Courtship, Marriage, and Divorce

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Joanne M. Ferraro

Marriage in European society was the basic unit of social organization and was believed to form the fabric of society, giving it cohesion and stability as well as a legal structure to govern inheritance and reproduction. In some European towns and villages marriage also conferred political rights on men. For both women and men it was a rite of passage to social adulthood. First and foremost, marriage forged the alliances, inheritance practices, and patronage systems that permitted generations of family lineages to endure over time. Nonetheless, prior to the nineteenth century many people either chose not to marry or more commonly could not afford to marry. About 10 to 15 percent of the overall population in northwestern Europe during the early modern period did not marry at all. The percentage was higher for southern Europe. Thus marriage was a privileged status often made possible by inheritance. Those who had nothing to inherit did not necessarily feel compelled to establish a legal, conjugal bond and so experimented with other forms of family life based on informal arrangements. The proportion of people who married in western Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries increased significantly from that of the early modern period. The change was linked in part to the transformation of the family from an economic unit into an affective household.


Any discussion of European marriage must take into account its demographic and economic context, social and cultural attitudes about age and sex, and the constructed norms of masculinity and femininity that affected the marriage process. John Gillis's findings for early modern England may be extended to the Continent as a whole. The conjugal ideal best served people of economic substance. Moreover it reflected a gender-bound view of relationships between women and men. Finally, the values and patterns of behavior attached to marriage differed according to social and economic standings.

Marriage in the cities, towns, and villages of early modern Europe was a recognized community affair rather than the more private agreement between individuals that developed in modern times. Rites and festivities evidenced its public nature. Betrothals, marriage contracts, and weddings involved complex relationships with kin, friends, and community that in turn helped sustain the conjugal bond over time. Courtships, betrothals, and weddings were occasions of social drama in which family patriarchs forged new social and political ties with compatible families. Both the social activity leading up to the wedding and the actual ceremony furnished occasions to publicize these new relationships of solidarity. The public announcement of the bride and groom's consent, the exchange of rings and gifts as symbols of the new union, and the public affirmation of the marriage by family and community were as important as the actual legal procedures that established the bond. Thus church, state, family, peers, and community participated in this collective process that ultimately validated a new economic, social, and legal unit.

The breakup of rural communities during the modern era, in contrast, profoundly changed the relationship between a marrying couple and local society. A more commercial economy reduced traditional ties and constraints. One result was an increase in the number of illegitimate children from 1750 onward. Urban growth later furthered the increase. In Britain by 1830 rural areas witnessed marked depopulation as more people moved into manufacturing towns. They left their community ties behind for a more impersonal urban environment. At the same time the enclosure movement in the countryside furthered the breakdown of the rural household and, in turn, the cohesion of the rural community. Late nineteenth-century industrialization solidified this overall trend, bringing strangers together in marriage or common law relationships without the participation of the wider community. Far from family, community, and religious counsel, couples might also form relationships that left unmarried women abandoned with child.

Marriage in European society held profound religious significance. It was one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, and its essential function, according to Catholic dogma, was reproduction. Sex for pleasure alone was a sin; the couple's purpose was to procreate and suitably educate children. Protestants took this argument in another direction by actually devaluing celibacy and asserting that marriage was the spiritually preferable state. They praised the patriarchal nuclear family as a liberation from the celibacy idealized by Catholic thinkers. Husbands and wives were more highly regarded in principle than monks and nuns. Protestants such as Martin Luther claimed to have released Catholic clerics from the regulated life of a cloister or monastery and sexual repression and to have freed children from the involuntary celibacy that accompanied family practices of restricting marriage. Luther and later other Protestants maintained that marriage stabilized both partners sexually and, by extension, society as a whole, creating households, communities, property, and honor. Maintaining principles of good household government would in turn impart good government on society at large. The home thus founded good citizenship, good habits, and virtue.

Both Protestant and Catholic courts regarded mutual consent as the essential requirement for a valid marriage. Church services celebrated the union, making it public and secure under law, but it was the couple's mutual agreement that made it binding in the eyes of God. Strasbourg law explicitly stated in 1534 that a church ceremony was not obligatory to make a marriage valid or legal. Despite this stance, it was recognized that church ceremonies performed the important function of putting marriage on public record. Registering nuptial vows systematically could help prevent the breach of promise cases women more often than men brought to the courts.

While marriage was a sacrament in Catholic theology, for Protestants it was not. However, some still regarded it as a spiritual bond, and for Luther it was a divine ordinance. Martin Bucer took a different view, regarding marriage as a civil matter devoid of spiritual content save for the church's blessing. He maintained that marriage was a secular bond legitimized under secular authority. It was the church's duty, however, to set up and uphold the moral standards associated with marriage, just as secular authorities enforced them.


Regional, demographic, and economic factors affected marriage patterns in Europe. Historians have identified a European marriage pattern in northwestern Europe, which included England, Scandinavia, France, and Germany. Age at marriage in these areas was linked to the idea that couples should be economically independent before setting up their own households. Thus couples married in their mid- to late twenties and immediately established independent, nuclear households. It was preferable that husband and wife be close in age, with perhaps a two- to three-year difference between them. Women in their twenties were regarded as better suited for marriage because they brought both maturity and experience to it. Some women at the lower levels of society worked as domestic servants prior to marriage. Women who married in their twenties were less dependent on their husbands than women who were significantly younger than their spouses. In a nuclear household older brides were also freer from the authority of mothers-in-law.

