As a sort of coda to my previous, this is about a practice that seemed to appear in the wake of the English Civil War, when churches were vandalised and some used as stables and markets, and continued well into the 18th century. The idea of a wife standing in the public market place so men could bid for her seems utterly repressive and humiliating, but accounts of the time seem to tell a different story. There is no sign that any coercion or violence was involved in the cases I’ve found, and they seem to have been thoroughly civilised affairs, there was only a single bidder, so seems to have been planned and agreed by all parties in advance.
To understand this practice, it is worth thinking of what marriage was like before divorce became so affordable. One of my favourite books is ‘The Diary of a Georgian shopkeeper’ about a country businessman who repeatedly wrote of how he wished he could love his wife more, how she was in poor health, and he was torn with guilt at his lack of feelings for her. She eventually died, and he remarried. His diary ceased on his wedding day, so he seems to have been writing becuse he had nobody to pour out this thoughts to.
“Little Mussgrave” is one of the oldest folksongs in England and in its various forms raises questions about marriage. A knight goes away hunting, and in his absence his wife seduces a young man, ‘Little Musgrave’. He is afraid of being caught out, but she puts a page on watch, but he runs off and tells her husband. When the hunting party return, the cuckolded husband kills his rival, then his wife, then kills himself after ordering they all be buried in the same grave. This is all rather strange, but given the belief in resurrection, why would a man wish to spend eternity with two people who had betrayed him?
One explanation is that the husband just wasn’t that into sex with his wife, so was fine about her taking lovers, but when this was made public, he had to take action. Another is that the young man was his illegitimate son. There are other readings, but it raises questions as to how people behaved in a world when romance rarely played a major role in relationships, and ’till death us do part’ really meant that.
But back to the bartered brides, I read of one – I think it was in Monmouth, on the border of Wales and England, when the wife was pregnant and the only bidder was a soldier. What sort of man would take on a woman pregnant with another man’s child? Possibly it was the soldier’s child, and this was a means of covering up an act of adultery.
Another case was in London, when a wealthy lady went to the market i a fine coach, with a silken halter round her neck and was bartered into a new relationship, so it wasn’t only the poor that took this route.
Yet another, I think this was near Bristol, when the couple went to a nearby pub with their friends for a meal to celebrate their separation; all seemed perfectly amicable, and they were in tears when they parted. This seems to be a case of a couple still friends but who had fallen out of love with each other, or for some reason just found they could no longer live together.
These auctions were never legal, though many people thought they were, in an age when churchgoing was not particularly high, and many non conformist groups went their own way with ceremonies. What it represented was a public act of separation, which they believed would free each party from responsibility for the other, if, for example, one of them became impoverished in the future.
What it also shows is how willing and able were ordinary people to deal with problems that the state failed to fix.
Yet another lesson from history.