Nancy F. Cott (1976) on English Divorce Law in the Late C17-Early C18

        "In England marital controversies were judged by the ecclesiastical courts, and these courts applied canon law, under which a valid marriage was regarded as indissoluble.  True divorce (divortium a vinculo matrimonii), allowing the partners to remarry, was never granted unless a marriage was judged null to begin with, on grounds such as consanguinity, bigamy, or sexual incapacity.  Such causes as adultery, desertion, or cruelty warranted only separation from bed and board (divortium a mensa et thoro), which sustained the legal obligations of marriage, excepting cohabitation, and did not allow either partner to remarry. At the end of the seventeenth century, in order to relieve the stringency of ecclesiastical rule for noblemen whose wives were adulterous, the House of Lords began to dissolve marriages by private act. Only a select group could take advantage of this avenue to divorce. The cost often amounted to several thousand pounds, because a petitioner was expected to have first obtained a decree of divorce a mensa and a civil judgment against the adulterers. The Lords passed only about ninety private acts of divorce between 1697 and I785, all resting on adultery charges and all awarded to husbands."*

* This discussion of English divorce practice relies on George Elliott Howard, A History of Matrimonial Institutions, Chiefly in the United States and England ... (Chicago, 1904), II, 52-57, 77-85, 92-93, I02-I07; Reginald Haw, The State of Matrimony (London, I952), 74-89; Oliver McGregor, Divorce in England (London, 1957), 1-12; Joseph W. Madden, Handbook of the Law of Persons and Domestic Relations (St. Paul, Minn., 1931), 256-260; and L. Kinvin Wroth and Hiller B. Zobel, eds., The Legal Papers of John Adams, I (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), 280-285.  The several accounts of divorce in England differ slightly in their estimates of numbers of parliamentary divorces before 1800.

Nancy F. Cott, "Divorce and the Changing Status of Women in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts," The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Oct., 1976), pp. 586-614.  Stable URL:

See also pp. 167-8 in  Barbara J. Harris, "Recent Work on the History of the Family: A Review Article," Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3/4 (Spring - Summer, 1976), pp. 159-172  Stable URL:  This article's publication in 1976 requires us to use caution with respect to the adjective "recent" in its title, but it marks an interesting point in the third year of this pioneering feminist journal's engagement with historians and sociologists attempting to understand what happened to Anglo-European families during the C15-19. [ At the time Harris's article was published, Astell still had not yet made it into the Norton.]