The northwestern pattern differed from practices in southern and eastern Europe, where some couples married in their teens and lived under the authority of one set of parents well into adulthood or, typically, a teen bride wed a man in his late twenties or even thirties. Young Jewish women in Italy were engaged at puberty and usually married between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, while their grooms were between twenty-four and twenty-eight. Christian girls in Florence, according to the tax survey of 1427, married young, between thirteen and sixteen, while their husbands were from eight to twenty-five years older. Urban areas witnessed wider gaps in age between couples than rural ones. The delayed age at marriage of urban males helps explain the presence of prostitutes as well as concubinage and secret marriages. Younger wives were frequently at a disadvantage in their relationships with their spouses. However, if they outlived their husbands, inherited wealth, and did not remarry, they achieved financial independence relatively early in their life cycles.

Household structure in southern and eastern Europe also varied from the northwestern model. Depending on demographic trends and economic means, a household could be multigenerational rather than nuclear. Extended families with grandparents, multiple siblings, uncles, and aunts were common in rural areas, where successful farming depended in part on a steady supply of labor. Wealthy families as well had the capacity to house several generations in one household in both the city and the countryside. Children married early, seventeen for grooms, fifteen for brides. Age at marriage rose slightly after 1860. In extended families the practice of married children living under the authority of a father until his death emancipated them delayed social adulthood and often created tensions within the household. In contrast, the urban worker or shopkeeper could not afford to maintain an extended family nor supply employment to all offspring. Thus his or her household did not extend beyond its nuclear origin. Sons and daughters married if they could establish separate households, the groom with secured work, the bride with a dowry. If not, they remained unmarried.

Besides regional variations, demographic and economic trends also affected marriage patterns. Marriage rates usually rose following the catastrophic mortality resulting from famines and epidemics. The reduced population made the resources needed to set up new households, including land, employment, and possibilities for profit, more readily available. The average age at marriage plunged during these cycles, a reflection of the urgency of replenishing numbers. The earlier age at marriage increased the number of childbearing years. In contrast, in periods when the population was swollen and landed resources did not match demand, the marriage rate dropped and age at marriage rose. More people remained unmarried during these demographic cycles. This was generally the case during the sixteenth century, a period of dramatic demographic growth accompanied by inflation. The period witnessed a decline in the number of extended family households. The last three decades of the century, however, brought religious war, plague, and famine, relieving population pressure and encouraging earlier marriages. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also experienced cycles of economic hardship that impinged on marriage rates.

In contrast, from about 1750 to 1914 the European population grew dramatically, from 140 million in 1750 to 266 million a century later and 468 million on the eve of World War I (1914–1918). While early modern societies had suffered high natality and mortality rates, societies of the modern era experienced an overall reduction in the incidence of mortality. Once again living standards declined in rapidly growing towns and cities, limiting marriage rates. Although poverty constrained marriage, many couples established common law unions. France was an exception to the growth trend, as were areas where landowning peasants practicing partible inheritance attempted to limit births. In these cases couples still took into account economic considerations when deciding whether or not to marry. Dowries and marriage contracts remained important. Men married later than women, upon establishing financial independence, and the age gap among couples was sizable.

In the early modern period many women and men who did not marry spent their lives in convents or monasteries in the Catholic areas of southern and eastern Europe. This was often not out of choice but out of necessity. Sometimes parents could not provide a daughter with a dowry commensurate with their social class, or parents restricted the number of sons who could marry for financial reasons to preserve the wealth of the lineage over time.

In Catholic Italy the growing number of women who could neither afford to marry nor enter a convent prompted the city-states to found special asylums for women. These institutions provided food and shelter, while residents earned their keep through spinning or sewing. This was a way, according to the views of both secular and ecclesiastical authorities, to protect a woman's virtue and the honor of her family. In many instances lay donors provided small dowries for these women so that eventually they could leave the asylum for marriage. Poor unmarried women who did not enter asylums or convents generally ended up working as domestic servants if they were fortunate or as prostitutes if they were not.


Dating did not exist in early modern European society. Forms of courtship were determined in part by social standing. At the upper levels of society marriage was primarily a business arrangement. Parents, not spouses, made the match, generally employing such criteria as status, wealth, family reputation, and religion. Family patriarchs, taking into account the standing of the family in political and social life as well as the preservation and expansion of its wealth, arranged betrothals with the help of friends, kin, and marriage brokers. Children had at best minimum input in these negotiations. Sometimes the betrothed did not meet until formal contract negotiations were finalized. At that point the prospective groom was permitted to visit the bride during the period leading up to the wedding. At other times the couple did not meet until the actual wedding day.

Lawrence Stone hypothesized that betrothal practices for upper-class English families evolved between the sixteenth century and the eighteenth century from the "restricted, patriarchal, nuclear" family to the "closed, domesticated, nuclear" one. By the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century children chose their partners but asked for parental consent. Marriages determined by economic and social interests waned. By the end of the eighteenth century affection and companionship became decisive criteria in making the match, and husbands and wives manifested strong affective bonds. This process, Stone maintained, advanced by the upper and middling strata of English society, trickled down to the lower classes.

Stone's hypotheses have not remained unchallenged. Perhaps the greatest adjustments have come from new research on the values and behavior of the mass of the English population. Historians have argued that popular experience in England differed from that of the aristocracy, upper gentry, and urban plutocracy and that popular experience did not necessarily derive from upper-class models of behavior. Moreover even within the upper levels of society, some evidence points to courtship or input from children, modifying the argument of strict parental absolutism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Young people's initiation of marital agreements, however, apparently had more success farther down the social ladder, where wealth and standing were lesser concerns. Still parental consent was desirable, and property was an important consideration. Parity in the match remained the most common criterion for suitability. In early modern France dowries and marriage contracts governed the joining of families through wedlock. Financial concerns led men to marry late, after reaching a state of economic security. Women married considerably earlier, joining with husbands in the service of lineage and family estate management.

