It appears that a man could divorce himself almost at pleasure; and if he and his wife agreed to separate, each was at liberty to marry again without publicly assigning any cause for their separation.
This view of marriage was attributable to persist influence and precepts of the Roman law, which continued to persist throughout the Middle Ages as a body of very important precedents. No legal process was required, although the abuse of the power of divorce was sometimes punished. Not until the time of Justinian did divorce by consent of both parties become subject to any restrictions. This famous law-maker was instrumental in counteracting numerous marital abuses, with a view mainly to public decorum and the comfort of individuals. It is a remarkable illustration of the Roman view of marriage that, in view of what must have been the great social evil of capricious divorce, the right of either party to dissolve the marriage was never successfully questioned.
The matter of divorce subsequently passed into the hands of the bishops, who not only assumed the right of giving their sanction to such separation, but of annulling a marriage at their own will for any cause they chose to assign. A very small cause of dissatisfaction was oftentimes considered a sufficient reason for ecclesiastical interference. But still from the pure Roman to the canon law the change was great indeed. The ceremony became sacred, the tie indissoluble. Those whom God hath joined let not man put asunder, was the first text of the new law of marriage, and against such prohibition social convenience and experience pleaded with much less hope of success. While marriage once created became indissoluble, the impediments to marriage also multiplied. The tie of consanguinity was extended, while the power of dispensing with disabilities and the power of annulling marriage on the ground of such disabilities became more and more peculiar prerogative of the Church.
So the Church, while with one hand it raised woman from the abasement into which she had been cast by paganism, lowered her with the other. It was ever careful to impress upon her its sense of her inferior status. The higher conception of womanhood was an ideal only, a theme for poets, a dream of saints; the lower conception was the guide, the basis of everyday teaching. It was this lower conception, which, in different ways, determined woman’s position in the social fabric of European life, until the dawn of a new light many centuries after.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.