Vom Brief zum Forschungsprojekt
The starting point of the article is an undated letter from the eighteenth century that the author had accidentally found in a local archive at the end of the 1990s. In awkward handwriting and with unusual phonetic spelling a wife is responding to her husband's request for divorce. Noteworthy was not only the self-confidence expressed in the letter, but also the fact that the couple was living in a Catholic territory, where other denominations were not tolerated until 1781. The article focuses
... n the research process undertaken to figure out how and why a couple could possibly negotiate a divorce, in the light of the fact that Catholicism deems marriage a sacrament and does not allow divorce. The description of microhistory at work reveals not only how historians can find new sources about so-called 'ordinary' people, but also sheds light on the alternate legal institution of 'separation from bed and board', one that had lost its importance with the introduction of civil marriage in 1938. This might explain why it was nearly forgotten in Austrian historiography until recently. The author demonstrates how the contextualization of an unimportant letter written by an ordinary woman can unlock a new field of research, namely the marriage jurisdiction of the courts of the Catholic Church (until 1783) and that of the secular courts (after 1783). While starting at the micro-level to contextualize the above-mentioned divorce letter, the analysis of the marriage litigation takes the meso-level as its starting point. The article makes clear that the back and forth between the micro-, meso- and macro- levels of investigation does not only reveal valuable insight into the diverse perspectives of a single source, but also opens up a window into social and cultural relations, which are invisible to approaches limited to one level of society.