Not to be confused with Bigotry.
Elkanah and his two wives

In cultures that practice marital monogamy, bigamy is the act of entering into a marriage with one person while still legally married to another.[1] Bigamy is a crime in most western countries, and when it occurs in this context often neither the first nor second spouse is aware of the other.[2][3] In countries that have bigamy laws, consent from a prior spouse makes no difference to the legality of the second marriage, which is usually considered void.

History of anti-bigamy laws

Before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Diocletian and Maximilian passed strict anti-polygamy laws in 285 AD that mandated monogamy as the only form of legal marital relationship, as had traditionally been the case in classical Greece and Rome. In 393, the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I issued an imperial edict to extend the ban on polygamy to Jewish communities. In 1000, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah ruled polygamy inadmissible within Ashkenazi Jewish communities, living in a Christian environment.

According to feminist historian Sarah McDougall, the Christian European insistence on monogamy and its enforcement arose as a consequence of 16th Century Islamic incursions into Central Europe and the advent of European colonialism within the Americas, Africa and Asia, which exposed European Christians to cultures that practised polygamy. As a consequence, nominal Christian male bigamists were subjected to unprecedented harsh punishments, such as execution, galley servitude, exile, and prolonged imprisonment. McDougall argues that female bigamists were not as harshly punished due to women's perceived absence of moral agency.[4]

Legal situation

Most western countries do not recognize polygamous marriages, and consider bigamy a crime. Several countries also prohibit people from living a polygamous lifestyle. This is the case in some states of the United States where the criminalization of a polygamous lifestyle originated as anti-Mormon laws, although they are rarely enforced.[5]

In diplomatic law, consular spouses from polygamous countries are sometimes exempt from a general prohibition on polygamy in host countries. In some such countries, only one spouse of a polygamous diplomat may be accredited, however.[6]

By country

In the United Kingdom a person guilty of bigamy is liable, on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years,[17] or on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to a fine not exceeding the prescribed sum, or to both.[18]


  1. Merriam Webster:Bigamy
  2. George Monger (2004). Marriage customs of the world: from henna to honeymoons. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. p. 31. ISBN 1-57607-987-2. Retrieved 2012-07-30.
  3. "Sex Offenses: Consensual - Bigamy". Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved 2009-05-10.
  4. Sarah McDougall, Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania University Press, 2012
  5. Turley, Jonathan (3 October 2004). "Polygamy laws expose our own hypocrisy". USA Today. Retrieved 2012-07-30.
  6. Shaw, Malcolm Nathan (2003). International law (5th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 684. ISBN 0-521-82473-7.
  7. Marriage Act 1961, sect 94.
  8. "strafwetboek" article 391
  9. Penal code of Brazil, Art. 235
  10. "CBC News in Depth: Polygamy". 2008-04-25. Archived from the original on 9 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-01-11.
  11. Redactora, Myriam Amparo Ramírez (24 February 2001). "La Bigamia". El Tiempo (in Spanish). Retrieved 2012-07-30.
  12. "Icelandic Act on Marriage No. 31/1993". Icelandic Ministry of Justice. 2008-01-09. Retrieved 2009-01-11.
  13. This list of repeals and amendments in the Republic of Ireland from the Irish Statute Book confirms that it remains in force.
  14. James Edward Davis. The Criminal Law Consolidation Statutes of the 24 & 25 of Victoria, Chapters 94 to 100: Edited with Notes, Critical and Explanatory. Butterworths. 1861. Pages 276 and 277.
  15. Penal Law Amendment (Bigamy) Law, 5719 (1959). This applies to members of each confessional community, including the Jewish and Muslim. The English Law of Bigamy in a Multi-Confessional Society: The Israel Experience by P Shifman.
  16. "Malaysia". Islamic Family Law. Emory Law School. Retrieved 2012-07-30.
  17. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 (24 & 25 Vict. c.100), section 57; the Criminal Justice Act 1948 (11 & 12 Geo.6 c.58), section 1(1)
  18. The Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 (c.43), section 32(1)
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