In the middle of Romanian Transylvania, far from any major cities, lies the small, picturesque village of Biertan. This lovely town is worth visiting in its own right, as it’s been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993.
Biertan is also quite old. It was first mentioned in official documentation in 1283. Its most impressive work of architecture, though, is its 15th century fortified church, which sits on top of a hill in the middle of the village. This house of worship/fortress is completely encircled by 35-foot-high defensive walls, which made it impossible to conquer during much of its history.
The church has many other impressive features, including its multi-panelled wooden altar and its Viennese organ, with over 1290 pipes and 25 registers. The most interesting part of the church, however, is a small room located in the church’s Prison Tower.
This room was not used to house thieves or murderers. In an era when the church was responsible for administering family law as well as seeing to the spiritual needs of its parishioners, the room was used to perform a primitive type of marital counselling. This chamber is now known to us as the Divorce Room because couples who wanted to get a divorce had to agree to be locked into this tiny cell together for two weeks before a divorce would be granted.
The Divorce Room had only one bed, one pillow, one blanket, one plate, and one set of cutlery. They were also given only bread and water for sustenance. There was only one of everything, which forced the unhappy couples to share everything during their two-week “marriage retreat.” According to legend surrounding the room, in over 300 years of its use, only one couple decided to go through with their divorce plans after undergoing the ordeal.
There are several theories explaining why this odd form of couple’s therapy worked. First, the confinement of the spouses took them away from their daily stresses and chores. This allowed them to focus on each other and re-establish healthy communication. Shame could have also played a factor in the Divorce Room’s success. It was most likely considered shameful to be locked in the room, so many couples may have worked out their differences before being subject to the public humiliation of being locked in the cell.
Experts today generally disagree with the idea of forcing couples to reconcile. Absent from the historical record of Biertan are statistics regarding instances of spousal abuse or intimidation that might have occurred in the chamber. We also don’t know how well these marriages worked out in practice after the spouses returned home.
The Divorce Room has been preserved, and you can still visit it today. No matter your thoughts on this unusual divorce deterrent, the fortified church and the village of Biertan are worth a stop on any Romanian tour itinerary.