Humour, halters and humiliation: wife-sale as theatre and self-divorce

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During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a number of England's regional newspapers published descriptions of a popular rural custom known as wife-sale. This event incorporated the symbolism of a livestock auction with a public declaration by a husband and wife to part ways. While previous studies have focused on wife-sale as a mode of self-divorce, the present work explores the meaning behind the symbols and rituals of wife-sale within the context of English popular culture. The existence of the newspaper accounts of wife-sale is largely due to the curiosity of middle-class commentators who expressed disgust (sometimes feigned) at the humiliation inherent in wife-sale. Consequently, this investigation into the meanings attached to wife-sale goes beyond the context of the rural plebeian community to include middle-class representations of wife-sale and their influence upon English culture and gender relations.

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Department of History - Simon Fraser University
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Thesis (M.A.)