Medieval Women's Rights
GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE - PROPERTY SETTLEMENTS
Medieval marriages could, and were, dissolved. Annulments took
place before the courts and were expensive. One of the most common
reasons cited for divorce was consanguinity; the close relations
by blood or marriage of the intended parties.
grounds for the dissolution of a marriage also included adultery,
leprosy and impotency. The failure by a husband to render his
wife her marriage debt was taken quite seriously, as it was believed
that a woman needed regular sexual intercourse for her emotional
and physical well-being. Court cases from the 14th century show
these quite well, with detailled records of the bedroom trials
which took place.
There are documented court cases
as early as 1292 at Canterbury and as late as 1433 in York, where
women testified against the husband in cases such as this.
One Thomas of Chobham devised a method
to determine if a husband was was absolutely impotent. He approved
a physical examination of the man's genitals, followed by a bedroom
trial. He wrote:
...after food and drink, the
man and the woman are to be placed together in one bed and wise
women are to be summoned around the bed for many nights. And
if the man's member is found to be useless and as if dead, the
couple are well to be separated.
The number of Wise Matrons required
was 5 to 10, and in a city like London, these were possibly all
complete strangers. In a small village, those wise matrons were
likely someone the husband was related to. Granny. Aunty Margaret.
The lady next door. This could hardly improve performance issues
he may or may not have been having. The thrilling thing about
the bedroom trial is that the wise matrons were not in any way,
silent observers. They were permitted to encourage and offer advice
in the form of words and with actions- touching the husband, hitching
up their own skirts and exposing their own breasts to the poor
gentleman. I just don't know that this helped. Surprisingly, or
not, the court cases which are recorded show that the husband
failed and the wife got her divorce.
Interestingly, failure to supply a male heir was not grounds for
divorce, as it was clear that God willed the father a daughter
instead of a son, and to divorce for such a reason was to imply
that the husband was against God's plan. There
are documented court cases in both 1292 at Canterbury and 1433
in York where wise women testified against the husband in cases
such as this.
The status and rights of medieval women during the dissolution
of marriage differed from period to period. Anglo-Saxon women
in England, should they have been married for seven years before
the marriage dissolved, had a great deal of property settlement
owing to them, but the laws were very specific as to what was
hers and what remained with her husband. The laws of Hywel Dda
are examined by Henrietta Leyser in her book Medieval Women:
A Social History of Women in England 450-1500 thus:
Pigs go to the man, sheep to
the woman. Eldest and youngest son to the father, middle son
to the mother. Milking vessels, except one pail, to the woman.
All drinking vessels to the man. The man gets the hens and one
cat. The woman gets all the flax and linseed and wool, all the
opened vessels of butter and the opened cheese and as much as
she can carry of flour by the strength of her own hands and
her knees from the larder to the house. The bedclothes which
are over them to the woman and those which are under them to
the man, until he takes a wife. After he takes a wife, they
belong to the woman. If the wife who comes to the husband sleeps
on them, she must pay compensation to the first wife.
The status of women changed around
1066 and new laws affected the way property was divided after
a marriage breakdown. In many
instances, holdings of land to be passed down to the woman's sons
was the biggest issue of contention after a marriage breakdown.