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Divorce- Medieval Women's Rights & Obligations

Grounds for divorce

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.

Other 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.

It is worth noting that domestic abuse was extremely rarely an excuse for divorce. The couple might be ordered to improve their behavious, or live apart but remain married and unable to re-marry.

Court cases: The Bedroom Trial
Court cases from the 14th century show these quite well, with detailled records of the bedroom trials which took place to determine whether the marriage should continue or whether the husband was unable to pay his marital debt to his wife.

There are documented English 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. Surprisingly, or not, the court cases which are recorded show that the husband failed and the wife got her divorce.

Failure to supply a male heir
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.

Property settlements
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.

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