The marital prison in Biertan, Romania

Locked into a Relationship: The Medieval Remedy for Divorce Still Requested in Romania

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Global divorce rates are on the rise. Some people see this as a social issue. But the small Romanian village of Biertan has a unique method to remedy this problem. They follow a tradition which has been in use since the Middle Ages – a ‘marital prison.’

In practice, the ‘marital prison’ involves locking up couples whose marriages were on the rocks for a couple of weeks so that they could sort out their problems for themselves. Strange as it may sound, this method has been particularly effective - it seems that even today some couples have requested to use the ‘marital prison’ in an attempt to save their marriages.

Lock on a wooden door in the church at Biertan, Romania. The lock contains 19 locks in one, "and is such a marvel of engineering it won first prize at the Paris World Expo in 1900."

Lock on a wooden door in the church at Biertan, Romania. The lock contains 19 locks in one, "and is such a marvel of engineering it won first prize at the Paris World Expo in 1900." (Adam Jones/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Rise and Decline of Biertan

Biertan is a small village located in the central Romanian region of Transylvania. During the 12th century, the Hungarian king, Géza II, invited the Saxons to settle in Transylvania in order to protect it from the Tatars and Ottomans, as well as to bring economic development to the region. Biertan was one of the settlements the Saxons founded, and the first written account attesting to the settlement’s existence dates to 1283. During the 15th century, Biertan developed into a significant market town, with a population of about 5000 in 1510. After the Medieval period, however, the town began to decline. Today, Biertan has been reduced to a small village with a population of less than 2000.

Biertan, Romania and its famous fortified church.

Biertan, Romania and its famous fortified church. (Mihai Raducanu/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Biertan’a best-known attraction is its fortified church. It is due to this structure that Biertan is today a UNESCO World Heritage site, as part of the ‘Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania’, along with six other similar sites in the country. Biertan’s fortified church dates back to the 15th century, and it is strategically situated on a high hill in the center of the village. Within this formidable structure meant to defend both the bodies and souls of Biertan’s inhabitants is a small ‘marital prison’.

A Highly Effective Means to Prevent Divorce

This prison was essentially a small room with the bare necessities – a table, a chair, a storage chest, and a small, traditional Saxon bed. There was only one of each item, and an imprisoned couple needed to share everything. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Biertan was linked to the Lutheran Evangelical Bishop in Transylvania, and most aspects of the townspeople’s life were governed by ecclesiastical authority. Thus, when a couple wanted a divorce, they would need to approach the local bishop. As they did so, the bishop would send them to the ‘marital prison’, where they would be locked away for as long as six weeks. The purpose of this imprisonment was to give the couple a chance to work out their differences. A divorce could only be obtained if this measure did not succeed.

The Medieval marital prison in Biertan, Romania.

The Medieval marital prison in Biertan, Romania. ( yourguideintransylvania)

In the event that a divorce was granted, a husband would be forced to pay his ex-wife half of his earnings. In a society where men played the role of the breadwinner in the family, this was meant to ensure that the women and children affected by the divorce would be protected. If the man remarried, and divorced again, however, the second wife would not receive anything. In any case, it has been boasted that the ‘marital prison’ was so successful, that in the three centuries that it was in use, there was only one divorce.

1846 painting ‘The Divorce’ by Jan Hendrik van de Laar.

1846 painting ‘The Divorce’ by Jan Hendrik van de Laar. ( Public Domain )

Avoiding Divorce - A Practical Choice?

It has been speculated that it was for practical reasons that couples in the ‘marital prison’ decided not to get a divorce in the end. Being imprisoned for six weeks meant that time which otherwise could have been used to tend to the crops was wasted, which might result in a shortage of food for the coming year. Thus, couples were pressured to reconcile as soon as possible, so that they could get out of the prison and back to work. If the couple succeeded in coming to a compromise, they could be released after two weeks.

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