Were There Any Historical Alternatives to Divorce?

It would be bad enough for a man to call his wife a cow, but there was actually a time in English history when married women were treated very much like livestock, and could be led to market on a rope and sold to the highest bidder. While shocking to modern sensibilities, this bizarre practice was an accepted form of divorce, albeit not a legally binding one.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

"Wife selling" started in the 17th century because many couples couldn't afford the high price of divorce commanded by the government. While not binding, the public auction allowed a husband to basically sell his wife to another man -- often someone already interested in or even romantically involved with her -- and free himself from any financial obligations.

The new husband would immediately take on the responsibility of providing for his new wife, but he wouldn't have to worry about being sued by the ex-husband, which could otherwise happen when a married woman took a lover.

While the auction sometimes gave the husband the chance to mock his soon-to-be ex-wife among their peers, the events were usually good-natured, and the three principals -- ex-husband, ex-wife and buyer -- often had drinks together afterward. The practice began to ebb in the mid- to late-1800s, as divorce became more affordable.

Breaking up is hard to do:

  • In 2011, a 99-year-old Italian man divorced his 96-year-old wife after 60 years of matrimony because he found love letters she had written to another man in the 1940s.

  • Luxembourg's 87 percent divorce rate is the world's highest; India has the lowest divorce rate, at 1 percent.

  • Divorce is legal everywhere except the Philippines and Vatican City.

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