n the early modern period, the institution of marriage was seen as almost sacred. Protestant theologians denied that it was a sacrament, but they maintained the pre-Reformation view that it was a holy union ordained by God for the prevention of sin and fornication. It was also seen as the backbone of society. It was believed to be an institution essential for the preservation of law and order, and was seen as a microcosm of society at large. William Gouge, the famous 'conduct book' writer, wrote in his Of Domesticall Duties (1622)
"...a family is a little Church and a little commonwealth."(1)
The breakdown of a marriage was therefore a source of great concern. Not particularly because it meant the relationship between a certain couple had broken down, but because it threatened social stability, and the potential breakdown of social order and hierarchy. The separation of a man and wife was to be avoided at all costs. Couples experiencing marital difficulties were expected to work through them and learn to live with, and love, one another as a husband and wife should. The courts were far more concerned about restituiting marriages than dissolving them.
Yet, as always, there was some disparity between theory and practice. Then, as now, not all marriages were happy, and many couples desired to extricate themselves from a union which seemed to have the curse of hell upon it rather than the blessing of heaven. The shadowy figure of Death could be relied on to end some marriages, for in the early modern period Death was a frequent visitor, and it was not uncommon for a person to be widowed several times in their life. Martin Ingram states in his influential book, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England,
"To be sure, unsatisfactory unions were more likely to be resolved by the early death of one of the parties than is the case today, but since the median duration of marriages in pre-industrial England may have been as high as twenty years there was still...