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Domestic Violence in Medieval Marriages: The Tragic Story of William and Isabel Newport

Domestic Violence in Medieval Marriages: The Tragic Story of William and Isabel Newport

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Domestic violence is a serious problem in modern society, but it should surprise no-one that this issue has been plaguing Western society for many hundreds, even thousands of years. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of what the intimate lives of couples who lived so far in the past actually looked like. The historical record is not usually concerned with the domestic and the mundane, and few records survive from which we can catch a glimpse of how ordinary people lived their daily lives. 

Marriage and Domestic Violence in Medieval Court Records

There are some types of records that shed more light than others and  court records  are an invaluable source of information, particularly when it comes to  marriage. In the digital database of documents collected from England’s Consistory Courts in the late medieval period, we can see the shape of a society in which domestic violence was acceptable, even encouraged, to a certain level, but also governed by strict codes of social conduct. So what did medieval marriages look like, and how were attitudes towards intimate partner relations different to our own? The case of the Newports may give us some answers.

The justice system in  medieval England  was similar to the modern one in that there were different types of courts for different types of cases. The first type of courts were the royal or secular courts, and the second were the consistory courts, which were a type of Church court presided over by an ecclesiastical judge from the local diocese. The jurisdiction of the church courts broadly incorporated cases to do with sinfulness, or with the sacraments (including marriage) and cases involving members of the clergy.

There were two main types of cases the consistory courts dealt with, the first being “criminal” offence cases, in which someone confessed to or was accused of an offence against morality or church canon law, the second type being similar to civil suits, in which plaintiffs could bring a suit for reasons such as to enforce marriage contracts, seek restitution for defamation or compensation for violation of a contract. The second type of case is the most relevant when looking at how medieval marriages worked and what society expected of them.

Medieval marriage was primarily a strategic alliance, and not always an expression of love. Nevertheless, romantic love could develop within the marriage. Source:  Public domain

Marriage Motivation: For Love or for Money?

There is a common perception nowadays that people in the medieval period did not marry for  love, that marriage was a financial contract between two strangers and had nothing to do with emotional attachment, and to some extent this is true. Much debate continues between scholars of the Middle Ages as to what motivated people to get married, but most would probably agree that it was for very different reasons than why people choose to get married today.

In modern, Western society, the idea of finding one’s soulmate is considered paramount to a successful marriage. That is not to say people don’t get married for reasons other than love, but in the medieval period it was not considered essential for a couple to be in love for their marriage to be successful. Marriage was primarily a strategic alliance for medieval people. It could be motivated by financial reasons, such as a widower finding herself needing the support of a male breadwinner or a man in need of a woman to run his household, or perhaps political reasons, like an increase in social standing through an advantageous  marriage

It was also common for people to marry simply because they desired companionship and security, but this did not mean that medieval people did not love their husbands and wives as modern people do. Many marriages would begin not with an expression of love or desire, but rather with the promise of companionship and the potential for love in the future: phrases like “to be hers/his forever” or “forsake all others for you” often appear in court depositions about the contracting of marriage between a couple, as an expression of their faithfulness and loyalty, and the phrase “find it in your heart” (i.e. to marry) was used to express the potential for romantic love to develop within the union of marriage.

Of course, not all marriages began with such hopeful prospects for the future, especially if the marriage was contracted between unwilling parties. Young  women in particular often had little choice in who they married, and it was their fathers (or their master if they were a servant in someone else’s household) who would decide if, when, and whom they would marry. 

It was not uncommon for a woman’s father to testify in court  against her if her husband brought a case to enforce the  marriage, such as the case of Richard Tymond vs. Margery Sheppard in 1487. Margery’s father, John, testified for her husband Richard that he had witnessed a contract of marriage between Richard and his daughter, and that he approved of and consented to this union. According to Margery’s own testimony however, no such contract existed.

The point of view of Isabel Newport is invisible in the Newport case, where a damning picture is painted by the testimony of multiple male witnesses. ( giorgio / Adobe Stock)

The Curious Case of the Newports

Most of the cases brought before the consistory court in England however, were, at their core, concerned with the issue of governance. The idea of social governance was inextricably linked to ideas about marriage, because the married couple was the foundational economic, social and political unit of medieval society. Any threat to the institution of marriage presented a threat to the entire social fabric and economic structure of the community, and so strict laws and customs had to be adhered to if order was to be preserved. 

Perhaps the most interesting case which demonstrates the importance placed upon the idea of governance, is that of William and Isabel Newport. In  London, 1491, William brought a suit against his wife Isabel. It is not entirely clear what his intent was as the records of what the cases were about, the list of offences, including theft, adultery, incest and abuse, were kept separately from testimonies. However, a damning picture of Isabel is painted through the testimony of multiple witnesses (all male, and all witnesses for the plaintiff):

•   Thomas Goodeale claimed that Isabel told him “I had liefer [rather] the bald whoreson cuckold were hanged than he should be my husband, and I trust that I shall find some good fellow that for my sake either this evening or tomorrow shall make him to piss above his girdlestead [waist].”

•   William Roger testified that Isabel was “a fierce and angry woman, and prone to quarrels and contention, and he knows this because he saw her, about three years ago, taking a certain man by the head and throwing him into the cannel [gutter]”, and that she is reputed to be a common  whore.

•   John Foster saw Isabel with a man reputed to be Isabel’s blood relative, and that William chased the man off with a knife before beating Isabel, who then threatened William the next day that “if I might have had my will I should have killed thee.”

