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« How to Govern England in the 1700s | Main | How to Dress in the Early 1700s »

How to Get Divorced in the Early 1700s

In a word, don't. The cost was too high. All children and all property were de facto and de jure given to the husband as his unencumbered right. The wife was left desolate. Indeed, any assets she had at marriage--a dowry, a family inheritance, property, often even a title among the landed set--were consolidated into the husband's ultimate take. Her family was usually of no help, most often attaching itself to her husband's clan because of the grandchildren or other money matters. The few women who were lucky took vows--if they could find an order or nunnery that would take them in. The vast majority were lost to the prostitution industry, starved to death, or ended their own lives by their own hands.

That all said, European attitudes were changing quickly during Defoe's lifetime--and also then during the elapsed "time" of the novel ROXANA.

As a brief historical reference, divorce laws were more liberal, more tolerant in the early Middle Ages, before the 900s CE. Based largely on Roman laws, marriages could indeed end, although almost always in favor of the husband.

During what's now called "the tenth century Renaissance," the church began to develop its notion of the sacraments more fully and hold them more sacrosanct. Marriage, one of these sacraments, was then given increasing prominence. As you may know, the Roman Catholic church eventually developed the notion of seven sacraments, of which no human could partake of more than six--because the sacrament of the celibate priesthood (or other orders) and the sacrament of marriage were mutually exclusive. Seven would be, of course, the divine number of sacraments, something only Mary enjoyed, since she was both celibate and pregnant. As you can imagine, there is copious discussion among the European monastics in the tenth century to tease out the warren of details.

That said, the Protestants--and particularly (or surprisingly) the Puritans--were far more liberal in their notions of marriage and divorce. Milton, a staunch, unflinching Puritan, wrote a long tract arguing in favor of divorce.

The Protestant position stems from a rather off-hand comment by Jesus in the Gospels in which he said that Moses (and thus, God) allowed divorce under the Old Testament law "because of the hardness of your hearts." The Protestants, more in tune with the literal words of their Bibles and less interested in the convolutions of scholastic theology, found themselves allowing things the Roman church would not. Divorce is not the ideal but it can happen.

Nonetheless, the English remained recalcitrant, partly because the country rode a line between the Roman Catholic church and all the other Protestants, even the Puritans like Oliver Cromwell and his lot in their midst. The Church of England did not tolerate divorce, still hearkening back to those scholastic arguments without actually adhering to them. It's a bit ironic, since Henry VIII broke from the Roman church over this very issue. But it seems to have haunted the Church of England for centuries, partly as a way to keep convincing themselves they were the "real" church (see, we're just like Rome, except the crown is the head of the church) and partly as a way to toe a line against the Protestants in their midst.

Across Europe, however, and even in Scotland, thanks mostly to the Presbyterians there, divorce was fast becoming a reality. First, around 1600, came "divorce a mensa et thoro" (that is, "divorce from room-and-board")--meaning that the husband and wife were not allowed to live together but that the marriage itself was not dissolved. They could not be remarried.

This did not satisfy many Protestants and their reading of the Bible. So by 1700, many European kingdoms, dukedoms, and smaller political arrangements had adopted "divorce a vinculo matrimonii"--that is, "divorce from all the bonds of matrimony." The participants were returned to a single state, free to remarry. They could not take leadership positions in Protestant churches, having gone ahead with a "hard heart" to do what was less than best; but still and nonetheless, they could be divorced and remain a "back bencher" for life.

The change was earth-shattering--strangely, because of that "hardness of heart" problem. The various Protestant monarchs in Europe and those legions of Protestant ministers didn't want to touch divorce for fear of its taint, but they didn't want to disallow it either, because the Bible said so. So while the church had the right to marry whom it will, the bureaucracy slowly took on the right to dissolve marriages. While annulments remained an ecclesiastical function, the state took on the problem of ending marriages--a very similar place to the one we inhabit in the U. S. these days. The church can marry; it cannot divorce.

So the final irony: divorce itself was part of the increasing secularization of the West, despite its arising mostly from religious Protestants who were trying to follow the Bible literally. Power was taken away from religious authorities. No longer was marriage a strictly religious arrangment, a sacramental obligation. It was a function of the state.

All this bears on Roxana and her plight--or perhaps we should say her "lack of a plight"--as she makes her way across society, a married woman pretending not to be one.

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