Runaway Wives: Husband Desertion in Medieval England
By Sara Butler
Journal of Social History, Vol. 40:2 (2006)
Abstract: With an acutely imbalanced power relationship, no financial control, and a Marian ideal of total passivity flaunted before them, wives are usually thought to have borne the brunt of medieval marriages. In particular, in a Catholic world where marriage was held up as a sacrament, and thus a permanent, monogamous union, it has often been assumed that medieval wives were caught in an earthly purgatory, suffering a life-time of marital misery. Over the past two decades, historians like R.H. Helmholz, Sue Sheridan Walker and Henry Ansgar Kelly have challenged previous ideals about the permanence of marriage. Helmholz has suggested that “self-divorce” among the medieval English may have been more common than we think. Walker and Kelly have made similar suggestions. The goal of this paper is to use their work as a foundation, to explore the various licit and illicit means of separation in late medieval England. Using marriage litigation, bishops’ registers, ecclesiastical act-books, manorial courts, chancery records, and assize rolls, this paper will attempt to discern the risks involved in husband desertion to both the wife and her “rescuers,” common features of wife desertion, as well as contemporary attitudes held by both wives and society in general.
Introduction: Scholars of the medieval family would agree that the lot of the medieval wife was not an easy one. Medieval husbands held the upper hand in the power relationship, both legally and socially. Although Lawrence Stone’s view of married life in the Middle Ages as “brutal and often hostile, with little communication, [and] much wife beating” has since been called into question, more recent historians have still painted a somewhat unflattering picture. Judith Bennett writes that “[m]edieval people thought of conjugality as a hierarchy headed by a husband who not only controlled his wife’s financial assets and public behavior, but also freely enforced his will through physical violence.” Indeed, she argues that wife-beating was “a normal part of marriage.” Even Barbara Hanawalt, who has optimistically described peasant marriage in medieval England as a partnership, still concedes that occasional violence was acceptable and expected in marriage.