Friday, August 07, 2009

Question from Jacque - How common was it for husbands to beat their wives

I know that Elizabeth Stafford said her husband, Thomas Howard the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, savagely beat her when she complained about his mistress, Bess Holland, but was it the norm for most husbands to beat their wives? I am assuming there was nothing legally wrong with this at the time, but as this particular incident is the only one I have heard of, I was wondering if it was indeed a common occurrence?


PhD Historian said...

I would not say that husbands beating their wives was "common," but neither was it unheard of or uncommon. Truth be told, we do not have the proper surviving documentation (court records, medical records) to testify as to how often men may or may not have beaten their wives. It was not illegal for a man to beat his wife (or his children) as long as the beating did not cause serious bodily harm or public scandal. Childrearing manuals of the period actually gave advice to parents on how to beat their children so as not to cause lasting bodily harm. The same advice could be applied to the beating of wives. Some measure of beating was actually considered proper and the most effective deterent against future misconduct.

However, if the type or frequency of beating became such that neighbors began to take notice and remark on it ("gossip" about it), and the issue became one of public scandal, then it was considered a problem for the community. It was still not illegal, but members of the community would often step in and publicly shame the individual administering the beatings. Men were expected to control and rule their households, and if they could not do so without resorting to excessive beatings, it reflected very poorly on the man's reputation. The general opinion was that if he could not control his household, how could he control anything else, and then how could he be trusted? He risked becoming a social outcast. And that was a very serious issue in the early modern period. So even without laws against what would today be called spousal abuse, the community still had informal mechanisms for keeping matters under control.

Luv said...

England did have some concern in regards to men beating their wives.A law was past preventing husbands from beating their wives......after 9pm .