From a comments thread over on Making Light comes this interesting article on the historical practice of wife selling. Apparently this was slightly less obnoxious than it sounds, and functioned as a means of adjusting unhappy marriages in an era where divorce was unavailable. And the ritual was entertaining, at least to readily-amused louts like me:

In Staffordshire, for example, the custom of wife selling followed a fairly rigid pattern. A man in search of freedom took his wife to market, with a length of rope attached to her neck. He paid a toll that gave him the right to sell merchandise, then paraded her around the market extolling her virtues. Interested males would then bid for her in a general auction. Once a bid was accepted the husband would hand over the toll ticket as proof of ownership, and the trio would then retire to the inn and seal the deal with a beer or two. Despite the lowly position of the wives in these transactions, most accepted the custom as a satisfactory way of ending an unhappy marriage. In many instances the sale was agreed by mutual consent before the auction commenced. However, it was accepted practice that the formality of the market place auction would always be conducted.