Bigamy Under this head we designate only, according to modern usage, the case of matrimonial union to two persons at the same time; premising that until the beginning of the 17th century, at least, the term was applied to all cases of second marriage, whether during the existence of a prior union or after its dissolution; the word "polygamy" being applied to the former case; the distinction being thus made entirely to turn on the simultaneous or successive nature of the marriage relations. SEE DIGAMY.
The first Church legislation we find on the subject is of doubtful genuineness — viz., those canons attributed to the Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325, which are only to be found in the Arabic version. The 24th of these declares- that "none ought to marry two wives at once, nor to bring in to his wife another woman for pleasure and fleshly desire." If a priest, such person was forbidden to officiate, and was excluded from communion until such time as he cast out the second, while he ought to retain the first; and so of a layman. Two other canons are to the same effect. The 5th chapter of the 1st book of Sanctions and Decrees says that '"to no Christian is it lawful to have two or more wives at once, after the manner of the Gentiles, who marry three or four at once; but one is to be married after the other, that is, the contract is to be made with the second after the death of the first." The practice of the West seems to have been generally more strict than in the East, and we have thus to infer the spirit of the Western Church towards bigamy from enactments against concubinage (q.v.). A letter of Leo the-Great A.D. 440-61, addressed to the African bishops of the province of Mauritania Caesariensis, speaking of an actual case of bigamy in the priesthood of that province, says, "Neither apostolic nor legal authority allows the husband of a second wife to be raised to the pastoral office, much less him who, as it has been related to us, is the husband of two wives at once." Another letter of Leo's (dated 458 or 459), to Rusticus, bishop of Narbonne, is probably the first authority for the lower modern view of the concubinate. "Not every woman united to a man is the man's wife, for neither is every son his father's heir... Therefore a wife is one thing, a concubine another; as a handmaid is one thing, a freewoman another... Wherefore if a clerk of any place give his daughter in marriage to a man having a concubine, it is not to be taken as if he gave her to a married man; unless haply the woman appear to have been made free, and lawfully jointured and restored to honor by a public marriage. Those who by their father's will are married to men, are not in fault if the women which such men had were not had in marriage. Since a wife is one thing, a concubine another, to cast from one's bed the bondmaid and to receive a wife of ascertained free birth is not a doubling of marriage, but a progress in honorable conduct." Towards the same period, however (latter half of the 5th century), a Nestorian Synod held in Persia, under the presidency of Barsumas, archbishop of Nisibis, affords probably the first instance of what may be called the modern Protestant interpretation of the Pauline "husband of one wife." A priest, its canons declare, "should be one who has one wife, as it is said in the Apostle's Epistle to Timothy, 'Whoever marries, let him have one wife;' if he transgresses. he is to be separated from the Church and the priestly order. But if a priest not knowing marriage, or whose wife is dead, should wish for lawful marriage, let him not be forbidden by the bishop, whether he have wished to marry before or after his priesthood." It is clear that the Nestorians in this case interpreted St. Paul as speaking not of successive but of simultaneous marriage. That this was not, however, the view of the Greek Church generally is evident.
A collection of Irish canons, supposed to belong to the close of the 7th century, shows that the Celtic kings of Ireland must, as in Britain in the days, of Gildas, have had regular harems. The Synod is represented as enacting (if the term can be used) as follows: "According as is the dignity which the king receives, so great should be his fear; for many women deprave his soul, and his mind, divided by the multitude of his wives, falls greatly into sin." To the 8th century belongs one of the most curious incidents in the treatment of this question by the Church. In a letter of pope Gregory II (A.D. 71430) to Boniface, the apostle of Germany, we find the pope treating the case of a wife, who through bodily infirmity becomes incapable of fulfilling the conjugal duty. Can the husband in such an event take a second wife? The pope replies, that it is good for him to remain united to her. "But he who cannot contain "(referring evidently to 1Co 7:9), "let him marry rather;" but without withdrawing maintenance "from her whom infirmity hinders but no detestable fault excludes" from his bed — a decision closely akin to that of Luther and the Protestant theologians in the case of the Landgrave of Hesse. Further on the pope condemns bigamy generally.
We find the question of the lawfulness of a second marriage in case of a wife's bodily infirmity recurring in a work not of much later date than pope Gregory's letter to Boniface, archbishop Egbert of York's Dialogue on Church Government. The archbishop is, however, more cautious than the pope. He puts the case only in the shape of a dissolution of the marriage tie by agreement of both parties, because of the infirmity of one of them; can the healthy one marry again, the infirm one consenting, and promising continence? The archbishop implies that he may: "By change of times necessity breaks the law . . . in doubtful cases one should not judge." SEE CONCUBINAGE.