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.
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.