Husbands, Wives, and Adultery in Late-Medieval Northern France

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Husbands, Wives, and Adultery in Late-Medieval Northern France

McDougall, Sara

Paper given at University of Michigan Law School Legal History Workshop, Ann Arbor, MI, April 10, (2012)


It seems natural to suppose that most pre-modern societies would judge adultery according to a double standard. Adultery by women, one supposes, would be fiercely prosecuted, while adultery by men would be tolerated. Indeed, scholars of women’s history often treat adultery as a paradigmatically female crime. No crime’s history seems to show more dramatically the unequal treatment of women in western history.

Many pre-modern societies explicitly included this inequality in their laws, defining only a wife’s extramarital sex as adultery. We expect to see this gender bias, moreover, even in societies whose legal systems consider adulterous the extramarital sex of husbands and wives alike. Medieval Europe is often put forward as an example of such a time and place. As Christianity evolved over its first millennia, western canon law, the law of the Catholic Church, increasingly insisted that both husbands and wives committed adultery when they had sex outside of marriage, and should be treated the same. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that medieval Europeans, despite the Christian condemnation of extramarital sex by either spouse, only treated female adultery as a problem. While medieval women’s sexual activity was heavily regulated, medieval men could have sex whenever they wanted.

If painting a slightly less stark picture of gender inequality than total repression for women and total freedom for men, scholars generally claim that in spite of Christian doctrine, medieval European secular law, society, and even the Church’s own judicial courts acted only against female adultery. Wives who committed adultery were severely punished or even be put to death, by the state or by their husbands. Female adultery was perceived as a greater threat to society and to families. In particular, scholars have emphasized the horror felt at the idea that a wife might pass her lover’s child off as one of her husband’s legitimate heirs. Such an understanding leads easily to the idea that adultery was a female crime in the Middle Ages. In such a system men could still be prosecuted for adultery, but only as accomplices to a wife. Following that logic, in a previous article I suggested that adultery was not a female crime so much as it was a crime about wives, a crime for which wives and their male lovers were punished to the exclusion of husbands who had sex with unmarried women.

Click here to read this article from the Center for the Humanities