Book Review – To Put Asunder: The Laws of Matrimonial Strife

To Put Asunder: The Laws of Matrimonial Strife, by Lawrence H. Stotter. Regent Press, 2011. Hardback, 413 pages.

Lawrence Stotter, former chairman of the American Bar Association’s Division of Family Law and first editor-in-chief of its magazine, Family Advocate, is clearly a lover of the printed word. In a 10-page preface in this, his first (and according to his preface, his only) book, he describes how much he has enjoyed the beauty of “fine press” books and hopes readers will find this publication to be a treat in what he sees as an increasingly digital world. From an aesthetic standpoint, he has definitely succeeded. To Put Asunder is one of the most visually-appealing books I have ever read. The pages are made of thick glossy stock, and throughout the book one finds many full-color illustrations of old manuscripts and texts. Fans of deep reds and maroon hues will be particularly pleased, as the dust jacket and citations in the margins are of these colors.

After the preface, there’s a 10-page introduction that discusses the author’s attempts to locate compilations of early historical sources on family law. After much frustration, he decided he should create his own bibliography of early family law writings, which he then lists from pages 29 to 36. Using the sources listed in this bibliography, Stotter then creates a 23-page chronology of historical events, using color codes to indicate who might find the events significant (black type is of historical interest, blue indicates legal items, and red indicating there is an accompanying illustration). Altogether, the preface, introduction, and chronology make up the first 61 pages of the book.

The text of the book consists of six chapters and starts with a discussion titled, “The History and Lore of Family Law.” In this first chapter, Stotter discusses marriage and divorce under tribal law and advances throughout history to canon and temporal law in feudal England (chapter two also discusses family law in England). Chapters three and four are profiles of family law authors Stotter admires (Henry Swinburne and Tapping Reeve, respectively) and detail works they authored of historical significance (for example, Swinburne is the first known author of a treatise on family law written in English, and Reeve lectured on family law in the Litchfield Law School for more than 36 years, during which he made numerous contributions to the early adoption of English common law in America).

In chapter five, Stotter moves to a discussion of family law practice in colonial and post-revolutionary war America, first by discussing three important cases (Blair, Broadstreet, and Thrall), then discussing how these cases and others shaped matrimonial laws during these periods. The final chapter is about sources of law in England and America and is really just an expanded version of the bibliography found in the introduction. From there, the book contains five appendices, an index, and a two-page note for book collectors in which Stotter recommends some book dealers who have helped find many of the rare and antique sources cited within.

I went into ­To Put Asunder­ expecting essays on the topic of divorce, but the book turned out to be more of a love letter to rare books and the history of family law publishing throughout history. Stotter clearly loves this topic, and even if parts of the book can seem tedious and long, he has clearly put so much effort into this endeavor (as exhibited by the extensive citations and color illustrations), one can’t help but keep reading. While this book would be of little to no value in firm libraries, it makes a great addition to any academic library with an emphasis on the history of law or to any library with a strong collection of family law material.

Reviewed by Lance Burke, reference/access services librarian at Elon School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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1 Response to “Book Review – To Put Asunder: The Laws of Matrimonial Strife”


  1. 1 James August 7, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    This is a very nice review! I’d just like to clarify and add a few things.

    The bibliography on pages 29-36 you mention isn’t actually the book’s bibliography, but rather a list of the major reference sources to family law and divorce proceedings in early English and American legal references which readers and researchers had to hunt and pick for materials, writings, and cases on the subject. The fact that information on the subject was so disorganized, being spread across all those books, spurred the creation of this book! Really, the five appendices you mention are the first attempt to provide an organized family law bibliography of English-American family law literature and reported cases.

    Also, this is the only book that supplies the history and literary references to Family Law in general, and more specifically to the literature and development of divorce law in Western legal history. The last book on this subject was written over 20 years ago, and it only dealt narrowly with family law in England from 1530 to 1987, paying minimal attention to the effects and impact of Henry VIII and to the writings of Henry Swinburne.

    And it’s the first and only book to identify the history of early U.S. Colonial Family Law, and to identify how Tapping Reeve and the Litchfield Law School influenced the growth of American Family Law in the U.S. prior to the 19th century.


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