one of the public wife auctions by which Britons would adjust an unhappy marriage when divorce was not an option

We here at ErosBlog have been aware since 2004 of the historic British practice of holding public wife auctions. When I first posted about this wife selling, I called it “slightly less obnoxious than it sounds” and “a means of adjusting unhappy marriages in an era where divorce was unavailable.” But that was an impression based on very little historical information and context.

Thus I am delighted to refer you to A brief history of when men sold their wives at market, and why some women enthusiastically consented to it by the learned and erudite Dr. Kate Lister, known to this audience and on Twitter as @WhoresofYore. She writes there:

So, what was an unhappy working class couple to do if they no longer wanted to be with one another? The options available were to grin and bear it, try and get an annulment (tricky), desertion, bigamy, or to tie a rope around their neck and sell them at market to the highest bidder.

In the centuries before legal divorce was accessible, selling your partner to someone else allowed working class couples to be publicly separated.

To auction off his wife, a husband would lead her to a public meeting place, such as a marketplace or a tavern, usually with a halter around her neck to resemble livestock. Sometimes ribbons were used to symbolise ropes and harnesses, but not always. The sale would have been advertised beforehand to drum up interest and occasionally an auctioneer would oversee the event. Some sales would have been a more private affair that took place down the pub, but it was important there were witnesses. Flogging your wife at a cattle market may seem grotesquely abusive, but the vast majority of these sales were carried out with the full and enthusiastic consent of the wife.

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