Attitudes towards wife-beating in the past

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 6: Responses to Marital Cruelty

William Ettrick declared he had the right to beat his wife. Did he? Could husbands legitimately beat their wives in the past? This is a question that is often asked by historians. After all, until the later nineteenth century the law gave husbands the right to correct their wives for disobedience.

You will find that there are differences in the way historians have answered this question. I think that we are more careful now to distinguish between ‘correct’ and ‘beat’, for instance. ‘Cruelty’ is the key term here. It represents an act considered to cross a boundary from correction to violence. After reading lots of accounts of marital violence in the period 1660 to 1857 I have come to the conclusion that society did not tolerate cruelty and included a fairly wide range of husbands’ acts within the definition of ‘cruelty’.

All of the Ettricks’ servants and friends, for example, who were called to depose in William’s and Catherine’s separation case supported Catherine. They described her as modest, mild, affable and virtuous in her manner – all qualities that advice literature in this period celebrated in a wife. One servant pointed out that she

seemed to be as afraid of disobliging [William] as a child would have been afraid of being beat

Clearly, oppressed by William, fearful of what he might do to her and her children, Catherine understandably sought refuge in a pattern of behaviour that sought to pacify her husband though it still resulted in his ill-treatment. As her maid commented, Catherine

has often Bore with his Ill Usage upon the Account of the Children

Nonetheless, there was room for interpretation because neither ‘correction’ nor ‘disobedience’ were defined. So, as a JP who understood his position, William did admit that he ‘did give her one box on the Ear only’ on Christmas day 1765 because Catherine had ‘urged and provoked’ him. Actually, he was unusual in that he didn’t deny the accusations about his violence. A lot of violent husbands in this period just simply denied they’d attacked their wives. This could be because the cruelty that William was accused of was fairly ‘mild’ compared to some cruelty cases heard by the Church Courts which revolved on fewer but far worse incidents of husbands’ abuse of their wives – typically life threatening and very sustained over long periods. Yet, as Profesor Loreen Giese’s current research on sixteenth-century London Consistory Court records suggests, church courts were also prepared to hear cruelty cases in which there was a wide range of husbands’ behaviour which wives and witnesses described as cruel.

This is why Catherine could include as evidence of martial cruelty, incidents such as William insisting in 1763 that she rode a flighty horse in the shadow of a windmill. The horse refused to approach the turning sails, so William whipped it:

violently cursing and swearing that she should ride up to it and added [to the panicking Catherine] that he hoped the mare would break her Neck

William, in his defence told the court that the mare often rode next to windmills and their eleven year old daughter could ride her past them without problems! But my point is that Catherine was able to place a lot of emphasis upon her husband’s verbal abuse and disrespect as acts of cruelty alongside a blow to the side of the head and kick at her departing skirts.

So I don’t think husbands could beat their wives. The wedding ceremony joined man and wife together as one and in the post Reformation era, husbands were told that to beat their wives was ridiculous: like beating their own flesh. Indeed, there is evidence that men damaged their reputation by acting violently towards wives. There were also trends in the ‘age of enlightenment’, which made husbands’ right to correct their wives even more open to scrutiny. Politeness was a major fashion and set of manners that prevailed in the first half of the 18th century. It stipulated rules for the appropriate civil and polite behaviour for genteel people and prized the disciplining of the passions. Uncontrolled anger was increasingly associated with lack of civility and vulgarity.

A second factor, which shaped the shaped ideas about behaviour in the second half of the eighteenth century, was the ‘culture of sensibility’. This was a way of thinking that prized emotional sensitivity and humane behaviour. One feature of it was the desire to protect the vulnerable, including women, children, and animals, and thus men were often the targets of reformation campaigns. The concerns about male exploitation of weaker individuals were given added emphasis by the new gendered understandings of the body – and the differences between the sexes. There was an increasing tendency in the 18th century to view men as the predatory aggressive sex and women as the weaker, gentler sex.

Also, it is clear that attitudes towards violence in the home paralleled attitudes towards violence carried about by the state. Across the 18th century, there was growing revulsion against the state punishing criminals through humiliating public corporal punishment and ultimately a move towards the transportation or imprisonment of convicted criminals. This seems to have made minor forms of retributional violence – such as wife beating – less acceptable.

Arguably, even, interpretive space existed for mental cruelty to be included as a form of husbands’ abuse and by the beginning of the 19th century it was recognised as a form of abuse following Lord Stowell’s ruling in a marital case in 1790.

In some ways, it was the lack of precision over defining correction and cruelty that enabled Catherine to attempt to break free from an oppressive, tyrannical husband, who had not actually physically attacked his wife to the point where her bones were broken, her very life threatened.

And – before we congratulate ourselves on living in a better society, we should not forget that in England and Wales on average two women are killed by their husbands or partners every week (see Women’s Aid for more detail about these figures). You can see this visually in this graph of homicide in 2009/10 in England and Wales, charting the relationship of the victim to the main suspect. More men were killed than women, but nearly half of the women were killed by their partners and ex-partners compared with 5% of the men.  (see Gov.UK for this report)

Homicide England Wales 200910

Chart taken from: Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2009/10. Supplementary Volume 2 to Crime in England and Wales, 2009/10. Kevin Smith (Ed.), Kathryn Coleman, Simon Eder and Philip Hall (2011), pp. 16-17.

So far, I have said little about the Ettricks’ children. Often, cruelty separation cases did not really mention the offspring of the marriage in much detail. This remarkable case did, however, and it is to that which I’ll turn in the next post.


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