The less-formal arrangements of meeting at social occasions and forming attractions was more prevalent or at least socially acceptable among the peasant and working classes. Young people met at dances and celebrations. It was acceptable for them to pair up in a large group at festive occasions but not to pair off. One reason for this was to protect the young woman's honor; unaccompanied dating was unacceptable. Another reason was that, until couples were ready to make a serious commitment, they preferred to keep their courting relationship private. Thus most serious courtship went on at night, out of sight of others. The suitor brought the woman gifts. Among the English lower classes these included stay busts (corset stays) and love spoons. Gifts had significant symbolic value. They could signify whether the pair were friends or lovers, whether the relationship was honorable or licentious, or whether the relationship was getting serious or not. Friends and servants sometimes acted as go-betweens during the courting process.

When couples expressed mutual consent to marry, their casual courtship was transformed into a serious relationship that now involved a wider circle of family and friends in the alliance. Consent had to be expressed in front of public witnesses before it was taken seriously and considered a binding promise. Various rituals allowed the community to recognize publicly the new commitment. One was hazing, which, Gillis has argued, expressed the intense feelings of jealousy and loss aroused any time a friend became engaged. It meant these single people were about to withdraw from their unmarried friends and join the circle of married couples. Charivari was another rite that neighbors engaged in to express disapproval of unusual betrothals.

Protestant theologians and jurists held that secret marriages were valid if not licit and urged parental acceptance since these unions had already been consummated. Conversely, parents also were urged not to coerce children into arranged marriages. Luther denounced excessively authoritarian parents in this regard and urged civil authorities to punish them. In Catholic territories boys and girls of canonical age, fourteen and twelve, respectively, had the right to refuse arranged marriages.

Clandestine marriage in France presented a highly different case. Sarah Hanley's research has demonstrated that marriage was regulated in lockstep with the growth of political absolutism and specifically served the secular interests of the French noblesse de robe (judicial nobility). At the Council of Trent, French delegates differed from their Italian and Spanish counterparts by insisting that the church sanction parental control of marriage. But the opposition, rather than capitulate, countered that parental consent was not required for a valid marriage to take place. French lawmakers continued to institute legislative changes that secured parental authority, arguing that it was critical to safeguarding natural and legal propriety. The Parlement of Paris thus implemented legal reforms. In 1556 it overturned canon law with a royal edict decreeing that parents could disinherit children who married without their permission. It also established the legal age for marriage without parental consent as thirty for men and twenty-five for women. The edict was an effort to exercise social and political control and to protect property. The Ordinance of Blois followed in 1578, requiring the officiating priest to have proof of the ages of the couple and the consent of their parents. Violators of the ordinance were charged with forced abduction or willing elopement, crimes punishable by death.

Legalists continued throughout the seventeenth century to tighten patriarchy, strengthening the power of husbands over wives. In 1629 and 1639 the requirement of parental consent was reiterated with further restrictions. Thus the French absolutist state created its own civil laws on marriage, curtailing ecclesiastical jurisdiction and claiming that marriage was a civil contract, not a religious one. Violators of the rules on parental consent would be tried in the secular courts. Determined couples in both Protestant and Catholic areas, however, managed to defy parental wishes despite efforts to restrict them. Romantic love may not have been practical in early modern Europe, but it was a powerful force that sometimes overrode the principles of property and standing that propelled arranged marriages. Both marriage and divorce in early modern Europe were more the concern of the propertied than of the humbler folk, whose values and behavior were guided by other, less-restricting principles.

Courtship and engagement in Jewish families shared some of the characteristics of Christian practices, but Jewish women might play a greater role in the matchmaking procedures. While it was traditional for fathers to arrange marriages, at times mothers, theoretically in the presence of witnesses, made the matches and concluded the symbolic exchange of property. The marriage contract provided for the costs of banquets, lodging, transportation, and clothing. The betrothed exchanged gifts and sometimes love notes. They, too, played some role in choosing whether to marry or not. Jewish women came to marriage with dowries, but so did grooms. The ketubah was the debt a man owed his wife in the event of divorce, imprisonment, or death.

Courtship obviously changed as a result of industrialization and urbanization. Parental controls lessened. Among the working classes and some peasants it was increasingly common to engage in sexual intercourse before marriage, and marriage might occur only if a woman became pregnant, with pressure from her family to match. Middle-class arrangements remained more formal with strong economic overtones as families sought to assure the financial viability of a new family through a proper blending of resources by the bride and groom. But a culture of love, which could complicate expectations in courtship, also gained ground, widely touted in novels and popular reading.


Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period practices varied according to region, social class, and religious affiliation. In 1562–1563 the Catholic Church, through the Council of Trent, attempted to regularize and unify rites of marriage in Catholic areas of Europe. The council mandated that couples announce their banns in advance, publicizing them at least three times in their community; that they marry before their parish priest and at least two witnesses; that they affirm and publicize their mutual consent; and that they register the marriage. These requirements were formulated in response to the widespread confusion over what constituted marriage, for a wide variety of customs had prevailed in western Europe, developing over time in an autonomous and haphazard manner. Although by the fourth century a.d. the church had proclaimed that consent was the basis of Christian marriage, requiring that rites demonstrate the wish to join together, consent had not been attached to any specific protocol. French authorities, unlike their neighbors in England and on the Italian Peninsula, aimed to standardize marriage rites early on, from the eleventh century. They emphasized the sacramental nature of the bond and monitored the requirement of mutual consent attentively. Elsewhere, however, a freedom of form prevailed until the last decades of the sixteenth century.

