The following is reprinted from Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again
Let's say you're an 18th-century British peasant, and you and your wife just aren't getting along anymore. What do you do? Divorce her? Too expensive. Kill her? Too risky. Oh well, looks like you'll have to auction her off. Welcome to the wacky world of wife selling!
Hands up all of you who've read Thomas Hardy's classic of 19th-century British misery, The Mayor of Casterbridge. You know, the one where everybody dies and life is shown to be pointless parade of squalor, pain, and death? You haven't gotten around to reading it yet? Well, it's worth filling you in on key plot point, namely, that the main character, Michael Henchard, sells his long-suffering wife at a public auction. Surely not, you cry! Not in civilized old England. Thomas Hardy must have made it all up. Well, we're here to tell you that it's all true. Right up until the early 1900s, husbands in Britain were able to offer their wives to the highest bidder.
GOING, GOING ...
The Golden Age of wife selling was between 1780 and 1850, when some 300 wives were sold (and that's just those that appeared in the record books - doubtless many more spouses were gotten rid of more quietly.) One of the earliest recorded wife sales took place in 1733, in Birmingham, central England. The local paper of the day records how "Samuel Whitehouse ... sold his wife, Mary Whitehouse, in open market, to Thomas Griffiths. Value, one guinea [about one English pound]." As part of the deal, the paper comments, Griffiths was to take Mary "with all her faults." Another wife, in 1801, was put up for sale by her huband for one penny. Not surprisingly, this bargain sparked a frenzied bidding war among the locality's lonely farmers, and Mary eventually went for five shillings and sixpence. One husband even managed to off-load his old lady for eighteen pence and a quart of ale. An even luckier chap managed to trade his other half for a full barrel of beer!
As if the act of being auctioned off wasn't bad enough, the method in which wives were sold really rubbed salt into the wound. Wife-selling deals always followed the same very public ritual. First, the wives were led to the local market square with halters around their necks, just like cattle for sale. Then they were made to stand on auction block, while their husbands-not-to-be began taking bids. A crowd would usually gather, and proceedings would be accompanied by much jeering and joking from the local peasantry. Once a deal was struck, all the interested parties, and most of the crowd, would retire to the local tavern to celebrate the successful transaction.
PRETTY CIVILIZED AFTER ALL
It all seems pretty distasteful, doesn't it? But it's not entirely what it seems. Far from being ritually humiliated by the whole thing, most of the wives on sale were there willingly. In fact, almost all sales took place with the agreemnet of both husband and wife. It was impossible for ordinary folk in Britain to get divorced. It was a difficult and expensive procedure - around $20,000 at today's prices. So, instead, unhappily married couples had to find another way to untie the knot. Wife selling killed two birds with one stone - it was the quickest of quicky divorces, plus it provided some live street theater for the local community. The authorities hardly approved of the practice, but they turned a blind eye to it, seeing as it kept the rabble amused.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
In the vast majority of cases, the wife was sold to an existing lover for a nominal fee, which was agreed upon by all parties beforehand. By tradition, the husband would then use this fee to buy drinks for everyone in the local inn - including his ex-wife and her new husband. Anyway, with all the pain, anguish, and huge costs that accompany most modern divorces, who's to say those ale-swigging, wife-swapping English peasants didn't have the right idea all along?
|The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again. The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this seque gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsights, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute|
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