same as any other couple. It should be very interesting.”

The trials, which take place in the Market Place in Dunmow, involve each of the couples kneeling on pointed stones in front of the jury. There they are questioned over their sworn oath that they have not quarreled in the past year.

Winning couples are carried through the streets by bearers at shoulder height on the Flitch Chair to receive their bacon. Unsuccessful couples get a consolation prize of a gammon joint, which is specially prepared pork cut from the hind leg of a pig.

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