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since June 19, 2001


Marriage and Divorce in the late 1840s

The common-sense advice of Pastor Gerst

You might wonder about this piece.  Please be patient, after a few paragraphs you’ll find that it relates to marriage, gender issues, domestic violence and divorce -- shortly before 1850!  Just allow me to put the situation into context.

My oldest sister had sent to me, just before she passed away in 1995, a collection of poems by Theodor Groll.  The collection is "Geerschtiaden", so called in an adaptation of  the Lower-Rhine version of Low-German that was largely the basis for the local dialect spoken in my home town, Duesseldorf, Germany.  Geersch (the best phonetic spelling for the English pronounciation that I can produce is Yaeaesh) is the LG term for barley (Gerste in High-German).

The central figure in the collection of poems is Pastor Gerst (November 17, 1805 - September 13, 1867), who for most of his clerical career was a prison pastor in Duesseldorf. Pastor Gerst had only received elementary schooling, worked as a journey-man cabinet maker until he was twenty, and began his clerical studies late in life, passing them in record time. He was renowned for his wit, which was often ironical, even satirical, and often even coarse. His company was much sought by society because, always in the local dialect, although he was often the butt of a joke -- which he didn’t mind, because he always had the last word and the laughter on his side -- he gave as well as he could receive.

Of the type of situations that provided the basis for the poems by Theodor Groll, two are related in the foreword.  One of these goes as follows:

"One day, Pastor Gerst sat at the house table in 'Der Roemische Kaiser' [the hotel "Roman Caesar"], in the midst of a row of guests.  The soup was right hot, so that many of the guests got their tongues burned.  At that moment something of a human nature happened to Pastor Gerst.  He passed wind with considerable force, as a result of which the guests at the table looked up, partially in surprise and partially in embarrassment.  Pastor Gerst never lost his composure.  In the calmest demeanor he explained, using the comfortable local dialect: 'Surely, that one got lucky.  That’s the only one that squeezed through.  The others all got burned.' "

The other example of his wit given in the foreword goes like this:

"Another time, Pastor Gerst sat in the hotel 'Zweibruecker Hof', with a glass of wine, after the meal had ended.  At the neighbouring table sat a peasant, who seemed to have enjoyed a hearty meal; at any rate, he started to burp.  Pastor Gerst called good-naturedly over to him: 'Sir! You’ll grow to be old.'  The peasant stopped short, but failed to understand what Pastor Gerst was getting at.  It didn’t take long and the peasant burped again, following which Pastor Gerst remarked: 'Sir, you will grow to be very old.'  Now the peasant couldn’t hold back any longer and asked: 'Reverend, what are you getting at?'  'Yes,' said Pastor Gerst, wittily-serious: 'It says in the Bible: Our life lasts 60 years; if it comes a long way, 70.  With you it has come a long way twice.'

[That did not translate quite so well into English, but the story does illustrate his way of dealing with things.
  -- Source: Geerschtiaden, Foreword, pp. VII and VIII]

The following is a translation of a poem on page 171, of Volume II of the collection of poems about Pastor Gerst.  

   The Fight and the Marriage

    With several confreres
    Herr Yaeaesh once came into debate,
    Of marriage-bliss and marriage-pain,
    Of peace and of war.

    It bothered him that the young men
    Fought the hardest,
    and pretended to know it all.
    Therefore he said excitedly:

    "You young people actually
    Shouldn't give a care about it all,
    With all your wisdom you are
    Very seldom agreeable yourself.

    Because a pair of spouses who fight,
    Don’t take as long
    To make peace as you need
    To reach your consensus.

    Very seldom will you manage to achieve,
    What a man and wife can’t do,
    Therefore don’t get involved in the turmoil,
    A bad ending is often the sole result.

    Even the Lord most likely doesn’t know,
    Who’s in the wrong and who’s right,
    And many a thing comes into play,
    Of which no one else might think. ----

    There comes to mind a little tale,
    It fits in, right in this place,
    And to your warning, use and education
    I’ll tell it to you now. ----

    Through a street in a run-down neighbourhood once came,
    A colleague of the office of ours,
    Looked through the windows into a room,
    There the wife just gets a licking

    From the beloved husband;
    He's giving it to her quite well. ---
    The colleague jumps into the house; --- ---
    Throws open wide the door,

    Throws himself between the two, keeps the man
    Back from delivering a hard blow. ----
    Upon which the wife takes the handle of the broom
    And hits him on the roof.

    She yells: "That’s nobody’s business,
    When my man hits me,
    That's he allowed to do." ---- Now the man too
    changes over to attack.

    Jointly now the married couple
    Hammered at the colleague,
    Until he found the quickest way
    To make his safe retreat.  ---- ----

    Another little piece from life,
    To you I still must tell,
    What would you have done in this case,
    You tell me that when I ask:

    Just a few days ago a woman comes to me
    And cries a piece at first,
    Then she laments: "Help me in my need,
    Please do: Herr Pastor Yaeaesh."

    "Tell me first, what’s depressing you?"
    And crying loud she starts:
    "I’m not staying with my man anymore."
    I ask sternly: "Do you have grounds?"

    "Certainly! Certainly! The whole day,
    Until to bed he goes,
    He’s as grumbly as an owl
    And as stubborn as a horse." ----

    And this and that, and that and this,
    She’s carrying on and on,
    That finally I must tell her:
    "Now you hold your trap for once.

    I’ll come to your house, speak with the man,
    And quickly, you’ll see,  that bad,
    With good will and understanding,
    Will soon be smooth again."

    "But I want to get divorced,
    Or else I’ll loose my mind,
    Oh, go ahead and help me, Herr Pastor,"
    Cries she in total despair.

