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Wife selling provides the backdrop for Thomas Hardy's novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which the central character sells his wife at the beginning of the story, an act that haunts him for the rest of his life, and ultimately destroys him.
Although the custom had no basis in law and frequently resulted in prosecution, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards, the attitude of the authorities was equivocal.
Many of you might remember that the words "the farmer wants a wife" originally came from the lyrics of the children's nursery rhyme The Farmer's In His Den, a game in which a group of children form a circle around one child (the 'farmer') and start singing: *The farmer's in his den, The farmer's in his den, Eee, Aye, Addio, The farmer's in his den.
The farmer wants a wife, The farmer wants a wife, Eee, Aye, Addio, The farmer wants a wife.
Wife selling in England was a way of ending an unsatisfactory marriage by mutual agreement that probably began in the late 17th century, when divorce was a practical impossibility for all but the very wealthiest.
After parading his wife with a halter around her neck, arm, or waist, a husband would publicly auction her to the highest bidder.
Desertion or elopement was also possible, whereby the wife was forced out of the family home, or the husband simply set up a new home with his mistress.
The Laws Respecting Women, As They Regard Their Natural Rights (1777) observed that, for the poor, wife selling was viewed as a "method of dissolving marriage", when "a husband and wife find themselves heartily tired of each other, and agree to part, if the man has a mind to authenticate the intended separation by making it a matter of public notoriety".
Until the passing of the Marriage Act of 1753, a formal ceremony of marriage before a clergyman was not a legal requirement in England, and marriages were unregistered.
In most reports the sale was announced in advance, perhaps by advertisement in a local newspaper.
It usually took the form of an auction, often at a local market, to which the wife would be led by a halter (usually of rope but sometimes of ribbon) Often the purchaser was arranged in advance, and the sale was a form of symbolic separation and remarriage, as in a case from Maidstone, where in January 1815 John Osborne planned to sell his wife at the local market.
One was to sue in the ecclesiastical courts for separation from bed and board (a mensa et thoro), on the grounds of adultery or life-threatening cruelty, but it did not allow a remarriage.
An alternative was to obtain a "private separation", an agreement negotiated between both spouses, embodied in a deed of separation drawn up by a conveyancer.
At least one early 19th-century magistrate is on record as stating that he did not believe he had the right to prevent wife sales, and there were cases of local Poor Law Commissioners forcing husbands to sell their wives, rather than having to maintain the family in workhouses.