Spousal Abuse in Fourteenth-Century Yorkshire: What can we Learn from the Coroners’ Rolls?
By Sara Butler
Florilegium, Vol.18:2 (2001)
Introduction: Since the publication of Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood in the early 1960’s, historians of the family have been intrigued by the prospect of a history of change in familial sentiment. Aries’ study of attitudes about children from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, based primarily on art and material evidence, demonstrates powerfully to historians that we can no longer merely assume the existence of parental love: human emotion is not an historical constant.
While Aries did not explicitly address marital affection, the implications of his study are not lost on historians interested principally in the study of marriage and marital relations. Today, almost forty years later, Aries’ research remains the touchstone for historians’ debates centred on the study of medieval families. In part, the inability of historians to reject altogether his findings reflects the nature of the study: a couple’s behaviour towards each other belongs to the inner workings of the home, a sphere of life from which few written records would ever have been created, let alone have survived.
In order to surmount the difficulties presented by a paucity of source materials, historians have been forced to examine the topic of familial affection in a variety of interesting ways. One area which historians of marriage have chosen to focus on in particular as a measure of love within marriage is spousal abuse. Two approaches have been employed in this respect. The first is a literary approach, an examination of letters and literature extant from the period in order to ascertain approximate levels of marital affection in the Middle Ages.
Lawrence Stone was the first to engage with vigour in this area of research, in a study founded largely on surviving letters of families from the years 1500 to 1800. Stone extends his findings back into the later Middle Ages, concluding that married life was “brutal and often hostile, with little communication, [and] much wife-beating,” and noting that, “a great deal of casual wife-beating or child-battering, which today would end up in the courts, simply went unrecorded in medieval and Early Modern times”. Marriage in the Middle Ages was a gendered hierarchy, and any transgression of this hierarchy was severely punished, according to Stone. This bleak perspective of medieval marriage has not been adopted by all, or even most, historians of letters and literature.