Academic journal article Journal of Social History

When Love Goes Wrong: Getting out of Marriage in Seventeenth-Century Spain

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

When Love Goes Wrong: Getting out of Marriage in Seventeenth-Century Spain

Article excerpt

"What therefore God has joined together let no man put asunder."(1) Based on this New Testament injunction, the Catholic Church took marriage out of the hands of humans and placed it among the sacraments defined by God. With its new status as a sacrament, marriage could not be considered merely an incidental association between a man and a woman, but an indissoluble bond made by God in heaven. However, such an idealized notion of marriage neglected to take into account the human side of the relationship. Marriage involved much more than the binding of two souls, it joined two people and two personalities. With time, the Church realized that despite its emphasis on the spiritual nature of marriage, humans, with their capricious hearts and lustful bodies, could not necessarily be relied upon to follow the divine plan. In order to assert greater control over its parishioners, the Catholic Reformation Church in the wake of the Council of Trent (1547-1563) attempted to bring relationships, especially those involving sexual relations, under its purview. This process involved the redefinition of marriage rituals, especially in terms of premarital sexual relations and the legitimization of marriage promises by a priest.(2) However, parishioners often proved to have little enthusiasm for such ecclesiastical regulation. Marriage's location at the intersection between human desire and heavenly virtue often made it the crux of conflict between parishioners and the Catholic Church.

Such tensions have not been readily apparent to either historians of marriage or early modem social historians. Philippe Aries, for instance, marveled at the "apparent ease with which the indissoluble 'ecclesiastical' marriage became established" in rural Europe.(3) I examined a variety of parish marriage records from 1550 to 1700 from the diocese of Ourense, a rural diocese in Galicia in northwestern Spain. A social/cultural ritual like marriage must be analyzed over the longue duree because, although the Catholic Church issued the decrees of the Council of Trent during the last half of the sixteenth century, the Church needed time to hold synods, open seminaries, and establish the systems of parish visitations which oversaw changes in local religious practice. Furthermore, the structures of local culture, especially those involving sexuality, proved slow to change. However, by 1700 the revised Church doctrine on marriage had been promulgated for more than 100 years and the concomitant processes of educating priests and episcopal supervision of local religious activity had become an established part of Catholic Church structure. Ourense provides an interesting case study because unlike many of the other dioceses studied by Annales school historians, Ourense is far from the centers of secular or ecclesiastical power. Although its population had been Christian for centuries, its location on the periphery of Christian Europe had reinforced the durability of local culture. Therefore, an analysis of the impact of Trent in Ourense provides the model for the study of other places on the European periphery where traditional social and religious practices remained entrenched long after the propagation of the Catholic Reformation.

The theologians at the Council of Trent significantly transformed the sacrament of marriage through the publication of its famous decree, Tametsi. Through this decree the Church universalized marriage ritual by asserting that marriages were only valid when the promise was publicly announced on three occasions at the parish church, and officially contracted in the presence of a priest. In traditional European culture a consensual marriage promise and sexual intercourse typically guaranteed a legitimate marriage. However, for centuries before Trent ecclesiastical authorities had hotly debated whether the marriage promise had to take place in the present tense, palabras de presente, or in the future tense, palabras del futuro (a betrothal followed by legitimization of the promise by a priest). …

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