Thursday 29 March 2018

Levirate Marriage, or How to Complicate the Lives of Your Characters By Stephanie Churchill #amwriting #History @WriterChurchill

Levirate Marriage, or How to Complicate the Lives of Your Characters
By Stephanie Churchill

In my first novel, The Scribe’s Daughter, my main protagonist, Kassia, meets a young man named Jack.  Together they trek along on a sometimes light-hearted, other times arduous journey, taking them from the dusty back alley of an imperial city, to a prison, past mountain vistas, and across swamps.  As obstacle after obstacle is thrown into their path, they form a friendship, leading to a budding romantic relationship.  But as often happens, things get a bit muddled when Kassia discovers something about Jack’s past, something which he has not previously shared with her: 

"Jack?"  I lifted my chin and looked up at him, asking uneasily, "Who is Nairin?" The muscles in his arm tensed, but his face remained passive.  When he kept silent I prodded him, suspicion growing that I wouldn't like his answer. 

He heaved a big sigh and gently took my hand, pulling me down next to him.  I allowed it, but sat rigid, at full alert.  "Kassia, she was my wife. Once."

For now he had my attention, but my eyes blazed heat at him from across the gulf that was now looming between us.

"It's not what you think," he offered.  "She died, two years ago.  It was a sickness.  It came on like a wildfire, consuming and wasting her pain-wracked body in a fortnight.  When she died suddenly, we were all bereft, her family was devastated.  But then the inevitable responsibility fell on my shoulders to marry her younger sister, Mairona.  It was tradition.  Kassia, I didn't want her.  I don't want her.  But it's a tradition fiercely held to by a small portion of people from Agrius, including Nairin's.  Once married, if the older daughter dies, the younger one takes her place if still unmarried.  It preserves the union intended between the families."  He was pleading, willing me to understand, his tone broken, painful to hear.  "But I knew my duty and accepted it, whether I wanted to or not.”  (The Scribe’s Daughter, chapter 9, edited for brevity)

Jack is not free to pursue Kassia because he is promised to another.  Oops.

When developing this little catch in the relationship between Jack and Kassia, I drew from my knowledge of the ancient Israeli practice of the ‘kinsman-redeemer’ as the basis for this hiccup, though as you will see, I changed up the details of the tradition to fit the needs of my characters and story.

A kinsman-redeemer is a male relative who, according to various laws of the Pentateuch, had the responsibility to act on behalf of a relative who was in trouble, danger, or need. The Hebrew term (go el) for kinsman-redeemer designates one who delivers or rescues.  The most beautiful example of the kinsman-redeemer is from the Old Testament book of Ruth.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld: "Ruth in Boaz's Field", 1828 ~ Wikipedia

Unlike marriages in modern Western society, ancient unions were not generally entered into for romantic reasons, but rather economic or social ones.  It was considered a tragedy for a man to die without fathering a son, because there would be no one to continue his name.  If he died without male issue, one of his brothers was expected to marry the widow and thereby produce a boy who would be a surrogate son of the deceased, allowing the widow to continue to be looked after by her husband’s family.  The eldest brother didn’t always want her, so then it was up to the next oldest, and so on down the line until the youngest brother.  The widow certainly had the right of refusal, but she was more or less engaged to a brother-in-law and unable to marry anyone else until all of the eligible brothers had clearly rejected her.

While it might sound horrifying to our modern ears, the idea behind the tradition is very practical and compassionate.  Widowhood could be quite difficult in ancient Israel, as the Old Testament book of Ruth attests. While customary for a woman to receive a dowry from her family when she married, if her husband died, any property of her husband would go to the male children, and legally she would have no financial recourse. Even if she did receive a dowry, it might not be enough to last her entire life.  Having a husband provided a much better chance for her economic security and well-being.  After being widowed, the idea of marrying the brother of her deceased husband was far preferable to the alternative of having little to no status and no resources.

The idea that widows should be protected was not new to ancient Israel.  The concept can be traced as far back as ancient Sumer where the protection of the widow, the orphan, and the poor is detailed in two well-known law codes: that of Urukagina of Lagash in the twenty-fifth century B.C., and that of Ur Nammu of Ur in the twenty-first century B.C.1

The most famous of the law codes, prior to the more familiar practices of kinsman-redeemer in ancient Israel (as illustrated in the Book of Ruth), comes from Mesopotamia.  Hammurapi in the eighteenth century B.C. builds upon the concepts of its Sumerian precursors. In his Prologue, Hammurapi affirms that the gods had called him, “To make justice appear in the land, to destroy the evil and wicked (so that) the strong might not oppress the weak.”2 In the Epilogue he adds that he had “enacted these laws, so that the strong might not oppress the weak (and so as) to give justice to the orphaned (homeless) girl and to the widow.”3 Egypt and Syro-Palestine had similar laws.

This seemingly obscure traditional custom from so long ago worked very well for my purposes as I attempted to devise a scheme to further complicate the lives of my two protagonists.  Having my male protagonist already committed to marry a girl he didn’t want when his romantic interest was right there with him?  How frustrating!  I’ll admit that it was fun to complicate their lives.  It’s one of the perks of being an author.

1 F. Charles Fensham, "Widow, Orphan, and the Poor in Ancient Near Eastern Legal and Wisdom Literature," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, XXI (April, 1962).
2 E. Bergmann, Codex Hammurabi: Textus Primigenius (Rome, 1953).
3 G. R. Driver and John C. Miles (eds.), The Babylonian Laws (Oxford, 1960).

Stephanie Churchill

Stephanie Churchill grew up in the American Midwest, and after school moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a paralegal, moving to the Minneapolis metro area when she married.  She says, 'One day while on my lunch break from work, I visited a nearby bookstore and happened upon a book by author Sharon Kay Penman.  I’d never heard of her before, but the book looked interesting, so I bought it.  Immediately I become a rabid fan of her work. I discovered that Ms. Penman had fan club and that she happened to interact there frequently.  As a result of a casual comment she made about how writers generally don’t get detailed feedback from readers, I wrote her an embarrassingly long review of her latest book, Lionheart.  As a result of that review, she asked me what would become the most life-changing question: “Have you ever thought about writing?”  And The Scribe’s Daughter was born.'

Stephanie loves to hear from readers, you can find her: Website  Facebook 

The Scribe's Daughter

In this gripping sequel to The Scribe's Daughter, a young woman finds herself unwittingly caught up in a maelstrom of power, intrigue, and shifting perceptions, where the line between ally and enemy is subtle, and the fragile facade of reality is easily broken.

Irisa's parents are dead and her younger sister Kassia is away on a journey when the sisters’ mysterious customer returns, urging Irisa to leave with him before disaster strikes. Can she trust him to keep her safe? How much does he know about the fate of her father? Only a voyage across the Eastmor Ocean to the land of her ancestors will reveal the truth about her family’s disturbing past. Once there, Irisa steps into a future she has unknowingly been prepared for since childhood, but what she discovers is far more sinister than she could have ever imagined. Will she have the courage to claim her inheritance for her own?



  1. Thanks for having me, Mary Anne!

  2. Brilliant post, Stephanie! I love how you blend different traditions and aspects of history into your fictional world.

    1. Thank you! This was a devilish idea, I admit. Poor Jack and Kassia. :-)

  3. You have educated me today, Stephanie. I had never heard of a Levirate Marriage. The things I learn on this blog!!!

    1. So good to hear, Kathy! Thanks for visiting!


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx