Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Divorce in Ye Olden Tymes

July 27th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Following up on last week’s divorce theme, we thought we’d take a look back at pre-modern marital splits. While divorce may not have been common in the West until the advent of women’s lib, it was apparently a staple of several Asian and Middle Eastern societies for centuries:

The outpouring of scholarly and popular works dealing with the rise of divorce in the West all but disregards the historical examples of past societies in which divorce rates have been consistently high. Two major examples are pre-modern Japan and Islamic Southeast Asia. In nineteenth-century Japan at least one in eight marriages ended in divorce. In West Java and the Malay Peninsula divorce rates were even higher, reaching 70 percent in some villages, as late as the middle of the twentieth century. In these societies divorce was part and parcel of tradition; it was frequent and normative, and did not involve any stigma that would hinder the remarriage of divorced persons. In direct opposition to developments in the West, modernity brought with it greater stability in marriage and a sharp decline in divorce rates.

The pre-modern Middle East was another traditional society that had consistently high rates of divorce over long periods of time. Despite some current misgivings over the imminent disintegration of the Muslim family as a result of frequent divorces, the fact is that divorce rates were higher in Ottoman or medieval Muslim societies than they are today. A decade of research on the history of Ottoman families, mostly drawing on the abundant court registers, has shown that divorce was a common feature of family life. In eighteenth-century Aleppo divorce was a “fairly common occurrence,” with at least 300 divorces registered annually, and many more going on unregistered. The court of Ottoman Nablus recorded as many marriages as divorces, which shows “relatively high rates of divorce.” A similar picture of high divorce rates and a normative attitude to divorce emerges from studies of Ottoman court records in Istanbul, Cairo, Cyprus, Sofia and Ayntab.

(Our bolding.) The paper is particularly concerned with Ottoman divorces, and the difference between consensual separation (khul) and splits in which the husband basically said, “Screw this” (talaq). To our great surprise, the latter wasn’t necessarily more common than the former.


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3 Comments so far ↓

  • minderbender

    Talaq (or talaaq) doesn’t always mean “screw this.” Remember, Nadir Khan had “done the decent thing” when he left his note (“Talaaq! Talaaq! Talaaq!”) to Mumtaz in Midnight’s Children. I suppose he did act unilaterally, though.

    Also, for an interesting pre-modern (or strangely modern) marital split, see Martha Nussbaum’s recounting of Quintus’s unhappy marriage to Pomponia Attica (crtl-f “Quintus”).

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @minderbender: +1 in perpetuity for citing Midnight’s Children. Love that book–actually copped a line for the epigraph for Now the Hell Will Start.

    Good point–“screw this” probably not the best euphemism for “unilateral” in this context.

    I def. need to look at divorce rates in Ancient Rome, at least among the aristocracy. If memory serves, didn’t Augustus marry a divorcee?

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