Form was determined by socioeconomic level as well as by regional custom because marriage was a primary instrument of property relations. Marriage among humbler folk may not have entailed formal negotiations, and some couples may simply have started living together with or without a church ceremony. The man publicly kissed the woman and presented her with a gold ring or some other gift, whereupon they proceeded to have a sexual relationship. Some evidence suggests that communities recognized these unions and did not stigmatize their offspring. Brides may have gone to their weddings in the early stages of pregnancy. Marriage arrangements of this nature, however, were forbidden at the Council of Trent and were condemned as sinful. The council mandated that all marriages must be performed by a priest in a church. The Anglican Church was more lenient in these matters, while the Puritans concurred with the Catholic stance that marriage be formally blessed by the church.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the English upper and middle classes, in contrast with the lower strata of society, followed some protocol of arranged marriage. The groom's father wrote to the bride's father asking permission for the son to court the lady. After several visits, if the potential groom found the woman appealing, he gave her gifts of gold, a ring, or a pair of gloves over a period of about six months. Once the fathers agreed to the betrothal, the bride's father visited the groom's father, and the fathers agreed to a dowry. A ceremony and celebration followed, yet the bride did not leave her natal family for several weeks. The groom fetched her in the presence of family and friends, and the couple began their life together. Of course, these are just a few examples among many variations.

In the Italian regional states marriage contracts often preceded any clerical benediction of the match and were of utmost priority. Even artisans, workers, and peasant farmers went to notaries to record dowries, the exchange of consent, and the gifts of wedding rings. But the social orders with political weight and financial substance paid the closest attention to the contractual nature of marriage and to the financial terms of the union, for marriage was of deep importance to the socioeconomic structure of society. In many Italian cities, such as Florence, Venice, and Brescia, oligarchs constituted a hereditary elite, and endogomy was essential to the lineages' preservation and expansion of power over time. The secular dimension of marriage rites reflects the importance of patrilinear descent and of the disposition of dotal property within urban lineages. Marriage created a new economic unit linked to a network of other units that affected the cohesion of society. Negotiations between the allying families, who were normally entering into a political as well as a social consortium, were mediated by common friends. The fathers, or alternatively the male kin of the future spouses, met accompanied by close family and friends. At this meeting the terms of the marriage were set down in writing, and they were formally finalized at a later date in a notarial document. This betrothal ritual was as binding as the wedding ceremony. The size of the dowry, the terms of dowry payment, the living facilities and clothes the husband promised to provide, and an itemized account of what the bride would bring to the marriage were all stipulated in the contract. Marriage was indeed an economic arrangement.

Until at least the early twentieth century women of all classes, Jewish or Christian, were expected to provide dowries that might consist of some clothing and household items, usually including the marriage bed and bedding, for poor women, or vast amounts of cash, goods, or property for wealthy ones. The dowry was a statement of the bride's social status, publicizing her place in society as a whole. The dowry often substituted for a daughter's share of the family inheritance and increasingly did not include the land earmarked for the patrilineal lineage. Often that land was entailed, a legal restriction that made its recipient, through primogeniture, its custodian over his lifetime with the obligation to pass it on to the first male in the line.

The dowry was the central concern of contract negotiations. While in Roman times its purpose was to aid the groom with the expense of matrimony, in medieval and early modern times it was the bride's right to a share of her natal family's patrimony. Her husband could not alienate or consume it, and his own property was in jeopardy if he transgressed these rules. Legal restrictions over the governance of dotal resources varied from region to region. The dotal share might be equal to that of male siblings' inheritances, or it might amount to more or less. Fathers, brothers, mothers, aunts, and other kin contributed to dowry resources, for a well-dowered bride became a family's social asset with which to make a beneficial matrimonial alliance. If an unmarried and undowered woman lacked parents or paternal ascendants, responsibility might pass to her maternal ascendants, for jurists, clerics, and secular authorities considered dowry provision fundamental to the welfare of women. Laws regarding a woman's control of her dowry varied from region to region. In general a husband had use of it but not ownership during his wife's lifetime. In some areas a widower was entitled to one-third of the dowry, and the rest went to surviving children. Women who thought their husbands were wasting their dowries could sue them. Courts in many areas protected women, taking control of the dowry out of the husbands' hands. The Republic of Venice established a special tribunal for this in 1553. Women might bequeath their dowries, and in some areas they were obliged to leave them to their children. The dowry's importance was so fundamental to both the married woman and her wider kinship network that in Florence a public Dowry Fund was established at the birth of a daughter so deposits could accumulate over time and secure for her a place in the marriage market. Moreover many cities established charities to help with the dowries of the indigent.

In the Italian states the sixteenth century was characterized by dowry inflation, making women and women's property increasingly important to marriage negotiations. Only after the details over the dowry were ironed out could the future groom visit his intended, bring her gifts, and dine with her family. At times the wider kinship group and their friends gathered publicly to celebrate the betrothal and to voice doubts or objections before the final arrangements were made. The marriage contract was a binding document, and guarantors and arbiters were appointed to implement its terms and to supervise its proper execution.

Following the establishment of a marriage contract, the rites of engagement unfolded at the bride's house, where friends gathered and gifts were delivered. The future husband visited, bringing friends and family. A notary asked the couple the questions relating to mutual consent prescribed by the church to confirm their agreement to an alliance formed by the families. The husband gave his new wife a wedding ring and gifts, and a wedding banquet followed. Wedding banquets could be quite lavish and last for days, with large feasts, dancing, games, and other festivities. By the end of the day of the verbal promise and exchange of rings, the union had to be consummated to be valid. The consummation could also be accompanied by festivity, called charivari. Typically the couple was serenaded but also inundated with noise made with drums, bells, and horns. Widows who remarried were also subject to this social ridicule and festivity. In Florence this was called mattinate.

The newlyweds might reside with the bride's family during the initial stages of the relationship. When the new bride left her natal home for that of her husband, further ceremonies might follow, such as riding through the town by torchlight escorted by friends and family. This was a way to notify the entire community of the couple's consent.


