Divorce à la Mode

Road to Divorce: England 1530-1987

by Lawrence Stone
Oxford University Press, 460 pp., $29.95

A third of all marriages in England and half of all those in the United States, according to recent estimates, will end in the divorce court. We are still saddened, sometimes even shocked, when a friend’s marriage breaks up, but divorce is no longer a matter for scandalized concern. We have come to accept it as a normal feature of life, though opinions differ over whether it should be bracketed with cancer and AIDS as a curse of our times or celebrated along with aspirin and anesthetics as a welcome liberation from past miseries.

The contemporary notion of marriage as a legal contract from which either partner can walk away when so inclined is extremely recent. In medieval Europe the Church maintained the absolute indissolubility of a valid marriage. In certain circumstances the ecclesiastical courts could order a separation from board and bed (a mensa et thoro), but neither spouse was allowed to remarry during the other’s lifetime. With the Reformation, when marriage ceased to be a sacrament, most Protestant countries allowed divorce with remarriage in cases of adultery or other serious marital fault. But in England Puritan pressure to introduce divorce was unsuccessful and the law remained unchanged until 1857. In all countries the divorce rate was infinitesimal. The great revolution came only in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the concept of no-fault divorce swept through the Western world. Although the notion of marital fault still lingers, the most common position nowadays is that a marriage may be dissolved when a court is persuaded that it has irretrievably broken down. The accompaniment to this legal change has been a soaring divorce rate. In England and Wales it has increased sixfold since 1960.

Lawrence Stone is therefore fully entitled to describe “the metamorphosis of a largely non-separating and non-divorcing society, such as England from the Middle Ages to the mid-nineteenth century, into a separating and divorcing one in the late twentieth” as “perhaps the most profound and far-reaching social change to have occurred in the last five hundred years.” As such, it is a suitable subject to engage a historian who has never shirked large themes. During the past thirty-five years Lawrence Stone has published seven substantial books founded upon primary research, along with numerous articles and papers. His characteristic method is to pick a huge subject, ransack scores of libraries, tramp around the record offices of England, accumulate mountains of microfilm and xeroxes, enlist the aid of his wife, Jeanne Fawtier Stone, and then sit down to write a large book, stuffed with figures and tables but expressed in colorful and trenchant prose. If, after all this, some severe critics can detect an unduly schematic approach, occasional errors of fact, some internal inconsistencies, and a penchant for hyperbole, who can complain? More cautious scholars could not have attempted a fraction of this work in a lifetime. Stone has that “audacity” without which, as F.W. Maitland once remarked, people never get things done. His energy and his achievement are…

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