March 21st, 2011

A chestnut:

There once was an old man of Lyme
Who married three wives at a time,
     When they asked, “Why the third?”
     He replied, “One’s absurd!
And bigamy, sir, is a crime.”

Indeed it is. James I and his first Parliament made it a capital felony in England in 1603 (without, sad to say, the Lyme loophole). The death penalty was reduced in 1828 to a mere seven years’ transportation. I believe it’s still seven years’ jail.

I’m not going to defend bigamy here. I could admire from a distance a hypothetical protest marriage by convinced polygamists, with all three or more parties fully consenting. In practice bigamy is a sordid confidence trick.

But it is very rare.
I’ve only found frequency data for Iowa of all places. The state recorded 10 convictions for bigamy in the 8 years between 1999 and 2007. This is a lower rate than deaths by lightning. Let’s assume the detection rate is low (guess 1 in 5), and the conviction rate high (3 in 4). That would still make only about 10 bigamies a year. Iowa isn’t that representative of US mores, but social conservatism cuts both ways – it raises the inhibitions to bigamy, but also the incentives. compared to say California.

Over a largely overlapping period (2000-2009), marriages in Iowa ran at 19-22,000, divorces at 7-10,000 (lowest (7,622). As a cause of marriage implosion, bigamy is unnoticeable, compared to desertion, abuse, infidelity, poor sexual relations, imprisonment, addictions, infertility, personal habits, and disputes over child-rearing, money, careers, relations, and friends – the list is incomplete. I’d bet snoring kills more marriages than bigamy. If it were a serious problem, modern technology – modern in the sense of post-Hollerith – affords far more efficient methods of dealing with it than solemn oaths and dire threats, like a national database of all marriages contracted, and a prior search within it. In fact bigamy is not considered to be worth the bother.

Getting married recently in Gibraltar, the bloggish part of my mind was thus distracted for a moment by the curious priority given by the civil marriage process to confirming that we were not married to somebody else already. Not just requiring a declaration at the start of the ceremony, but prior affidavits before a Gibraltar notary; and Lu also had to provide a notarised declaration of single status sworn in Brazil by her and two reliable cousins. These are so reliable they’d surely back her claim to the throne of Albania if the occasion arose.

The Gibraltar ceremony didn’t say much else about the relationship it was solemnizing – lifelong fidelity was mentioned, but nothing about mutual support and affection. Not only God has been taken out of the civil marriage, but much of the other content, going back to pre-Christian Roman and Teutonic rites. In many places (not Gibraltar) couples can embroider the ceremony to their own taste, which means they will skirt the problems they already know about.

As a small reality check, I therefore suggest that it would be worthwhile to rewrite the civil marriage ceremony to include again a rather fuller indication of the ideals and expectations society still attaches to marriage. I proposed before that divorces should include a public reaffirmation of a shared responsibility for the children of the union, continuing beyond the dissolution of the marriage. So could the marriage ceremony itself.

As a place to start, we could do a lot worse than Thomas Cranmer’s first Prayer Book of 1549:

I N. take thee N. to my wedded wife, to have and to holde from this day forwarde, for better, for wurse, for richer, for poorer, in sickenes, and in health, to love and to cherishe, til death us departe: according to Goddes holy ordeinaunce: And therto I plight thee my trouth.

Footnote for history wonks

Cranmer was reusing a traditional but specifically English formula. From a missal of the Hereford diocese in the 15th century – the English is original, as marriages were conducted in the vernacular even before the Reformation:

I N. take the N. to my wedded wyfe, for betir for worse, for richer for poorer, in sekenes and in hele till deth us departe as holy churche hathe ordeyned and ther to I plyzth the my trowthe.

The English Catholic rite of marriage uses similar wording to the Church of England. From the Catholic Encyclopaedia:

Seeing that the Anglican marriage service has also retained a great deal of the primitive Sarum rite, we find ourselves confronted by the curious anomaly that in the British Isles the Catholic marriage service resembles the Anglican service more nearly than it does the form provided in the “Rituale Romanum”.

The vow cited in the same article is this:

I, N. take thee, N. for my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, if Holy Church will it permit, and thereto I plight thee my troth.

Notice the difference? I don’t mean the trivial one italicized by the editor. Cranmer or one of his circle added to love and to cherish.

Cranmer was a trimmer in many things, but brave at his end – and earlier in marrying, twice, against his career interests. In his beautiful new phrase, capturing the essence of married love, I see the influence of Joan and Margarethe, the two Mrs. Cranmers.

There’s a perfectly true sense in which two wives are twice as good as one.

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10 Responses to “Bigamy, sir, is a crime”

  1. Vance Maverick says:

    So you’re saying they’re better in series than in parallel?

  2. doretta says:

    Congratulations, Mr. Wimberley, and may you have many happy years together.

  3. Tja says:

    “Till death us departe“.

    Boy, have I had that phrase wrong my whole life.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Vance: If the fates so decide.
    Tja: The meaning is still “sunder, separate”, OED sense 3 (“obs.”), going back to 1297, with a Gower citation from a century later that’s a clone of the Hereford missal usage.
    Doretta: Thank you from both of us.

  5. dave schutz says:

    My friend who grew up in a polygamous marriage didn’t like it at all. His father had taken a second wife, substantially younger, and spent most of his time in her wing in the large family compound – his mother felt kind of deserted. This was not uncommon in Lar at the time, but that didn’t mean the wife who got less time liked it one little bit. Even with good will, I think it would be hard not to play favorites.

  6. paul says:

    Seems to me that in general that n>2 marriages with only one partner of the other partners’ desired gender will be headed for problematic.

    As for the Gibraltar thing, what’s the situation for other places where nonresidents typically go for a wedding? Even though de jure bigamy (as opposed to people with one de jure and one or more de facto spouses) may be a relatively rare, it seems plausible that people intending to commit it might choose second-marriage venues far from home.

  7. Ralph Hitchens says:

    The Book of Common Prayer is one of the masterpieces of English literature. One might argue that things started to go to hell not long after the Episcopal/Anglican Communion abandoned it in favor of a modern version.

  8. Ken D. says:

    Meanwhile, the Western World has removed many legal incentives for marriage by repealing prohibitions on sex outside of marriage, repealing or ignoring adultery laws, and socially tolerating much of the behavior and relationships thus legalized. That tends to make this discussion rather abstract.

  9. James Wimberley says:

    Paul: any evidence for your speculation? Gibraltar do a proper documentary check, like any British registry office – I suspect it may be more thorough because they don’t want to be duped. None of them SFIK do serious searches for prior marriages using detailed cvs, public records, newspaper morgues, private detectives, etc. The bigamist’s risk of detection is very low everywhere. But then the risk to the spouse and the registrar of being duped is very low too everywhere.

  10. James Wimberley says:

    Ralph: the marriage vow at least has survived with little change into modern liturgies. Here it is in Common Worship, the Church of England’s latest:

    I, N , take you, N , to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God’s holy law.
    In the presence of God I make this vow.