Early modern Catholic marriages have largely been characterized as patriarchal arrangements in which husbands exerted paternalistic authority over wives. These models come largely from moral treatises and other prescriptive writings that in fact may not reflect social reality or the variety of experiences of the historical past. Protestant writers took a slightly different stance from their Catholic counterparts, emphasizing companionship, but in principle both denominations advanced the same patriarchal model of marriage. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews stressed shared responsibility between husbands and wives. A husband was required to sustain the upkeep of his wife and children, to protect them from harm, and to guide them. The husband was expected to be a role model for his family and servants, exercising self-control and good wisdom. He was to be God-fearing and disciplined so he might rule firmly but gently over his family. Excessive eating or drinking was frowned upon; abusive authority, violence, and infidelity were condemned. A husband was to exercise goodwill and concern for the welfare of his wife and family. The marital bond was to be based on mutual respect and love, though wives were asked to defer to the authority of their husbands.

A wife was responsible for governing her household and servants and for feeding and disciplining her children. She was her husband's co-worker and companion but was required to respect his authority. In Protestant areas women were usually in their twenties when they married so they would be mature enough to take over the responsibilities of running a household. A wife was expected to perform the conjugal duty of having sex and procreating, though her refusal was not grounds for divorce. Infidelity was condemned, and a woman was obliged to carefully guard her honor and reputation by behaving in a modest and civil manner and not indulging in excess.

The marriages considered to work best, according to prescriptive writings, were those in which husband and wife were close in age, both shared the same religion, both had similar economic means and social status, and the union enjoyed the approval of parents and friends. It has been argued that a wide age gap between spouses brought less parity to the marriage and at times less compatibility.

Ideas of greater parity in marriage found their way even into Russia's highly patriarchal pattern around 1700, with the partially westernizing reforms of Peter the Great. In a traditional custom the bride's father passed a whip to the groom as a symbol of the transition of male disciplinary authority. Peter outlawed this custom and in general promoted greater independence of wives among the upper classes.

The age of industrialization in the nineteenth century brought marked changes to the division of labor between husbands and wives. Husbands worked farther away from the home, becoming wage earners in factories and offices. Wives remained at home to supervise households and children. Only married women from poor families worked outside the household. Legal changes in the status of husbands and wives subordinated married women to their husbands. Wives did not enjoy the same legal rights as their spouses. For example, in England they did not have the right to hold property in their own names. In France the Napoleonic Code gave married men the preponderance of the rights to property, divorce, and custody of children. Most everywhere middle-class women lacked basic legal rights, whether under English common law, the Frederician (Prussian) Code, the Napoleonic Code, or Roman law. Husbands had the legal right to control wives' property, to determine their standard of living, and to make all decisions regarding estate management and the upbringing of children. In eastern Europe paternal authority was even more absolute.

Feminists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fought to redress the legal subordination of wives to husbands. Some political activists, liberal politicians, and demographic specialists, preoccupied with declining birthrates, joined them. Together these groups argued for the basic rights of married women, such as the right to their wages, to own property, and to share the governance of children with their husbands.

In western Europe the role and status of wives during the early twentieth century began to slowly change. As they became better educated, women acquired more control over their homes and their children. Some managed the family budget, the children's schooling, and religious instruction. Married couples developed stronger affective ties to each other as the home increased in emotional importance. More marriages were based on affection and sexual attraction than the formal arrangements of previous centuries.

The world wars of the twentieth century further advanced the rights and opportunities of women both at home and in the labor market, although in interwar periods married women were encouraged to leave the workforce to men. As the century progressed growing numbers of women acquired white-collar jobs, giving them independence and the possibility of dramatic change in lifestyles. More married as well as unmarried women worked and supported themselves, family size became smaller, and husbands increasingly shared family and household responsibilities.


The likelihood was greater that widowers would remarry than would widows, especially if widowers were left with children who needed maternal care. Conversely, widows with children were more unlikely to remarry. Older women were at a greater disadvantage than younger ones, whereas age did not appear to make as much difference among widowers. For example, in seventeenth-century France only 20 percent of widows remarried, while half the widower population took new spouses. For women economic status played a role both in their desirability and their own wishes to remarry. A rich widow had a better chance of finding a new husband but might resist the pressure of remarriage in favor of enjoying her newly gained economic freedom. Her in-laws also might discourage remarriage lest the property be dispersed. Pressure for young widows of economic substance to remarry was high, both for the wealth they had to offer and because their independence and sexual experience were disturbing to a predominantly patriarchal society. The same did not apply to widowers, who were socially desirable but free to do as they chose.


Historians have explored both the ties of affection that bound married couples and the tensions that divided them but have come to no consensus over the quality of early modern marital relationships, most of which were arranged. One part of the debate has hinged on property arrangements and inheritance patterns that restricted marriage. Some historians have stressed that parental authority over marriage delayed social adulthood and prevented ties of affection between parents and children. Moreover Philippe Ariès, Jean-Louis Flandrin, David Hunt, and Stone found affection absent in early modern couples. They characterized relations between spouses and between parents and children as distant and cold, for arranged marriage was a product of relationships based on property and not on love. The findings of other historians challenged this thesis, primarily by making it class specific. Steven Ozment's research on burgher society in Reformation Europe reveals intense emotional relationships between husbands and wives as well as between parents and children. Michael MacDonald's study of depression in early modern England finds spousal loss a common cause. He argued that affection was important and expected in marriage. Moreover several historians pointed to the writings of Lutherans, Puritans, and other Protestants during the Reformation that stress the importance of companionate marriage and mutual affection between spouses while still sustaining patriarchal principles.

Physical attraction and emotional love were not prerequisites for arranged unions. However, the potential development of love and affection played a critical part in keeping a marriage together. Sentiments are not always easy to document. Whether love developed in marriage or not, a successful union was one that developed respect and trust and in which spouses shared responsibility and were willing to work and sacrifice for the good of the household.

