According to the morning headlines, today Pope Francis is set to announce an overhaul of the rules governing marriage that apply, in principle anyway, to the world’s one billion Catholics. The intention is to make it easier to break up a marriage, and to start a second. This will be a controversial step, because of Church traditions that have long stressed the indissolubility of marriage. But is the tension here as strong as it seems?
Marriage has a prominent place in Christian history, which is unsurprising given that for many people, getting married is one of the most important things they will ever do. Certain strands of the early church, in the fourth century, were opposed to marriage altogether, arguing that Christian men and women should both be celibate. But others, most famously St Augustine, defended the institution, partly on the grounds that if undertaken properly, marriage reflected the union between Christ and the church on earth, and thus could not be a bad thing. The price to be paid for this successful rescue effort was that divorce, common in the ancient world, became unthinkable: like Christ’s relation with the church, a marriage, once entered into, was forever, no matter what.
However, precisely what defined ‘marriage’ in specific terms was not entirely clear from all the wrangling – and this left the door open for the development of annulments, in which someone’s marriage could retrospectively be declared as never having been valid in the first place. From the early Middle Ages, and particularly from the ninth century, as the rules on the indissolubility of marriage began to take hold, people began systematically to take advantage of this get-out clause. Because you could not legally marry the godparent of your children, women deliberately talked their husbands into taking on the role. Because marriage was partly justified by having children, people argued that their spouses were still virgins, so the marriage hadn’t been ‘consummated’, and so could be broken off.
The biggest opportunity of all though was provided by incest legislation, which forbade people from marrying their relatives. Already in the early Middle Ages, imagination and ingenuity were applied to render existing marriages incestuous. There are stories of men ‘accidentally’ sleeping with their sisters-in-law, in a bid to separate from their wives. And it was incest legislation that underpinned the first attempt by a king to escape a marriage by ‘legal means’, in an important precedent for Henry VIII. The king in question, Lothar II (d. 869), argued with dubious logic that because his wife had (allegedly) been tainted with incest before he met her, that meant that incest legislation applied to their marriage too, leaving him free to marry his beloved mistress Waldrada.
In today’s announcement, the Pope is likely to make annulments easier to obtain for Catholics who have already acquired a divorce in civil law – whose relationship has, in other words, already irreparably broken down. Annulments have long been used as a mechanism to fit the unyielding structure of Christian marriage, as worked out by austere and celibate church fathers like Augustine, to the messiness of everyday life. In a sense, then, today’s announcement might seem to go against one reading of (some of) those austere church fathers’ pronouncements: but it’s very much in line with Christian tradition, as it’s been practised for centuries.
Cover image: King and Queen, from the Stuttgart Psalter.
Charles West is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History. His translation of a ninth-century treatise on divorce, On the Divorce of King Lothar and Queen Theutberga, written with Rachel Stone, is forthcoming with Manchester University Press.