Would it surprise you to learn that the practice of wife selling was particularly popular in the 17th century? Divorce was almost impossible for anyone but the very rich and as a consequence some husbands sort rather a interesting alternative solution. This bizarre practice was apparently more common in rural counties such as Cornwall and Devon. Indeed folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould dedicated a whole chapter to wife selling in his book Devonshire Characters and Strange Events .
‘There is no myth relative to the manners and customs of the English that in my experience is more tenaciously held by the ordinary Frenchman than that the sale of a wife in the market place is an habitual and an accepted fact in English Life.’ SBG, 1908
The practice of selling your wife was never legal, or indeed morally acceptable, but it is clear that these transactions did occur. And not on such an irregular basis that they can be brushed under the carpet as a rare social anomaly. My own research has uncovered a number of fascinating cases in Cornwall’s history. Cases when Cornish men took their wives to market, not to do the shopping but as the produce!
Given that the practice wasn’t ever legal the sale of a wife had a number of surprisingly well established rituals.
Usually an announcement of the intended auction would be spread either by word of mouth, printed on posters or even in the local press. The husband might advertise his wife’s positive attributes, her abilities as a cook or as a farm-worker perhaps. On the appointed day the husband would parade his wife, usually at a marketplace. The lady was traditionally haltered with a leather strap at the neck, arm or waist. Then the wife was simply sold to the highest bidder. Sometimes a written contract was exchanged as proof of the transaction. Often the deal was completed with just the handing over of the money and a handshake.
Source: The Cornish Bird
Original publication 8 October 2019
Posted on NatCorn 10th October 2019
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