Another part of the debate over the quality of marital relationships revolves around the contention that dramatic changes in the history of sentiment took place from the eighteenth century onward. Flandrin and others argued that the family took on greater emotional importance for its members as early industrialization created a less emotional or psychologically satisfying environment. The growth of domestic manufacturing and the expansion of market relationships created sterile, competitive relationships among individuals and social classes, and the family became the center of emotional life. The relationship between husband and wife became less authoritarian and more affectionate. Evidence for this position is in family advice literature published during the Enlightenment. Writers urged the expression of greater affection and love in place of anger. This has been interpreted as the first steps toward the modern, middle-class ideal of the loving home. It seems, however, that this thesis is based primarily on prescriptive literature and applies best to the aristocracy and the middle class. In contrast, critics of this view, who have studied social experiences at other levels of society and through other sources, have argued that love may have thrived beneath the principally economic relationships produced by arranged marriage. Some sixteenth-century studies have concluded that the nuclear family increasingly became a focus of loyalty and was upheld in the Protestant ideal of the companionate marriage. During the Reformation the home displaced the church for some religious activities, such as reading the scriptures and prayer. Whether or not major changes in the emotional lives of husbands and wives, parents and children, took place during the eighteenth century is still debated.

Yet another historical controversy revolves around whether a married woman maintained close ties with her natal family or simply came under the custodianship of her husband's family. The answer may be linked to customary practices. Christiane Klapish-Zuber found that fifteenth-century Florentine families detached themselves from married daughters, while Joanne Ferraro's evidence for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Venice indicates parents continued to be actively involved in their married daughters' lives, especially if their sons-in-law were failing in their duties as husbands. Moreover both Stanley Chojnacki and Ferraro have found that in Venice and Brescia, respectively, women made bequests to members of their natal families and provided female kin with dowries, signs that they continued to maintain close kinship ties throughout their lives. In early modern Jewish families, however, women were expected to leave their natal families behind both emotionally and physically so husbands rather than fathers would have the final say over their married lives.

Again industrialization and urbanization would change family dynamics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many urban working-class men spent much of their time outside the home at work and in male comradeship. Wives often preserved intense contacts with their mothers, sharing a variety of activities and household chores even when living in separate residences.


Because divorce was not permitted and separation was discouraged, the Catholic Church devoted a great deal of attention to regulating marriage at its inception to prevent the conflicts that ultimately might lead to petitions for annulment. The church meticulously defined the impediments to marriage that invalidated any claims to a legitimate union. An invalid marriage was grounds for annulment, in canon law signifying the marriage never took place and the parties involved were still free to wed. Couples obtained annulments in cases of forced unions, incapability of consummating the marriage (premarital impotence), and consanguinity and affinity in relationships of third cousins or closer. The Catholic Church also found marriages between people of different religions inappropriate unless the non-Christian converted. Taking vows of chastity or holy orders impeded marriage, as did secret vows to wed someone else or sexual relations with another person after one was engaged. Godparents and godchildren were forbidden to marry because they shared a spiritual affinity, and a godchild could not marry the child or sibling of a godparent. Legal guardianship created the same impediments. It was, moreover, inappropriate to marry someone convicted of fornication, adultery, or planning to murder a married lover's spouse. Life-threatening coercion also invalidated the consent to marry. In a number of cases that came before the courts of early modern Venice adult children lamented that they were forced into the arrangements of their parents with threats of violence. The Catholic Church maintained that parental consent was not a prerequisite for valid marriage and that these unions had been forced against the will of one or both of the spouses.

The discussion of divorce in Catholic circles was far less detailed than the subject of impediments. While Eastern Orthodox courts allowed divorce for adultery or taking religious vows, the Roman Catholic Church did not permit this solution for failing marriages. Canon law defined marriage as a permanent union before God and the church, based on Matthew 19:6, "What God has joined together, no man may put asunder." However, under specially defined circumstances couples in failing marriages were allowed separations of bed and board. This signified they would not cohabit, but they could not remarry. The circumstances under which the Roman church allowed separation included life-threatening abuse, leprosy, and adultery. Battered wives in early modern Venice found the Patriarchal Court sympathetic to their grave circumstances. The court acted as a place where women could seek redress and hope to dissolve a failing union. Often women in bad marriages in early modern Venice and elsewhere in the Italian regional states retreated to one of the many asylums established through law and ecclesiastical charities. In this way the malmaritate (badly married) safeguarded their honor and reputations before their communities. Husbands were ordered by secular tribunals to sustain the cost of living of separated wives and to be responsible for the care of the children. Adultery was also just cause for separation in Catholic courts. A guilty husband was responsible for the support of an injured wife. In the reverse case, however, a wife might be obligated to forfeit her dowry as punishment for this serious moral offense.

In early modern France the Roman Catholic doctrine of marital indissolubility was staunchly defended by the Gallican church and the monarchy. As in Italy, separations were permitted. However, the control over this process came increasingly under the civil courts because of property considerations. Separations had far-reaching effects, unraveling ties between kin groups and political oligarchies, rearranging or canceling property transfers, forcing friends and relatives to adjust to a new social situation, and generally upsetting the life of the community. Consequently this solution to failing marriage was highly discouraged and rarely occurred before the eighteenth century. More women than men sought separations in the French ecclesiastical courts because they needed the assistance of the law against tyrannical husbands. Separations in France were granted when the wife was in physical or moral danger, if she was falsely accused by her husband of adultery, or if her husband was insane, attempting to murder her, or expressing deadly hatred of her. On the other hand, wives with adulterous husbands were generally expected to endure poor marital relations.

Ecclesiastical authorities in France increasingly lost jurisdiction over the regulation of marriage and separation to secular authorities. Ultimately a partnership developed between the Gallican church and the absolutist state that marked the beginning of secularization and the laicization of family law. The trend spread throughout many parts of western Europe. Gradually, from the eighteenth-century onward, French monarchs and their counterparts in Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, and Catholic Austria, had a hand in dissolving marriages, as did republican Venice's Council of Ten, the oligarchy's supreme judicial organ.

