In England, it was possible to sell and buy wives even for a pint of beer

17 Apr 2024

It was happening in England from the late 17th century until 1913! Moreover, real memoirs about it have been preserved. Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould from Devonshire County wrote about witnessing such a transaction as a child in those times when a local publisher went to the market and returned... with a wife! Yes, indeed, a wife could be bought from her husband like bread. But what preceded this unusual tradition?

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The point is that even before 1753, an official church wedding ceremony was not mandatory. All that was required was the consent of both parties and a suitable age (twelve for girls, fourteen for boys). But it was in 1753 that the Marriage Act was passed, which complicated the marriage procedure, but getting a divorce was the most difficult (as it had been since the mid-sixteenth century in England). When a woman got married, she completely ceased to exist as a separate legal entity and lost all her rights. This primarily concerned the wife's property, which was entirely passed to her husband. Women were in a weak position, and getting a divorce was practically impossible!

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It was only in 1857, with the adoption of a new Marriage Act, that the divorce issue was finally transferred from ecclesiastical to civil court, but again, there was a nuance – getting a divorce was very expensive! Therefore, one of the alternative ways to divorce became the so-called “wife selling.”

This tradition usually took place at the market because it was accessible to the poor, and there were always many people, meaning witnesses, who could thus confirm the fact of the "sale," i.e., divorce. In most cases, this unwritten custom, which, we emphasize, had a symbolic character, was carried out with the mutual consent of both spouses and was the cheapest and most accessible way for them to divorce in society's eyes.

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Sometimes the amounts for which wives were sold were quite impressive, amounting to tens or sometimes hundreds of pounds sterling! But it was still more of a symbolic procedure, so sometimes, a wife was sold for nothing more than a pint of beer!