Philobiblon: Selling a wife

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Selling a wife

Thompson also has a chapter on the sale of wives, which was obviously a hot topic in academia at his time of writing the essay. (There are several pages of heated self-defence that make a fascinating little study of the sociology of the ivory tower.)

The procedure involved the woman being publicly displayed with a rope halter and the conduct of a public auction (although the 'winner' was usually pre-decided), which in some lower-class quarters was considered to make the transaction, effectively a divorce, perfectly legal.

Thompson says that while some wives were undoubtedly abused victims, in many other cases the wife connived at, or even drove, the event. He quotes (among others) a case in Wenlock market in the 1830s:

"When he husband got to 'market-place 'e turned shy, and tried to get out of the business, but Mattie mad' un stick to it. 'Er flipt her apern in 'er guide man's face and said, 'Let be, yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change.'" (p. 462)

(Apologies to any ESL readers - if you pronounce it aloud it is easier to understand the dialect.)

Of course someone has also done it on eBay, as the BBC reports. Legal notes and some good cross-refs here and here.


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