The concept of alimony has been a traditional fixture in the law of divorce ever since the early common law. Since the church was the foundation for the institution of marriage, it was only logical that the separation of husband and wife was a matter for the ecclesiastical courts in early England. Ecclesiastical decrees, however, did not dissolve the marriage but only resulted in a "legal" separation, commonly known as a divorce a mensa et thoro. In making such a decree, it was obviously necessary for the courts to make a discretionary award of support for the wife since at common law the husband exercised virtually absolute control over all of the wife's property, both real and personal, once the parties were married.

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