History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 September 2008

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..


Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Fascinating, Lynna. I wonder how marriage and divorce would have been different if women had more rights. This was a period when love was not the primary reason for marriage. If marriage was essentially a matter of survival and/or politics I think liberated women would have been as "flexible" as men when it came to the legal bonds of marriage.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

You make a very good point. Right now I'm reading a book on women's evolving lives and rights--The Prospect Before Her, 1500-1800, by Olwen Hufton. The constrictions on women's lives in that era, at least in the 1500s, are appalling.

7:07 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Great, sobering information, Lynna. So interesting, isn't it, that a tradition of romance literature (based on some passionate, if ambivalent understanding of female personhood) could take root in such stony soil...

8:46 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Pam--yes stony soil. It's my opinion that it's BECAUSE of this stony soil that "romance" stories took hold: the "there must be more to life than this..." idea.
It's literature that taps into a felt. but possibly unrecognized, need?

4:23 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating, Lynna! Is this background for a book you're working?

2:40 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

What civilization ever endorsed marriage-for-love? Until the 20th century, I don't think many women had the freedom to marry for any reason other than survival/politicals or for the money she could bring.

Mary, thanks for the reference on Hufton's book. I'd like to read that one.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating, but I can't help feeling that there has always been a disjunct between law and reality. We don't know much about actual women's lives, but people like the Merovigian Queen Fredegund can't have been unique.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Jane--No, it's not background reading for a book I'm working on, but I'd sure like to hear more about Queen Fredegund.
Interestingly, it seems the "peasant" classes had more freedom of choice in marriage partners--especially a woman who had spent time "in service" in a neighboring town and had some money saved for a dowry.

The whole idea of a "dowry" fascinates me--from African tribal males who presented cattle to win a mate to American Indians, Bedoins, etc. who presented horses to "buy" the bride.

Who buys whom seems to vary... why would women have to supply the dowry in English/European culture, when in other cultures, it's the men who pay the "bride price."
Anyone have any ideas?

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I encountered Fredegund in Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks. As I recall, she was the mistress of Clothir (?) and after they killed off his wife, his queen. A war ensued, because the wife's sister took all this amiss. It was not pretty.
One of the interesting things about doweries and bride prices is that they can exist together. Essentially, they are a way to enable the new couple to set up housekeeping together. Forget about the 19th century English aristocracy. For the rest of the world, we are talking practicality. Ever hear of parents helping their children buy a house? It' s essentially the same thing.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lynna, this is fascinating and juicy stuff. In my research for my wip I've been reading about Eleanor of Aquitaine's divorce from Louis VII (which of course was a later period than you describe), as well as many other high profile royal divorces. And I've been struck by how "fluid" the Church was when it came to sanctioning marriages between cousins, even 1st cousins by accepting, well, bribes, to waive the degree of consanguinity clause that would bar the marriage. And the Church was equally fluid when it came to agreeing to allow the same couple (Eleanor and Louis meet this standard, but there are many others) to divorce by the very impediment they waived (degree of consanguinity) to permit them to wed in the first place. My cynical sense of the Church's view on divorce was that if the Pope got paid enough he would allow cardinals and bishops to sunder any marriage--and the same hold true for finding loopholes that would permit a dicey familial relationship to become a marriage

11:57 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Not only Eleanor of A. and Louis--think about Henry VIII. First he marries Katherine, the wife of his brother (considered incest), and then he wants to set this marriage aside and marry Anne Boleyn. This
time the church stands fast for the
"incestuous" marriage--and only when pressure is brought do they cave in and grant Henry a divorce so he can marry Anne.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

And add to the Anne and Henry cocktail, the issue of the fact that he slept with Mary Boleyn first. In order to marry Anne, Henry had to get the Pope to waive the issue of his having slept with his fiancee's older sister (a consanguinity issue); then, when he was pushing for the divorce from Anne, one of the reasons Henry had the chutzpah to give everyone for why that marriage should be annulled (technically he was granted annulments, not divorces) was because--wait for it--before they'd wed, he'd slept with her sister!

7:13 PM  

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