Unmasking the Bourgeoisie

The Divorce Years

A Love Story




Real Life


  • 1792 marked a year of liberation; divorce was, for the first time in French history, legalized. This was not a law that was just limited to men; either the male or the female could petition for a divorce on the grounds of mutual consent, incompatibility, and 'matrimonial fault'--"madness, condemnation to certain degrading forms of punishment, cruelty or ill-treatment, notoriously dissolute morals, desertion for at least two years, absence without news for at least five years, and emigration." (Phillips 1980, p. 178-179) There were two "courts" that were set up to hear divorce cases-the tribunal de famille and the assemblee de famille.

  • Another reason for divorce was violence--when women found themselves victims in their own homes. Neighbors would often hear the yelling from the husband and the screaming cries of the wife as her husband beat her (Phillips 1980, p. 113). The wife could only escape from her husband and obtain a separation de corps when his abusive habits threatened her life. If the abuse was limited to her husband yelling insults or threats at her, she could not obtain the separation unless she held a high position in society (Phillips 1980, p. 110).

  • This divorce law was short-lived because in 1803 Napoleon Bonaparte came into power and repealed this law with his own code of laws. According to this Napoleonic Code, a women could not petition for a divorce unless it was on the grounds of adultery. Even then she could only petition for one if her husband's mistress lived in their house. A man, on the other hand, could divorce his wife on the grounds of adultery if he suspected she was unfaithful or if a third party told him about his wife's adulterous behavior. The wife could be jailed for this act from as little as 3 months until as much as 2 years (Phillips 1980, p.1).

  • Divorce was abolished altogether in 1816 by King Louis XVIII. He felt that divorce conflicted with the sacredness of the family, that women and children were most harmed by divorce actions, very unequal since men show their strength and women show their weakness during divorce, and men were able to leave a marriage without thinking too deeply about it. Women gave their purity, youth, and beauty to the marriage, three things they could not get back in a divorce settlement; all they could get back was their money (Phillips 1988, p. 189).

  • In 1884 divorce was relegalized by Alfred Naquet. Though Naquet tried to get the original divorce law of 1792 relegalized several times he was always turned down. Finally when he proposed to relegalize the divorce law in terms of the Napoleonic Code the law was accepted. (Phillips 1998, p. 424)