Biertan’s Matrimonial Prison

Nov 22, 2022 0 comments

Tucked away in the church grounds of a quiet village in Romania, there is a small cottage known as the ‘matrimonial prison’. It was here that couples whose marriages were on the rocks were once sent to, to sort out their problems while being locked away for up to two weeks. The method was said to be so effective that records show that there has only been one divorce in the area for the past 300 years.

Biertan’s Matrimonial Prison. Photo: Alessio Damato/Wikimedia

Biertan is one of more than 150 villages in Transylvania to still have a fortified church. These churches were built during the 13th to 16th centuries, a period during which Transylvania was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire was rising. To defend against Ottoman and Tartar invasions, the most important towns in the region were fully fortified, and the smaller communities created fortifications centered on the church, where they added defensive towers and storehouses to keep their most valuable goods and to help them withstand long sieges.

In Biertan, the most important structure was the church, which is placed sturdily on a hilltop with walls that extend out into the surrounding countryside. Within the grounds is a small building with a room inside barely larger than a pantry. Couples who approached the local bishop to seek a divorce were sent to the matrimonial prison for a maximum of two weeks—six weeks according to some—to iron out their issues. The room was sparsely furnished with a table and chair, a storage chest and a traditional Saxon bed. The couple attempting to repair their marriages had to be share everything inside this tiny dwelling, from a single pillow and blanket to a single plate and spoon.

Inside the matrimonial prison. Photo: Draculina & kid/Flickr

According to Lutheranism, the religion of the Transylvanian Saxons, divorce was allowed under certain circumstances, such as adultery. But it was preferred that couples attempt to save their union. If a divorce did occur, the husband had to pay his ex-wife half of his earnings, but if he remarried and divorced again, the second wife was entitled to nothing.

“The reason to remain together was probably not love. The reason was to work and to survive,” explained Ulf Ziegler, Biertan’s current priest. “If a couple was locked inside for six weeks, it was very hard for them to have enough food the following year, so there was pressure to get out and to continue to work together.”

The small, dark room is currently a museum, yet Ziegler reveals that even today he receives requests from couples who look forward to using the prison to repair their own struggling marriages.

Biertan fortified church. Photo: Himbeerdoni/Flickr


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