The Road to Polygamy

Putting Asunder: A History of Divorce in Western Society

by Roderick Phillips
Cambridge University Press, 672 pp., $39.50


If the rates of divorce remain fairly steady, as they have done throughout the 1980s, a half of all marriages in America today, and over a third in England, will end in the divorce court rather than the funeral parlor. Apart perhaps from Scandinavia, these two countries have the highest divorce rates in the Western world, far above those in the Mediterranean countries, where strong Catholic religious opposition to any divorce has only recently been defeated by the legislature. Only Ireland has no divorce law at all, a proposed bill having recently been defeated in a referendum by a combination of the Roman Catholic Church and fearful Irish women. During the referendum, an opponent observed that “a woman who votes in favor of divorce is like a turkey voting in favor of Christmas.” Except in Ireland, therefore, divorce is now as much a part of our culture and our lives as death and taxes. But how and when and why did we get this way, and what have been consequences so far for human happiness, moral virtue, and social stability? These are questions inevitably raised by a reading of Roderick Phillips’s Putting Asunder.

Phillips is the author of studies of divorce in France during the 1790s and in New Zealand in the twentieth century. His new book is the first in the English language to attempt an overall view of the history of divorce in the West, from the Reformation to the present day, covering in some detail England, America, and France, and more superficially the other European countries. It is the result of a prodigious amount of research into the now voluminous secondary literature. If not exciting, witty, or venturesome, the book provides a clear, intelligent, scholarly, and dependable general account of the history of divorce in the West.

The first point that has to be stressed is that the official rate of divorce may well, and in earlier times always did, bear no relation at all to the number of marital breakdowns and spontaneous separations. And yet the conditions in which marriages cease to work are what we should principally be interested in. Divorce is merely a legal condition; marital breakdown is a social fact.

Eight hundred years ago the highly restrictive moral code of the medieval canon law made divorce virtually impossible, except for the very rich and powerful who could lobby and bribe their way to annulments from Rome. By way of contrast, a few years ago a judge in America casually granted one woman no fewer than sixteen divorces in eleven years.1 Divorce today has become an administrative not a judicial procedure, and because of the huge numbers involved it is inevitably processed with conveyor-belt speed and impersonality.

If before the twentieth century, the Christian West was basically a non-divorcing society, why were there such intense and prolonged battles when changes in the divorce laws came up for discussion? The answer suggested by Phillips’s book is that enormous moral, psychological, and social…

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