Monday, January 09, 2012

The past is another country


I had no idea this was ever a thing: apparently the question of whether a man could marry his deceased wife's sister had the political moralists of Britain in knots for centuries -- including recent ones. Kind of puts the gay marriage debate into some perspective:
The drama begins in 1835 – before which year marriages with deceased wive’s sisters were not void, but voidable by legal action. Henceforth they were illegal in Great Britain. From 1841 to 1909 there were 35 failed attempts to fire through Parliament successive shafts from a whole quiver of deceased wife’s sister marriage bills. ... 
From the Saturday Review, in 1876: "an example of the diseased craving for abnormal enlargements of personal liberty which is the seamy side of Liberalism." 
It would take a man more than a year, reading the equivalent of a book a day, to toil through the vast morass of literature inspired by the theme of marrying a deceased wife’s sister. Among the more engaging titles are those of the earlier treatises; for instance, Charles Blount’s To HisFriend Torismond, to Justifie the Marrying of Two Sisters the One After the Other (1695), or John Quick’s A Serious Inquiry into the Weighty Case of Conscience Whether a Man May Lawfully Marry His Deceased Wife’s Sister (1703) …
It was not until 1907 that this remnant of Leviticus (actually a misinterpretation of Leviticus, I think) was removed from British law.

2 comments:

scw said...

The Church of England was formed as the result of an analogous argument. Henry VIII married the wife of his deceased brother, Arthur, who had been prince of Wales. When, as a result of his failure to beget a living male heir with Catherine, he wished to dissolve the marriage, he sought to do so on the ground that marriage to a deceased sibling's spouse was cursed under Leviticus xx:21. The curse was that the couple should die childless - and when it is recalled that Catherine had given birth to several stillborn babies (two of them sons), and only had one surviving daughter, Henry had some reason to wonder whether he had been so cursed.

Unfortunately for him, annulment on this ground would have invalidated the papal dispensation he had been granted in 1503 to marry within a forbidden degree of consanguinity. This pope Clement VII refused to allow, both for reasons of church polity and also because Catherine's nephew, the emperor Charles V, had just sacked Rome, and the pope was his hostage in all but name.

Thus, there was a more immediate, politically significant reason than Leviticus for the provisions of English law respecting marriage to a deceased sibling's spouse: the English reformation originated in Henry's argument that his marriage to Catherine should be held void on this basis.

JSA said...

The one that always gets me is the prohibition on marrying your mother-in-law. In ancient Rome (pre-Christian influence) and apparently other ancient cultures, such a marriage was punishable by death.