In eighteenth-century France the grounds for marital dissolution expanded from adultery and desertion to emotional incompatibility. Most thinkers during the ancien régime opposed divorce until the Enlightenment, when philosophers rejected the theological assumptions of the Middle Ages in favor of natural law and secular ideas receptive to divorce doctrines. Some argued that divorce would promote population growth, regenerate morality, and increase happiness and harmony within families. The subject of divorce was prominent in the depopulationist literature emphasizing both reproduction and regeneration. Its prohibition reputedly caused adultery and illegitimacy as well as child and spousal abandonment and poverty. Divorce and remarriage would make families happier. Moreover, writers such as Montesquieu and Paul-Henri-Dietrich d'Holbach argued that it would be beneficial for women, who could use it as a counterweight to the authority that their husbands wielded within marriage.

Not just in France but throughout the Catholic regions of Europe separation was generally discouraged by the church courts, and couples were urged to work out their differences. This was true in Anglican England, where marriage differences came under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts that continued to administer medieval canon law. The Reformation had not revised canon law in England save for reducing the number of proscribed degrees of incest. The Anglican Church, unlike other Protestant denominations, did not permit divorce with permission to remarry but, as in Catholic areas of Europe, granted separations of bed and board in cases of adultery and life-threatening danger as a result of physical abuse. As the idea of companionate marriage diffused throughout Reformation England, wives requesting separations as a result of cruelty received more sympathy.

Before 1657 the ecclesiastical courts in England had sole jurisdiction over marital break up. The church courts were administered by men trained in the civil law over property matters who in marriage cases applied canon law as well. By the late seventeenth century English common law courts became increasingly involved in breach of promise suits, and these slowly replaced marriage contract suits before the ecclesiastical courts. English criminal courts also became involved if either of the parties chose to sue the other for bigamy or sodomy. Finally, Parliament had a hand in marriage disputes in the late seventeenth century. It passed private bills of full divorce with permission to remarry for wealthy husbands.

England instituted many deterrents to suing for separation, particularly if the wife was initiating the dissolution. Stone wrote that significant numbers contrived to escape their marital bonds without going to court. Only 10 percent of the cases involving legal proceedings came to trial and sentence. Stone contended that wives, made docile by the ideology of female subordination and inferiority, were reluctant to sue for separation. Moreover for them separation meant near certain financial hardship or destitution. When the husband was found guilty, the alimony was generous, amounting to a third of his declared net income. However, it was hard to enforce payment. Another serious deterrent was that wives could also loose contact with their children. Fear of publicity also discouraged petitions to separate. The situation of English women, as presented by Stone, is in stark contrast to the sympathy for abused wives expressed by the ecclesiastical court in early modern Venice.

Nonetheless, reasons to separate in England did arise, among them the physical separations and outright desertions caused by war, infidelity, financial quarrels, ruptures between the husband's kin and the wife's kin, physical cruelty by the husband, and adultery by the wife or husband, although generally the double standard made only adultery by the wife legitimate grounds for separation. Marriage ties in early modern England could be broken in a variety of ways, such as through desertion, wife sale among the lower classes, and separation by private deed. In the last instance the husband and wife made a private agreement in which the husband assured his wife alimony. The wife was subsequently financially free to act. Divorce as a legitimate remedy for failed marriage only came to England after 1660, and until 1820 it was class specific. Only the rich, landed elite and merchants could afford to pay the personnel involved in formal litigation.

In other Protestant areas of Europe marriage regulations differed from both Catholic and Anglican ones on several points. First, they stressed the importance of parental consent more than Catholic regulations did and allowed for the possibility of divorce with remarriage for adultery, impotence, refusal to have sex, abuse, abandonment, and incurable diseases. Second, Luther reduced the large number of legitimate impediments to Catholic marriage to two or three, including impotence, marriages made in error, and the twelve kinship barriers stated in Leviticus 18.

Protestant reformers, however, were not in consensus over what constituted a legitimate impediment to marriage. In Strasbourg and Constance the tenets of canon law still essentially informed rules about marital impediment. In conservative Nürnberg, however, reformers not only sustained the kinship barriers that had been outlined by the Catholic Church but further multiplied them. The theologian Andreas Osiander established nineteen kinship barriers from Leviticus 18 and 20, fifteen from the laws of Moses, and sixteen from the kinship ties traced from grandparents.

In principle Protestants made divorce and remarriage possible for those with legitimate cause. Reformers, such as Luther and Bucer, and theologians, such as Johannes Brenz in 1531 and Johannes Bugenhagen in 1540, rejected the Catholic solution of separation of bed and board for failing marriages. Without cohabitation, they maintained, no marriage existed. Moreover they rejected the Catholic notion of marriage as a sacrament, viewing it instead as a secular commitment. Its purpose extended beyond procreation to that of creating a harmonious hearth and home through mutual commitment. French Reformed Protestants and English Puritans took a similar stance.

Perhaps the most compelling cause for divorce in Protestant areas was adultery, which liberated the innocent spouse from the union. Lutheran theologians also recognized emotional incompatibility and hatred as causes for marital dissolution but not religious differences. In extreme cases couples could be granted a separation, but the husband retained the right to summon the wife back into his house if he could not manage it by himself. A grant of separation, however, did not sanction dating or remarriage. Brenz cited other unusual circumstances that might lead to divorce, including threats of murdering a spouse or of practicing dangerous magic, but none was as powerful as adultery in arguing for divorce. A marriage that was not consummated after three years could also be dissolved, but not if the marriage had been consummated and then serious illness impeded sexual relations. Desertion was also legitimate reason to divorce, as it certainly did not live up to the ideal of companionship in marriage. The abandoned spouse was allowed to remarry a year after his or her partner's disappearance.

