Medieval Women's Rights
GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE - COURT CASES: THE BEDROOM
TRIAL - 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.