Here’s One Of The Few Ways Women Could Divorce In Medieval England

Although divorce might seem like a modern concept, it dates back thousands of years, when ancient societies created rules to celebrate marriages and officialize separations. According to TED, the oldest register of divorce dates to Mesopotamia 2000 B.C., when they wrote its rules on clay tablets. 

In the past, ending a marriage was not easy. In England, the Matrimonial Causes Act allowed ordinary citizens to divorce in 1857, The Guardian reports. However, women who asked for a divorce had to prove their husbands were not only unfaithful but also violent. Before the new rule, asking for a divorce was a privilege limited to men and authorized by the Act of Parliament, which was expensive.

Over the years, the concept of divorce has also changed. According to The National Archives, in the medieval world, divorce was an annulment that made the marriage invalid. Unsurprisingly, it was only granted in specific cases.

Impotence could be a reason for divorce

In medieval England, as in other Christian countries in Europe, the church courts were responsible for deciding the fate of marriages, divorces, and adulterers, via The National Archives. In a world where the church played a major role in those decisions, marriage was perceived as a holy sacrament that should be monogamic and last forever.

Unsurprisingly, women were at a disadvantage. According to “Runaway Wives: Husband Desertion in Medieval England,” husbands held power in relationships — both legally and socially. Wives had no financial control, and occasional violence was acceptable and expected. Marriage was a hierarchy, and men controlled financial assets and social behavior. Not only that, but being unhappy was not a reason for divorce.

Interestingly enough, impotence was one of the few ways women could ask for a divorce in medieval England. But the court did not accept her word at face value and requested witnesses. According to Narratively, the witnesses were often women — either married female acquaintances, widows, or local sex workers — and they had to arouse the husband. In some cases, the witness could also be a man who would watch while the husband tries to have sexual relations.

Although things have changed, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Georgia still accept impotence as a reason for divorce. However, witnesses have been replaced by medical documents (via Narratively).

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