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Professor clears up common misconceptions about divorce

August 23, 2013

Sara Butler, Ph.D.

While most may think divorce is a modern-day invention, it’s not. Divorce was probably more prevalent in medieval times than it is today, according to a new book by Loyola University New Orleans history professor Sara Butler, Ph.D. In fact, the cases highlighted in her book, “Divorce in Medieval England,” resemble today’s celebrity marriages—complete with lots of scandal.

Although the historical records make it virtually impossible to track divorce rates going back to the 13th century, “There was probably a lot more divorce then than there was today,” Butler said. “They were divorcing because of incompatibility.”

Butler poured over historic records from four different courts, including the church courts and the king’s courts, for her breakthrough research.

Interestingly, she found that incest was the biggest reason people got divorced in medieval times, but even that reason was often manipulated in favor of divorce. For example, incest in medieval times meant a person could not marry anyone who had any relations—sexual, familial or even an honorary role such as a godparent or sponsor for baptism—with any relative, even a distant relative. “This basically meant you couldn’t marry anyone in your town,” Butler said.

As arranged marriages were common in those days, many found themselves unhappy with their partner. Some pursued a divorce for 20 years or more. One such woman, Lucy Twenge, is featured in Butler’s book. Twenge, a 13th century woman from a very wealthy family, married at age 14 and was already pregnant with another lover’s baby. Her husband, William le Latimer, tried to claim the baby as his own, but had to leave to fight in Scotland. While he was gone, Twenge left him to live with her lover. Le Latimer then tired unsuccessfully to get her back after seeking the king’s assistance and taking the matter to the church courts.

Twenge sued for her own divorce and won, claiming she discovered a close link to her husband—incest. While Twenge finally did receive the divorce, the king confiscated her land and gave it to her ex-husband as a result. Twenge married again, but her second husband died, leaving her a wealth of land. After that, she married another; historical records indicate she was happy for the rest of her life.

Butler said her inspiration for the book, published by Routledge, actually came from her students at Loyola. While teaching medieval history, students often asked her about the fate of marriages and what happened to the women involved in unhappy ones. The book, she said, provides the documented answer.

The book is available on Amazon.com.

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