Milton, marriage, and a woman's right to divorce

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Wntr, 1999 by Matthew Biberman

Milton's reliance on John Selden's Uxor Hebraica [Jewish Wife] (1646) as a major source for his final position on divorce has been increasingly argued by a number of Milton's critics since Eivion Owen's pioneering essay in 1946.(1) In a recent essay, Christopher Hill introduces this connection as the first piece of evidence in his argument that the author of On Christian Doctrine (DDC) is in fact John Milton, a question that had been opened by William B. Hunter:

The unknown author should be fairly easy to identify. He had published treatises on divorce. Milton has a very idiosyncratic definition of "fornication" as grounds for divorce: "any notable disobedience or intolerable carriage in a wife" (Tetrachordon, Yale Prose, 2:672). Selden, whom Milton regarded as an authority on such matters (Commonplace Book, Yale Prose, 1:403; Doctrine and Discipline, Yale Prose, 2:350) "still more fully explained this point" in his Uxor Hebraica, two years later than Milton (Second Defense, Yale Prose, 4:625). The author of the DDC also saw "fornication" as a reason for divorce, and also had an unusual definition of the word: "continual headstrong behavior," "the lack of some quality which might reasonably be required in a wife" (Yale Prose, 6:378). He too attributed his view to Selden's Uxor Hebraica (Yale Prose 6:378). Interesting coincidences.(2)

Setting aside the question of the DDC's authorship,(3) the "coincidences" Hill points to (in the Miltonic texts) suggest, upon closer examination, that Milton derived more from the Uxor than just his "idiosyncratic" philological argument that the Greek word porneia ([Greek Text Omitted]) found in Matthew 5:32 is not in fact the common term for either "adultery" or "fornication" (as it was translated), and that therefore, on the basis of philological examples and argument,porneia could be given looser interpretations, such as Hill's citations.(4) It may well be more than probable, then, that Milton took from the Uxor not just this specific argument in support of his conviction that Christians had the right to divorce, but rather he found in Selden a clear vision of what he would embrace and adopt as his own conception of what marriage was as an institution in its broadest, and indeed, its most archetypal form. In fact I would like to suggest that recasting the connection between Milton and Selden so that it focuses on this larger concept sheds light on several important aspects of Milton's thought, specifically, two issues: first, Milton's holistic conception of marriage, because his idea of divorce must be understood as a part of this larger concept; and second, the extent to which this re-evaluation demonstrates that in Milton's interpretation of marriage law, women possess the right to divorce. Although some critics might argue that Milton's marital circumstances would not allow him to extend this right to women, by his own logic, such a right could not be denied them.


One matter that Selden takes up in the Uxor that was to have a lasting impact on Milton was the significance of the Hebrew word chupah (roughly, "canopy" or "enclosure"). Crucial is chapter 13 of book two, subtitled "The Leading into the Nuptial Chamber of which there are traces in both the Old and New Testaments. The Marriage is in all respects consummated" (JSJML, p. 179). Here Milton read that in the opinion of Maimonides, "The marriage blessings do not make a marriage; rather it is leading into the chamber" (JSJML, p. 179). ("Non benedictio Sponsorum facit seu perficit nuptias, sed deductio in thalamum" [UH, p. 181].) In his explicit discussion of this quotation, Selden explains unequivocally that, for Maimonides, it is intercourse between husband and wife that institutes the sacred law. Intercourse need not take place, but it must be assumed or permissible, and so the rabbis say that the marriage is not considered consummated if the woman is unpure (i.e. "in her menses"), and that in this instance the marriage is to be delayed until such time as it is permissible. It is easy to see why this chapter would remain lodged in Milton's mind since it makes very clear the idea that the state has nothing to do with the institution of marriage - and furthermore, neither does the priesthood. Nor are there any required formal blessings or rituals beyond simple consummation and the consequent mutual knowledge of the man and the woman that they are now husband and wife.

In every way, the central conception of marriage as expounded by the rabbis matches Milton's ideal - two people telling each other in their own words how much they love each other and then consummating their love. Moreover, Milton could not have rejected the attitude displayed here by the rabbis in regard to conjugal love. As Selden's chapter progresses, for example, he takes up a discussion of the history of the chupah, noting that although the chupah now stands for a ceremonial canopy under which the bride and groom stand while they exchange vows, it originally has a broader definition: "In fact, khupah is derived from the word khafef which means to cover, and by its nature signifies a place where the couple is hidden or covered" such as a "room or enclosure" (JSJML, p. 182). He locates such an instance in the Hebrew Bible, citing Joel 2:16: "Let the groom go forth from his room; the bride from her chamber [chupah]" (JSJML, p. 182). Glossing the verse, Selden explains that the groom is to leave his bachelor quarters and enter the bride's chupah where the marriage is consummated, after which the couple emerges married. Thus in its broadest sense, chupah can mean any private space in which a couple can consummate the marriage.(5) In order to convey the spirit of this ceremony, Selden includes the following midrashic commentary:


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