Responsible Researcher

Laila Scheuch


Prof. Dr. Karl Härter
Karl Härter
Phone: +49 (69) 789 78 - 160
Fax: +49 (69) 789 78 - 169

Research Project | Department II

The Regulation of Marital Conflicts on the Left Bank of the Rhine and in France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Period (1792/98-1814)

Marital conflicts and their regulation are multiply intertwined with processes of social ordering. With regard to this element of social ordering, cultural notions of social and sexual deviance play a role as well as religious and legal norms. The modes of conflict regulation employed can vary between mediation, retaliation, and punishment and the social agents involved can be diverse. Yet exactly what kind of social order people had in mind when pondering the regulation of marital conflicts and what they considered to be appropriate means in order to construct and maintain this order have been subject to historical change. Starting from these general considerations, the dissertation carries out a comparative case study on the regulation of marital conflicts in the Rhineland and in France between 1798 and 1814.

In France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic years (1789-1814/5), a time of fundamental socioeconomic and political transformation in-between the Early and the Late Modern Period, two major changes were set into place in the field of marriage regulation. Firstly, marriage law was secularized: It was fully taken out of the power of the (Catholic) Church and conferred to the realm of the state. In practice, this meant for example the proclamation of the principle of civil marriage (1791) and the realization of this principle by introducing for the first time in the Early Modern Period the right to secular divorce (1792). Secondly, marriage law was decriminalized. Adultery, for instance, was not any longer to be juridically punished. The revolutionary legislators had intended a marriage law that would provide the citizens with a great amount of individual freedom. Correspondingly, the regulation of marital conflicts was largely handed over to families and friends, who had the right to negotiate divorces in so-called family assemblies. The function of the state was limited to administrative tasks. With the passing of the marriage law of the Code civil (1803) under Napoleon, however, the purposes – and concomitantly the means of conflict regulation – of the legislators had shifted. The maintenance of marriages, which were considered to be the smallest unit of and in themselves a reflection of the state, evolved as the highest aim. Consequently, the responsibility for divorce proceedings was transferred from the family assemblies to the civil courts. The mediating instance was thus reassigned from the private to the public sphere. Another aspect of the renewed significance of the jurisdiction in marital conflict regulation was the recriminalization of female adultery. When the formerly German states of the left bank of the Rhine were integrated into France due to French success in the War of the First Coalition, the Revolutionary (1798) and later on the Napoleonic matrimonial laws (1803) were ‘exported’ to these territories.

Against this background, the study aims to find out how the right to secular divorce as a new (and partially imposed) means of marital conflict regulation was received and used in various legal settings by the people and to what extent, consequently, divorcing was considered to constitute social deviance. It furthermore asks what kind of judicial and social strategies were employed to deal with divorces and/or the underlying conflict between husband and wife (e.g. mediation, punishment, coping mechanisms). Another central research interest focuses on the role of gender and culture in divorce law, marital conflict regulation in practice and the reception of both. Depending on the law in force, the dissertation will be based on a variety of sources ranging from court records to divorce certificates and other registries’ documents to the relevant laws and discursive texts. These sources will be investigated using quantitative and qualitative methods as well as being approached from a transnational perspective to get at the gist of this essential element of social ordering.

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