Divorce Through the Ages

When it comes to divorce history, the average person can muster up about three talking points: that whole Protestant church reformation thing, Elizabeth Taylor, and that time Uncle Rob left Aunt Debra, started dating your French teacher and Thanksgiving got très weird.

While those are some biggies, there’s a whole rich tapestry of divorce history out there. Turns out as long as people have been getting hitched, they’ve been getting unhitched. Let’s take a gander.

500 BCE – When not busy inventing democracy and partying, ancient Greeks were getting divorced left and right. Their motto was “matrimonia debent esse libera” which loosely translates to, if you want to date Todd go ahead I’m not stopping you. The ancient Greeks saw marriage as a practice to enter into freely and exit just as freely.

331 CE – Constantine got all religious right wing on the good people of the Roman Empire. Under his Christian rule, disgruntled couples needed a serious reason to divorce. Such grounds included proving your husband was a murderer, poisoner or tomb disturber. I dated a tomb disturber once. It was not awesome.

1000 CE – Christianity spread like wildfire through Europe, and with it came a very conservative stance on divorce. It wasn’t allowed at all but there were some workarounds. If for instance you had really had it with your husband and his inability to throw his codpieces in the hamper, notbeside it, you could ask the church for an annulment. They were hard to get and could only be granted if the couple entered into the marriage “improperly” but I guess you had to try what you could to get away from that nightmare and his terrible lute playing.

1517 CE – Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, which much like Kat’s poem in 10 Things I Hate About You, was a long list of complaints, to the All Saints’ Church door (historians dispute this, but it’s a nice image). Luther’s list was about his grievances with the Catholic Church, not Heath Ledger, and with it he kickstarted the Protestant Reformation.

1537 CE – Henry the VIII wasn’t too hot on Catherine of Aragon anymore so he changed the course of history by renouncing the papacy and made the Church of England Protestant. Along with the rest of Protestant Europe, divorce became a civil issue rather than a religious one. In an interesting twist, to be granted a divorce one member of the marriage had to wrong the other. If both people broke vows, they were stuck together. And if it was discovered that the couple was in cahoots and both wanted a divorce, no divorce would be granted.

1603 CE – Divorce was allowed in Japan as long as the husband wrote a letter to the wife informing her of the divorce. Wives were not granted the same letter writing rights, but some could seek sanctuary from their husbands in so-called Shinto “divorce temples.”

1752 CE – Prussia decided divorce was a private matter and established a law allowing for divorce in any instance where the couple mutually agreed. Austria liked the sound of that and followed suit allowing non-Catholics to divorce as they saw fit.

1800 CE – Sometime after the French Revolution settled down, divorce was legalized in France.

1931 CE – Citizens of Spain were granted the right to divorce, but not for long.

1938 CE – Franco decided he wasn’t too cool with the whole divorce thing and abolished divorce in Spain.

1953 CE – Oklahoma became the first state in the US to institute no-fault divorce.

1954 CE – The Special Marriage Act was passed in India that allowed citizens to marry and divorce irrespective of their religion.

1970 CE – An Italian law was passed allowing for Italians to divorce as long as the couple had been separated for at least five years.

1981 CE – Spaniards were finally granted the right to divorce once again and the “express divorce” (exactly what it sounds like) was introduced.

1987 CE – The Italian law was amended to make the separation period at least three years.

1995 CE – Divorce was approved in Ireland.

1996 CE – Princess Diana and Prince Charles divorced a few months after Princess Diana declared in a TV interview “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” Burnnn.

2005 CE – Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston divorced. The world wept and no one ever fully recovered.

2010 CE – New York instituted no fault divorce, becoming one of the last states to do so. A bill was filed in the Philippines to introduce pro-divorce legislation but it didn’t get very far.

2011 CE – Divorce was approved in Malta.

2015 CE – Italian divorce laws are amended again, shortening the separation requirement to six months. Divorce remains illegal for all Filipinos except Muslim Filipinos; civil annulment is an option but the process is lengthy and costly. Even Vatican City is beginning to warm to the idea of divorce… Sort’ve. 


James J. Sexton