Divorce in the 6th Century?
When the Roman Empire disintegrated(5th century), tribes of Germanic and Celtic peoples flowed into what is now France, Germany, and Italy. Because they brought with them their pagan religions and culture, they ran into friction with the Christian Church as the Church fathers attempted to change things.
In defiance of the Church, old Burgundian and Roman Law did authorize divorce but only in certain cases: adultery (only on the part of the woman); use of potions to induce abortion or impotence; or grave robbing. But if a wife threw out her abusive husband, she could be strangled and thrown into a ditch.
The Romans thought in terms of equality between the sexes; the Germans placed the man above the woman, but neither civilization punished male adultery. The Gallo-Romans practiced divorce by mutual consent, but among the wandering barbarian tribes, a wife could usually divorce a husband only if he committed murder or robbed a grave.
The Merovingians (before Charlemagne) allowed married couples to separate with remarriage sanctioned, and, surprisingly, the Church tolerated it. Most barbarian tribes, however, found such mutually acceptable divorces immoral.
Once the church could prohibit divorce completely (9th century), it encountered another problem: Franks settled by Charlemagne in southern France during the Carolingian era had taken wives; upon their return to their homeland , they took second wives. Outside of the Church, many saw nothing wrong with keeping both wives, or renouncing one for political reasons.
Abbo of Fleury, writing about the Viking siege of Paris in 855, notes that “one reason for the invaders’ success was the nobles’ immoderate love of women and penchant for marrying kin” (translation: men were weakened by polygamous intermarriage). Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims (840-882), described how some great lords rid of themselves of troublesome wives: they were sent to inspect the kitchen, where the slave butcher slit their throats! This came to be known as a “Carolingian divorce"; after the husband paid a monetary compensation (wirgild) for the homicide to the woman’s family, the Church allowed him to enter a second marriage.
Obstacles to indissoluble marriage remained the polygamy practiced by Germanic tribes and the Gallo-Roman custom of taking female slaves as concubines. There were fines for rape, abduction, or intercourse with another man’s slave (even if she consented), but no law against a lord’s taking one of his own slaves. Gallo-Roman and Germans of all social ranks fathered children on their female slaves. Polygamy was practiced by the Franks and, later, the Vikings, who made such “Danish marriages” as late as the 11th century.
Slave wives had no power; woman was pitted against woman in battles for their lord’s heart, and, hence, power. These "harem" battles particularly affected royal families and nobility. From Clovis on, most Merovingian kings had several wives. Clotaire I (511-561), asked to find a husband for his wife’s sister, decided he was the best choice and made her his own concubine! [The Church regarded this as incest--having relations with a wife's sister.]
It was not until the Council of Mayence in 813 that the Church forbid marriage to relatives as close as second cousins on grounds of consanguinity. Monogamy and indissoluble marriage did not become general practice among Gallo-Romans and Franks until the 10th century, and it was the common people who adopted it; only later did the nobility follow suit. And with it came the tightening church laws against divorce.
Source: A History of Private Life, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium; Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, editors..