•   John Twemlowe testified that “William and Isabel used to argue with one another and each would pull the other`s hair, and that Isabel would have killed William with a knife that she held in her hands, or at least would have mutilated one of his limbs, if Thomas Haryson had not helped William and separated them.”

•   Lastly, John Mader claimed that “many times [he] saw William and Isabel fighting in the public street and for the greater part it was entirely Isabel who fought, and because of this [John] believes in his conscience that it would be dangerous for William to live with her, as he cannot rule and govern her.”

A shocking list of accusations to be sure, but the curiousness of this case is that the testimony is blatantly one-sided, giving only William’s side of the story and not Isabel’s. One can only wonder what terrible accusations Isabel might make against William if given the chance - it is clear from the witness statements that both spouses were guilty of physical violence against each other. 

So why has Isabel been cast in the role of the villain here? Why has William’s character not been called into question and his actions scrutinized? In answering these questions, it is perhaps the final piece of testimony which is most telling: Isabel cannot be governed. In a medieval marriage, the rules of social governance superseded all others.

Medieval ideas about gender hierarchy and governance determined every aspect of how men and women were expected to behave. Domestic violence was to be kept behind closed doors, in the interest of maintaining the ideal of marriage. (Wellcome Collection /  CC BY 4.0 )

Social Governance: Gendered Roles in Medieval Marriage

In medieval societies, self-governance was a highly gendered concept: men were expected to demonstrate their independence from others, such as parents or other relatives, in order to prove their readiness for marriage.  Womenon the other hand, were expected to be dependent on the advice and consent of others at all times. Before marriage, their father or master’s authority took precedent, but after marriage they were expected to depend on their husband’s authority.

These ideas about gender hierarchy and governance determined every aspect of how men and  women were expected to behave in both public and private. Men were the main economic unit of the partnership - although  womenoften worked as well, they were not the primary income earners in most cases - and the main authority in the household. In an ideal marriage, the husband would govern his family wisely, with temperance and maturity, while his dependents - his wife and children, any servants or dependent parents as well - would happily submit to his authority.

As can be gleaned from the Newport case, in reality not every family lived up to the ideal. Real-world pressures undermined the hierarchy of the family unit. For example, men were often forced to work long distances from their homes and could be away for large parts of the year, leaving their wives to run the household in their absence. Non-traditional family structures also complicated the structure of  patriarchal authority. If a woman with children remarried, she had no legal right to custody of her children. Men, however, usually preferred to leave the responsibility of raising children to the mother, so the children would live with their mother under her new husband’s authority.

Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Violence Within Marriage

The second gross social  faux pas  Isabel committed was that, whatever the reality of one’s marriage, one should always try to  appear to live up to social expectations by maintaining a public image of a successful marriage. Honor and reputation were extremely important to medieval people, so discretion and secrecy were an integral part of marriage. A woman treated poorly at home by her husband, was supposed to keep it behind closed doors. 

For example, in  Salisbury in 1489, the clerical office brought a disciplinary case against Emma Hasill. In her testimony, Emma claimed she was advised to leave her cruel and abusive husband by one Sir William Gavon, who sheltered her in his home until Emma’s neighbors compelled her to reconcile with her husband. After he continued to treat her cruelly, she fled to Salisbury to escape him, where she was met with a disciplinary hearing to account for her actions. 

Note that Emma’s husband was not involved in the trial, neither was he disciplined for his own actions. In the 21st century, if a spouse were to treat their partner with “cruelty”, by any definition, it would be considered by a court of law to be ample grounds for  divorce and could also constitute a criminal case being brought against the abuser. In the medieval period however, cruelty was not considered a valid reason to be granted a divorce, unless the nature of the physical  violence was such that it became life-threatening. Presumably, this is why William’s witnesses clearly testify that the nature of Isabel’s abuse was indeed life-threatening.

In fact, “chastisement” of subordinates within the household was considered perfectly appropriate and even expected to a certain degree. Any word or action that defied a husband’s authority was supposed to be met with punishment, and the defiant party would be expected to accept their punishment without complaint. The hierarchy of authority within the household was so utterly sacrosanct, that a  woman who killed her husband - even in response to excessive and intolerable cruelty - was guilty of treason and abrogation of authority.

It is easy to impose our modern sensibilities upon cases such as the Newports’ and pronounce judgment that medieval attitudes were, well, medieval. It should be remembered though, that while marriage and intimate relationships were governed by very different rules and conventions in medieval society, ultimately domestic violence was still considered socially unacceptable. Legally, especially in the consistory courts, a certain tolerance existed that allowed for some level of spousal abuse - as long as it was in the name of “good” governance - but domestic violence was as much of a social taboo then as it is now.

Top image: The Newport case provides some clues as to Medieval marriage and domestic violence. Source:  British Library  / Public domain

By Meagan Dickerson

References

Hanawalt, Barbara. 1998. “Medieval English women in rural and urban domestic space.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers.

Hume, Cathy. 2008. "" The name of soveraynetee": The Private and Public Faces of Marriage in The Franklin's Tale."  Studies in Philology.

Kermode, Jenny. 1999. "Sentiment and survival: Family and friends in late medieval English towns."  Journal of Family History .

McSheffrey, Shannon . Consistory: Testimony in the Late Medieval London Consistory Court.  Available at:  http://www.consistory.cohds.ca/index.php

McSheffrey, Shannon. 2006.  Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London . University of Pennsylvania Press.

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