Divorce in Protestant areas of Europe came under the jurisdiction of secular tribunals rather than the clergy. Lutheran clergy could advise the court, but they neither made marriage laws nor judged marital litigation. Luther called on civil magistrates to establish divorce courts that would use both scripture and secular law as their legal and moral guidelines. Protestant courts tended to be cautious in granting divorces. Nürnberg judges in particular resisted divorce and remarriage, fearing it would encourage adultery and abandonment. Conservative reformers voiced these concerns in Basel as well. John Oecolampadius advocated that only adultery should be valid cause for divorce. But these conservative views were balanced with more liberal ones, such as those of Bucer, who recognized leprosy, madness, impotence, and abandonment as just causes for the dissolution of marriage. Thus in Basel both men and women sought divorce on these grounds. Refusal of the conjugal duty, however, was not just cause for marital dissolution.

Ozment collected important information on the activities of the Protestant courts. A Zwinglian church court was established in Zurich in 1525, replacing the bishop's court in Constance. Two clerics and four lay authorities sat on the six-member team that dealt with contested marriages and requests for divorce. While this court could make judgements, their enforcement was exclusively in the hands of the city councils, which also served as appellate courts. The Zurich court heard petitions mostly from women, who were sometimes represented by lawyers, and supporting testimony from parents, guardians, and other witnesses. The court recognized six grounds for divorce, specifically adultery, impotence, willful desertion, serious incompatibility, a sexually incapacitating illness, and deception. The court also attempted to end lay concubinage, prostitution, and breach of promise to marry and to regularize secret marriages, perhaps to protect the reputation of pregnant women by obtaining a firm marriage commitment for them. It denied private unions and required credible witnesses at the marriage ceremony as well as public declarations of mutual consent. Betrothed couples were urged to postpone cohabitation until after public vows and a church-recorded marriage ceremony.

In Basel five laymen and two clergymen heard divorce cases. The court recognized adultery, impotence, willful desertion, capital crimes, leprosy, and deadly abuse as grounds for divorce. Convicted adulterers were fined five pounds. The fine was doubled for a second offense, and the offender was given a six-day jail sentence. Repeated offenses increased the punishment. Zurich had similar punishments. An offender could be banished from the church, his or her right to hold public office withdrawn, and his or her eligibility to join guilds and societies removed. Remarriage was not permitted until one to five years after the divorce. Basel was more severe, forbidding remarriage. The injured spouse in adultery cases received a cash settlement as well as property.

Divorced people were expected to wait at least one year before remarrying. The ceremony for a second marriage for Lutherans had to be a private affair before civil authorities rather than a public church occasion. The couple made their commitment before civil magistrates and then perhaps spent an evening with family and friends and a pastor who concluded the new union. The remarriage of a widow or a widower was also a private occasion.

Besides petitions for separation or divorce, church courts heard cases that challenged arranged marriages. In Venice these petitions were often brought by women in defiance of parental authority. Life-threatening coercion or disinheritance, if convincingly demonstrated, gave cause for invalidating an unwanted marriage. In Zurich parental challenges to secret marriages of children under nineteen came to the court's attention, but these marriages were not automatically annulled.

Under certain circumstances, such as infidelity or violent abuse, divorce was permitted in Jewish law, though wives did not have the right to initiate the petitions. Still, cases were brought before rabbinic courts by women accusing men of various deficiencies that were acceptable grounds for divorce according to rabbinic law.


In terms of the law, the modern history of divorce began with the French Revolution. Enlightenment ideas about the family gained prominence, and for several years divorce was legalized, open to action by wives as well as husbands. Although the rate was not massive, a number of divorces ensued, often initiated by women. Napoleonic legislation then closed off many opportunities. During most of the nineteenth century divorce remained highly circumscribed throughout Europe, particularly for women. But changes in laws, usually associated with the discussion of new rights for women, altered the situation late in the century.

By 1900 divorce had spread dramatically throughout Europe. Only a few Catholic states (Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Ireland) made no legal provisions for divorce. Elsewhere civil courts made it readily available, and the laws governing marital dissolution were generally liberalized. England founded a Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes in 1857. France, having suspended divorce laws in the second decade of the nineteenth century, reintroduced them in 1884. Meanwhile nineteenth-century ideologies of domesticity and femininity urging equal access to divorce courts for women made a notable impact, so much so that divorce became a subject of debate in the years leading up to World War I. Framed as "the marriage question," the broad and lively discussion encompassed such issues as free love, polygamy, fertility, contraception, the liberties of women, and the social and moral issues of divorce. Conservative efforts to restrict divorce faltered as many countries either legalized or liberalized it. Divorce increased in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, when experiments in family law were widespread. Nevertheless, great efforts to maintain family stability characterized the Stalinist era.

In the second half of the twentieth century divorce was accessible to all social groups. As the century progressed divorce rates soared. It is difficult to attribute this dramatic rise to any one cause. Explanations have linked a number of important transformations in twentieth-century life, including attitudes toward sexuality, morality, and religion; the relations of men and women; and social, economic, and demographic conditions. The late twentieth century brought change both in the expectations of marriage and in the attitudes toward divorce. Premarital pregnancy, which previously had propelled couples into marriage, lost its social stigma, and single parenthood gained recognition. In Scandinavia a growing number of people, including parents, did not bother with marriage at all. Further, increasing numbers of women entered the labor market, achieving the financial independence that gave them choices about whether or not to marry and whether or not to remain married. Legal changes also facilitated divorce for women, giving them property rights and the possibility of alimony and child support. The late twentieth century was thus a vital transition period that broadened the opportunities to marry and at the same time made divorce more commonplace. Divorce rates varied by region, however, and the United States outnumbered all others.

See also other articles in this section.


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Courtship, Marriage, and Divorce

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