The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: Ideas on Marriage From the 17th Century

Updated on October 26, 2016

The Argument

The Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael, a great example of linear perspective
The Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael, a great example of linear perspective

During 17 th century England, when the world saw marriage as something to unite two households in order to beget children or strengthen the economies between two families, John Milton saw marriage as something noble. He believed two people should join together because they had something in common to talk about and filled each other through being a companion to each other’s souls. He thought that the reason why two people should join together is because they make each other feel complete: like a ‘conjugal fellowship [with a ] fit…soul.’ In his first of four divorce tracts, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, he argued that marriage should be based on ‘conversation’ and not to ‘satisfy the fleshly appetite,’ which is almost a modern way of looking at marriage.

Cambridge graduate, politically outspoken, hexa-lingual in Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian and English as well as being a poet, the man himself, John Milton
Cambridge graduate, politically outspoken, hexa-lingual in Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian and English as well as being a poet, the man himself, John Milton

A Bit of Background

John Milton is known as the author for his epic poem, Paradise Lost where it retells the story of the Fall of mankind, in which Satan raises a group of rebel angels against what he believes to be a tyrannical god. However, it was only later in his life that he became to be known as a poet. Throughout his career, Milton actively wrote essays regarding his views on politics and society, he was something like a political blogger in the modern sense. He shocked his audience by writing in support to overthrow King Charles I (who was later executed), his opinions on divorce and his attack on the church hierarchy. Because of his linguistic capability, (he was fluent in about six languages) he worked as the Secretary of Foreign Tongues under Oliver Cromwell.

On Marriage

 A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth. Desperate to escape the debt he incurred out of gambling, Tom Rakewell marries an one-eyed old woman for her money. His mother-in-law  in the background tries desperately to break into the ceremony.
A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth. Desperate to escape the debt he incurred out of gambling, Tom Rakewell marries an one-eyed old woman for her money. His mother-in-law in the background tries desperately to break into the ceremony.

Milton believed that people were perpetually lonely entities who have a ‘desire of joining itself in conjugal fellowship [with a] fit conversing soul,’ and the remedy to solving this malady was through marriage. To his argument, he interprets the passage from Genesis 2:18 to mean that God created a woman as a companion for the man so that the man ‘should [not] be alone.’ He wanted the man and woman to ‘meet and [have a] happy conversation’ so that it could ‘comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life.’ Milton went further, arguing that only after this deep connection had been met, can a man and woman have meaningful bodily pleasure. Any other reason why two people came together in that fashion, he considered a ‘kind of animal or beastish meeting.’ These ideas sound familiar to what people nowadays look for when finding their soulmate: they prefer someone who they have something in common with, someone who they could reveal their deepest concerns, an individual they could connect with on an emotional level.

O' my soulmate, where art thou?
O' my soulmate, where art thou?

It’s believed that Milton got his ideas on what marriage should be like from his experiences at marriage to his first wife and his relationship to his childhood friend, Charles Diodati. In 1642, Milton married Mary Powell, a woman about half his age. (He was in his 30s, she was around 17). Perhaps because they held different views on politics (Mary’s family were Royalists, meaning they supported the king) or maybe the age gap was just too much, whatever the reason, within a month of their marriage, Mary returned home to her parents’ house. Milton wanted to legally separate from his wife, but English law forbade the couple from divorce. This prompted him to write the divorce tracts and he continued to fight for divorce law reformation even after he and Powell reconciled. On the other hand, Milton treasured his friendship with his childhood friend, Charles Diodati. They met while they were schoolboys at St. Paul’s school, and kept in touch with each other beyond their college years. Diodati was Milton’s intellectual counterpart. Milton would write letters to Diodati in Latin, and in response, Diodati wrote back in Greek. He composed elegies for Diodati, ‘[pouring] out his feelings of life, love and death.’ Gregory Chaplin quotes passages from Diodati’s letters addressed to Milton while the later was on a trip to Italy: ‘I ache for your companionship…so that we might enjoy a feast of one another’s philosophical and cultured words.’ After Diodati’s sudden death, Milton composed a pastoral elegy, where he “stresses how Diodati’s companionship and especially his conversation, provided him with a refuge from the difficulties and cares of daily life… ‘what faithful companion will stay by my side as you always did when the cold was cruel and the frost thick on the ground…who now is to beguile my days with conversation and song?’”

Inspired by Plato

Before we assume Milton was a 17th century political blogger who lost his soulmate and had to settle with Mary Powell, there is the Platonic relationship, the idea that when a person loved someone, it would bring that person closer to his spirituality. Milton saw a Platonic love between one man to another to be the idea relationship because it showed that the men love each other for their friendship, as well as essentially for each others’ souls. When the time came, in which the two lovers wanted to come together in a bodily way, their souls would ‘grow wings’ and reach the divine because they were able to suppress their desire for physical pleasure from taking over before laying the foundation for companionship. However, if a man felt attracted to another man or woman out of pure lust or desire, that soul would remain on Earth with out touching the heavens. Looking at it from this perspective, Milton’s feelings for Diodati is one where “they were partners on a divinely inspired quest toward virtue and self-perfection."

to grow 'wings' and  reach the divine
to grow 'wings' and reach the divine

Does this mean that Milton believed the ideal relationship to be a friendship between two men? Chaplin claims that this is not the case, that Milton does draw a line between camaraderie and marriage, where the differences are the former is only ‘intellectual labor’ while the later consists of ‘intellectual exchange, relaxation and emotional comfort.’ Sounds like ingredients for a soulmate.

For more information

John Milton. The Major Works, Ed. Stephen Orgel. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Gregory Chaplin. “ One Flesh, One Heart, One Soul” : Renaissance Friendship and Miltonic Marriage” Modern Philology 99.2 (2001) : 266-292.

Roy Flannagan. John Milton: A Short Introduction, Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce : ideas on marriage from the 17th century by StellaSeeis licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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    • StellaSee profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from California

      Hi CJ thanks for reading! Yeah it took a bit of time to write this but I think most of it is because I just write slow.

      Thank you Lissie! I wish we could all easily be a 'hexa- lingual,' I'm a struggling bilingual!

      Hi collegatariat! Yeah I agree, Milton was ahead of his time when he argued that people should be able to marry/divorce on the basis of incompatibility. But this is just the surface of his ideas.

    • collegatariat profile image


      8 years ago

      There's some great information here! Biblically, divorce is unacceptable on any grounds but infidelity, so not having one's "soulmate" for a spouse is not a moral obligation while not breaking the covenant of marriage is. However, Milton's story, like so many others, is a good example of why we should all choose a marriage partner well. Thanks for sharing!

    • Lissie Loomes profile image

      Lissie Loomes 

      8 years ago from Tasmania, Australia

      Very interesting read. What an intriguing position to hold 'Secretary of Foreign Tongues'!I enjoyed this hub very much. Voted up.

    • CJ Andrews profile image

      Chris Andrews 

      8 years ago from Norwalk, Ohio

      A lot of good information. Thanks for putting such thought into this and sharing it with us. Up and interesting.


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