    "Crazy you want to become, woman?" said I,
    "May God protect you from that,
    Think of your children, think of God,
    And then think of your honour."

    But none of that will help, that woman
    Almost wrecks her hands, by wringing them so hard.
    And I think to myself: No, Pastor Yaeaesh,
    You’ll find no end to it that way.

    And I say: "Lady, calm down
    and sit down over there,
    Answer me now short and clear
    And forget about the crying for now.

    I’m sure your man is ugly?!"
    "No, Sir, that he’s not."
    "Then he must drink a lot and come home late; ----
    You couldn't get enough,

    And he’s brazen and cheats on you as well?!"
    "I believe not, Herr Pastor, ----
    That he’s untrue to me, but brazen he is,
    Because he’s got curly hair."

    "Is it maybe that he’s not in good health?"
    She just shakes her head, ----
    So I say: "Now I know enough."
    And get up out of my chair. ---- -----

    Now comes my question, what would  you
    Have done in this case?
    Maybe negotiated with the man?
    And how they all shut up,

    Continues Pastor Yaeaesh: "I take her firmly
    By the arm and say: "Now listen:
    Now I know what in your spouse’s
    place I would do with you.

    And know too what has kept away all
    That marital bliss till now,
    A good solid cane your man
    Has been lacking until now.

    If I were at your house right now,
    I would say to him: "That must be understood,
    You’ll have no joy with her, your Frau,
    Until you’ve worked her over good."

Theodor Groll


Now, I suppose that if anyone would give that type of advice today, it might make the national news, although this weekend it might not make the front page.  This story would be crowded out by another one, by the story of a woman who could have been the re-incarnation of the unhappy women described in the poem about Pastor Gerst, fighting and marriage, and marriage and divorce.  ["Saint" Diana's death or some such other "calamity" had made the news at the time]

Don't be too hard on me.  I don't agree with caning and don't condone DV.  All I presented here is a little piece of history, seen through someone else's eyes and describing someone else's life in another time.  It seems that our world did change during the last 140 years, but it is not so much our world or the people in it as it is our views of both that changed.  I truly believe that we are still dealing with the same kind of people in the same world.  The game is still the same.  We just play now by a different set of rules, watched over by different referees, but we are all still human to the same extent we always were.
    If anything has changed, it is that 140 years ago wives were still thought to be just as responsible for certain actions as their spouses were, whereas the rules used today only hold the men responsible, while the wives can use the rules that apply in a free-for-all.  Today's police officers who get called to domestic violence incidents don't like going.  The reasons for that are quite plain.  Most often the fight is a mutual battle, and when the officers on call arrest the man -- which they mandatorily must -- the wives frequently turn on them and attack them with any convenient weapon at hand, from boiling water to knives, most often from behind and with no prior warning.

Pastor Gerst drank a fair bit and often.  He died of massive edema -- it seems that his kidneys failed.  Maybe he too should have burped a bit more often, just like that peasant did in the hotel 'Zweibruecker Hof'.

It seems that this poem about pastor Gerst would indicate that men had all of the power in those days and that women had none, but hold on for a moment.  In a different place and a quarter of a century earlier a different view emerged that is still valid to this day.

The husband may think he rules the roost, but who rules the rooster?


She was like him and always sported
the latest fashions of the town;
but, without asking, they transported
her to the altar and the crown.
The better to dispel her sorrow
her clever husband on the morrow
took her to his estate, where she,
at first, with God knows whom to see,
in tears and violent tossing vented
her grief, and nearly ran away.
Then, plunged in the housekeeper's day,
she grew accustomed, and contented.
In stead of happiness, say I,
custom's bestowed us from on high.


For it was custom that consoled her
in grief that nothing else could mend;
soon a great truth came to enfold her
and give her comfort to the end:
she found, in labours and in leisure,
the secret of her husband's measure,
and ruled him like an autocrat -
so all went smoothly after that.
Mushrooms in brine, for winter eating,
fieldwork directed from the path,
accounts, shaved forelocks,4 Sunday bath—,
meantime she'd give the maids a beating
if her cross mood was at its worst —
but never asked her husband first.

                              -- Alexander Pushkin, "Eugene Onegin," (begun in 1824) Chapter Two, (Translated by Charles Johnston)

[From the translator's notes]: 4. Serfs chosen for the army had their forelocks cut off. [Note, as always during the history of mankind, it was the men, not the women, who were chosen for the army and to die on the battlefield, but that, like so many other things that men do (anyone can see the evidence all around of what it is men do), is something many women readily forget about. —WHS]

Recommended Reading:


  • For a fairly comprehensive collection of links to articles on the subject, check Family Violence

  • The "Rule of Thumb for Wife-Beating" Hoax

  • The "evil" that men did — Was there discrimination against women in the old days?

  • There is absolutely nothing new about any of what is being described in this page.  The indicated trend is nothing but a continuation of the chivalry by "men" of the Victorian age (politicians, judges and lawyers) who did their best to give women — in the name of liberating them from male oppression — more and more privileges at the expense of common men.  In that fashion The Fraud of Feminism (1913, by Belfort Bax) has been at work already for hundreds of years  to bring about The Legal Subjection of Men (1908, by Belfort Bax).

    Note: The Internet Archive does not always produce results for those two preceding links. However, the two pieces by Belfort Bax can be found and accessed in other locations on the Net. You can use, for example, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Fraud_of_Feminism and http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Legal_Subjection_of_Men

See also:

Last updated:
1999 05 19
2001 01 29 (format changes)
2006 03 04 (added link to Feminism for Male College Students)
2006 12 04 (reformated page)