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Divorce in the 19th Century in Latvia

Updated: Jun 11

Do you think that in the past everyone lived "happily ever after" and never got divorced? Recently, I saw a 1906 marriage record with a note that the bride was divorced. In what cases was marriage dissolved at that time and how did it happen?


man and woman walking on the street.
Created by Dall-E

While searching for a specific marriage record, I found the following note attached to it:


fragment of a handwriting


The note mentions a divorce protocol (Germ. Scheidungsprotokoll) from the Orthodox Consistory (Germ. orthod. Konsist.) with No. 167. Two dates are mentioned, likely related to the divorce procedure and its documents. The marriage was dissolved on March 10, 1905 (Germ. Geschieden am 10.III.1905).


This note piqued my interest as it is quite a rare find. Under what circumstances were marriages dissolved back then and how did it happen?


The answer was provided in an article by A. Gruzītis titled “Marriage in Life and Law,” published in 1897 in "Mājas Viesis." (In Latvian only). I assume the described laws applied at least to the late 19th century and the period until the First World War.


Grounds for Divorce


The Lutheran Church laws allowed more possibilities for divorce than the Orthodox Church. According to Lutheran laws, there were 10 cases when one could divorce.


1. Adultery


If one party had evidence or strong suspicions of the other party's infidelity, it was sufficient ground for divorce. Complaints of infidelity were not accepted if the complainant was guilty of adultery themselves or if the other party had known about the infidelity for at least a year and had not acted on it.


A husband could demand a divorce if he could prove that his wife had “maintained an unauthorized cohabitation” before marriage. However, if a child was born within the marriage, divorce was not allowed. Likewise, complaints were not valid if the husband had known about the wife's premarital affairs and still decided to marry her.


A wife could demand a divorce only if her husband had continued an affair with another woman after their engagement.


2. Malicious Absence


If one spouse intentionally left the other and did not wish or could not return due to a lack of means, they could request a divorce. However, the wife was obliged to follow her husband if he decided to change his place of residence. Divorce was allowed only if the husband “refused to accept the wife.”


If one party had been absent for more than a year, the other could request a divorce. First, the consistory published an announcement, and the missing party was given a year to return. If this did not happen, the marriage could be dissolved.


In both of the above mentioned cases, the injured party could enter into a new marriage. The guilty party had to receive consistory approval.


3. Prolonged Absence


If one spouse had been absent for more than five years without any reason, it was grounds for divorce.


4. Inability to Fulfill Marital Obligations


If one spouse, without special reason, refused to fulfill marital obligations for a year or was unable to conceive children not due to age but other reasons, and this inability existed before marriage or arose later due to their own fault.


5. Insanity


If one spouse was insane for more than a year and doctors did not provide hope for recovery, the other party could request a divorce. The rules required ensuring the provision of maintenance for the ill spouse.


6. Incurable Diseases


Marriage could be dissolved if one spouse had an incurable or contagious disease that was unknown before marriage.


7. Immoral or Wasteful Life


Marriage could be dissolved if one spouse led an immoral or wasteful life, and attempts to rectify the behavior had failed.


8. Violent and Offensive Behavior


If one spouse behaved offensively or violently towards the other, both verbally and physically, it was sufficient grounds for divorce. However, it was first necessary to try to resolve the situation through reconciliation and temporary separation. Additionally, the complaint would not be considered if one party had been the cause of such actions.


9. Defamation and Dishonor


If one spouse had defamed or otherwise deprived the other party of honor or a position, it had to be proven through court investigation before a divorce could be requested.


10. Conviction


If one spouse was sentenced to death or exile, the other party had the right to request a divorce. Similarly, if one spouse committed a crime and disappeared, the other could divorce.


The Orthodox Church allowed only four cases for divorce: adultery, inability to fulfill marital obligations, conviction with a penalty involving the loss of all status rights, and prolonged absence.


Divorce Procedure


Divorce cases were reviewed by the consistory, where each party could submit a request either orally or in writing, attaching the marriage certificate and the pastor's testimony of the reconciliation failure. Each party could also defend themselves. The consistory determined who would keep the children born in the marriage. The division of property was decided by the civil court.


I have not yet determined which of these reasons was responsible for the specific case. There is an opportunity to search for information in the consistory documents in the Historical archive.

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