Most historians agree that in the instance side of late medieval English ecclesiastical courts, divorce causes (whether for legal separation or for complete annulment of the marriage) were outnumbered by cases attempting to establish matrimony. But does this imbalance imply that marriage was, in fact, a relatively stable institution, and divorce or marital breakdown rare, in late medieval England? A consideration of the difficulties and costs of obtaining a canonical annulment, combined with a study of cases of bigamy brought to light in both the instance and the office sides of the courts suggests, instead, that unhappily married couples may quite often have resorted to informal separation, followed, sometimes, by unlicensed remarriage. These strategies, in turn, both encouraged and were assisted by geographical mobility among the participants, which rendered it difficult for courts to detect long series of transient partnerships that might lie behind apparently valid marriages. An appreciation of the possible scale of unlicensed serial monogamy might, in turn, modify orthodox historical perceptions of the stability and normality of the legally-instituted nuclear family in late medieval England.
|Publication status||Published - 2007|