In a previous post I talked about medieval marriage. Now I want to discuss medieval divorce.
Theoretically one didn't get divorced in the Middle Ages, However, it certainly happened. Although all societies have formal ways for a couple to swear to be true to each other forever (e.g., marriage), they also all have ways to get out of a marriage that is, for whatever reason, just wrong.
In ancient Jewish law, adultery or barrenness in a woman were grounds for divorce. In Roman and early medieval law, one could get out of a marriage if one's spouse dabbled in forbidden magic or was a despoiler of tombs. A man could also divorce his wife for adultery, though it would be harder for her to bring similar charges against him. You will note that "irreconcilable differences" was not grounds. In fact, it did not become grounds until late in the twentieth century.
By the ninth century, churchmen had decided that marriage, as a quasi-sacrament (it did not become an official sacrament until the thirteenth century), ought to be permanent, insoluble. The sacramental aspect of marriage was the oaths, swearing on all that was holy to stay together "till death do us part." You don't just change your mind about an oath like that.
Oaths were supposed to have witnesses, to avoid denials later. A couple who secretly swore their oaths to each other were still validly married, but because they had married in an illegal way, they had to do penance.
Thus the only way out of marriage was the discovery that you had not been validly married in the first place. (Modern Catholicism still follows some version of this.) If one of the couple's oaths was forced, not a free-will decision, then it didn't count (the so-called "shot-gun wedding" would not have been valid in the Middle Ages). If it turned out that one of the pair was already married to somebody else, then the marriage was similarly annulled. If the couple had not consummated their union physically, then they weren't really married. If someone had not been heard of for seven years they were presumed dead, and the spouse could remarry (though this was officially not divorce, but being assumed to be widowed).
But the easiest way out of marriage was to discover that a couple were actually cousins. Also in the ninth century, when marriage was decided to be insoluble, churchmen decided that it would be incestuous to marry someone more closely related than "seven degrees," that is someone who shared any ancestors with you going back seven generations. In practice, of course, everyone in the aristocracy, that is those likely to actually know who their ancestors were, was related to everyone. Thus consanguinity ("shared blood") meant that an aristocratic couple determined to get a divorce could probably find some common ancestors and announce, with nicely modulated shock, that they had to split up.
For peasants, divorce was a lot easier. You just moved out, and then everyone related to either half of the couple got involved in bitter wrangling. As long as neither half of the couple remarried--or at least not without moving very far away first--the church neither knew nor cared.
Coming up soon--some celebrated medieval divorce cases.
© C. Dale Brittain 2014
For medieval marriage & divorce and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.