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In book one, chapter VIII, of The Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce, it is written:

Upon these principles I answer, that a right beleever ought to divorce an idolatrous heretick unlesse upon better hopes: however, that it is in the beleevers choice to divorce or not.

The former part will be manifest thus; first, an apostate idolater whether husband or wife seducing was to die by the decree of God, Deut. 13. 6, 9. that mariage therfore God himself dis-joyns: for others born idolaters the morall reason of their dangerous keeping and the incommunicable antagony that is between Christ and Belial, will be sufficient to enforce the commandment of those two inspir’d reformers, Ezra and Nehemiah, to put an Idolater away as well under the Gospel.

The latter part, that although there be no seducement fear’d, yet if there be no hope giv’n, the divorce is lawfull, will appeare by this, that idolatrous marriage is still hatefull to God, therfore still it may be divorc’t by the patern of that warrant that Ezra had; and by the same everlasting reason: Neither can any man give an account wherefore, if those whom God joyns, no man may separate, it should not follow, that, whom he joyns not, but hates to joyn, those man ought to separate: but saith the Lawyer, that which ought not have been don, once don, avails. I answer, this is but a crotchet of the law, but that brought against it, is plain Scripture.

I tried to decode Milton, I read it:

[...]: Neither can any man give an account why, if those whom God joyns, no man may separate, it should not follow, that, whom he [God] does not join, but hates to join, those man ought to separate: but says the person in favour of the canon law, that which ought not have been done, once done, avails. I answer, this is but a crotchet of the law, but that brought against it, is plain Scripture.

I looked up crotchet in Wiktionary, but the bolded phrase remains unclear to me. What does Milton mean by the crotchet of the law?

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  • 1
    Perhaps definition 4 'a whim or fancy' - we might say quirk nowadays. Jun 13, 2023 at 8:04
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    Merriam-Webster has "2 a: a highly individual and usually eccentric opinion or reference b : a peculiar trick or device" Definitely something along these lines.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 13, 2023 at 8:20
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    Related: literature.stackexchange.com/questions/24956/…
    – Gio
    Jun 13, 2023 at 10:25
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    Literally, the "crotchet" is a little crook or hook (as for example a shepherd's crook). The word has taken on many figurative meanings and variations. The musical note called a "crotchet", for example, had a hooked tail. A "crotchet" can be a piece of wood which has two parts at one end that turn away from one another, forming a "crotch", and with this meaning also a "crutch". In context this can be read as saying the lawyer is offering a mere crutch of law to support his position instead of relying upon scripture.
    – MetaEd
    Jun 13, 2023 at 21:24

3 Answers 3

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It is worth noting that crotchet has two distinct meanings that Milton may be employing here. Greybeard gives one of the meanings: a peculiar notion. However, Milton also may mean something more specific, construing an element of canon law as a single musical note compared to the weight of scripture he brings against it.

Shakespeare exhibits an earlier use of crotchet that has a similar play on words. In Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene 3, Don Pedro responds to Balthasar's modesty about his singing:

Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks;

Note, notes, forsooth, and nothing.

Don Pedro is both complimenting Balthasar (his arguments are already like song) and gently jesting with him (Balthasar's modesty is an odd idea or peculiar notion). Shakespeare can make this play on words with crotchet since crotchets were quarter notes in music, half a minim. (See OED def. 7.a.) That play with crotchet also accompanies further punning on note: take note (pay attention), use notes (sing), and it's only notes (nothing).

Milton, the son of a musical composer, friend to musician Henry Lawes, and a keen lover of music (Wikipedia), taps into that notion of a crotchet as only a little bit of music, as a note that is almost nothing. He compares this singular idea (one quarter note) in canon law that marriage, once done, can't be undone with "plain scripture," and the arguments he has already raised from it. Why let a single note (or almost nothing) get in the way of what, to Milton, is a common-sense scriptural argument for divorce? That musical sense accompanies the newer sense that canon law is peculiar on this point.

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In short, it means a quirk, a small point, or idiosyncrasy and is usually negative.

The word, in this sense, is now very rare and probably obsolete.

OED Crotchet

9.a. A whimsical fancy; a perverse conceit; a peculiar notion on some point (usually considered unimportant) held by an individual in opposition to common opinion.

The original of this sense is obscure:

a1772 Wilkie Ape, Parrot, etc. (R.) But airy whims and crotchets lead To certain loss, and ne'er succeed.

1807 G. Crabbe Parish Reg. iii, in Poems 131 And gloomy Crotchets fill'd his wandering Head.

1861 M. Arnold Pop. Educ. France 165 Opinions which have no ground in reason..mere crotchets, or mere prejudices.

b. A fanciful device, mechanical, artistic, or literary. 1834 T. Carlyle Sartor Resartus ii. ix. 67/1 Nothing but innuendoes, figurative crotchets.

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I suspect Milton's use may relate to a totally separate definition of crotchet in the full Oxford English Dictionary (most recent cited usage, 1772)...

crotchet (Obsolete)

  1. A pole or prop with a forked top; = crotch n.
    ...
  2. A forked support or bracket.
    1772 W. Bailey Descr. Useful Machines I. 255
    A Brass Crotchet screwed to the Pedestle and properly fitted to the solid and also to the hollow end of the axis of the machine.

Compare with figurative a pillar of the law, cornerstone of the law, and props of the law. Milton probably had a high regard for "the law" in general, so arguably he wouldn't want to accuse the legal system of having irrelevant whimsical1 aspects.

But he might well have been happy to point out that something was just part of the support (environment) for the legal system - not actually formally codified by legal statutes.


1 OED subdefinition 9a for the other separate entry...

A whimsical fancy; a perverse conceit; a peculiar notion on some point (usually considered unimportant) held by an individual in opposition to common opinion.

I find it hard to believe Milton had such a jaundiced view of English law - which he probably thought was right up there with the Bible in terms of "revered text".

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  • Part of the context of Milton's divorce tracts is that Milton hoped that Parliament would pass laws to provide a formal avenue for divorce. English law at the time didn't really deal with divorce, but older standards of canon law typically forbade it. Milton, not being a Catholic and having strong ideas for how church should not rely on Catholic precedent alone, would not have qualms with calling canon law peculiar when it contradicted his reading of scripture. Jun 13, 2023 at 18:20
  • Here's Milton from "The Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty": " "But let them chant while they will of prerogatives, we shall tell them of Scripture; of custom, we of Scripture; of acts and statutes, still of Scripture; till the quick and piercing word enter to the dividing of their souls, and the mighty weakness of the gospel throw down the weak mightiness of man’s reasoning." Jun 13, 2023 at 18:21
  • I haven't read the specific text in its entirety, nor do I really know much about what Milton thought of anything. And of course, whatever his exact intended meaning of "crotchet" at the time is pretty irrelevant to current English. But he says it's but a crotchet - contextually insignificant compared to Scripture (where the word plain clearly meant pure, unsullied, as opposed to the more likely simple, unsophisticated meaning we'd attach today). But I doubt the "prop/whim" choice would materially affect my understanding of the entire passage anyway. Jun 13, 2023 at 18:58

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