'Disregarding the Matrimonial Vows': Divorce in Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Century Scotland

By Leneman, Leah | Journal of Social History, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

'Disregarding the Matrimonial Vows': Divorce in Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Century Scotland


Leneman, Leah, Journal of Social History


If marriage is the most important commitment in the life of most human beings, its dissolution is therefore traumatic, even in our own time, when it occurs so frequently. Debates on the ease or difficulty with which divorces should be granted continue to rage, and we forget that divorce has been around for centuries. Lawrence Stone has revealed the fascination there can be in looking at marital breakdown in earlier periods, but England was unique amongst European countries in allowing divorce only by private act of parliament. Looking at a country within the British Isles where it was readily accessible to all members of the population provides a different perspective.

In European countries which adopted Protestantism, marriage was no longer held to be a sacrament, and divorce was countenanced on the grounds of adultery. The right to divorce had to be the same for both sexes for, in Calvin's words, "A man may hold the primacy in other things, but in bed he and his wife are equal." The logic was that the Bible enjoined death for an adulterous wife, and "in modern times [the sixteenth century] divorce was a substitute for that punishment." Scottish divorce decreets therefore made the guilty party legally dead in relation to their spouse. England, having come to its Protestantism by a somewhat different route, was the exception, and in accordance with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church continued to hold a marriage to be indissoluble, although separation without the right to remarry was allowed, and eventually it became possible for rich men to obtain a divorce by a private act of Parliament. Its laws encompassed Wales as well, but Scotland retained a separate legal system which allowed full divorce and remarriage. This was available on equal terms to both men and women on the straightforward grounds of simple adultery or "malicious" (i.e. deliberate) desertion for more than four years.(1)

In spite of this universal right, Scottish divorce rates remained low until well into this century. Studying divorce in periods before it became generally acceptable raises important questions about the marital tie. From 1684 to 1830, when its functions were transferred to the Court of Session, Edinburgh Commissary Court - the national consistory court - kept a register of decreets, and process papers were also retained in a more systematic way. As adultery was so rarely committed in full view of others, an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence was required, and the records of this court are therefore remarkably rich and full, enabling such questions to be posed. During this century and a half Scotland was transformed from a 'backward', largely rural, country into a heavily urbanized and industrialised one, so the first question must be what impact all this had on the divorce rate.

From evidence on divorce rates in various European countries and American states, and on separation in England, Lawrence Stone concluded that "there was some deep shift of mood and morals in Protestant areas in the late eighteenth century which made legal separation and divorce much more acceptable solutions to marital disharmony than they had been earlier."(2) As we will see, this also proved true of Scotland, and the reasons for the change must be considered. England's denial of divorce to women on the grounds of simple adultery until the 1920s formed a cornerstone of Keith Thomas's essay on the double standard.(3) So we must obviously ask if the legal right enjoyed by Scottish women was circumscribed by cultural disapproval of their using it. The final, crucial question is why in a country where divorce was so readily available, and where various circumstances rendered it far more acceptable by the end of the eighteenth century than it had been hitherto, the rate of divorce remained so very low compared with the later decades of the twentieth century.

Part I of this paper provides some background on divorce in Scotland and explains the procedures followed in the court. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

'Disregarding the Matrimonial Vows': Divorce in Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Century Scotland
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.