Divorce in Reformation Europe

I just finished reading Robert Kingdon’s book Adultery and Divorce in John Calvin’s Geneva. In this book he examines four specific cases of divorce in Geneva and what those cases can teach us about how views on divorce changed during the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation divorce was impossible. There were various ways to get out of a marriage including annulment and legal separation. But there was no divorce.  Calvin and other reformers, including Beza and Vermigli, changed this during the 1500s. However, while divorce was permitted it was still extremely difficult to get one. The only reasons for divorce were adultery and desertion. Here are some thoughts from the concluding chapter of Kingdon’s book.

“Divorce was now possible in Protestant Geneva, however, it remained difficult. A petitioner for a divorce always had to make a compelling case that adultery or desertion had occurred, a case that could withstand the scrutiny of a full trial.  It was never enough for a husband and wife simply to declare that they had become incompatible and no longer wished to live together…Furthermore, an attempt, sometimes quite strenuous was almost always made to persuade the couple to resolve their problems without divorce, to forgive each other, and in token of this fresh agreement to participate in a formal reconciliation ceremony.”

Kingdon goes on to note that most divorces took a long time to be approved. In the four cases described in the book, one took two years, one petition for divorce had to be filed twice, nine years apart, and one man was separated from his wife for eight years before divorce was granted.  He also notes that in the entire period of Calvin’s ministry in Geneva (1541-1564) only twenty six divorces for adultery were granted and far less for desertion. In other Protestant areas divorce, while allowed, was almost unheard of.  Basel had less than three per year. Neuchatel had less than one per year . Zurich was around 5 per year. Kingdon goes on to say that from 1500-1592 there was .57 divorces per 1,000 people per year in Basel. In 1910 the rate was 55.8 divorces per 1,000 people per year. The point here is that despite Protestants opening the door for divorce it was still almost impossible to get one. Kingdon cites one author who notes that widespread divorce rates did not take hold on continental Europe until the early 1800s.

All Protestants felt the innocent party in a divorce was free to remarry. Many, especially Beza who wrote a book on divorce after Calvin’s death, felt that the guilty should remarry as well. It would keep them from sexual immorality.

Kingdon adds that the death penalty was occasionally used on notorious adulterers, which would of course be a de facto divorce. However, this form of punishment was not common in Protestant or Roman Catholic circles.