Wife Selling and Value Judgements

by Ayşenur Çenesiz
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On a very controversial topic, wife selling practice, Ayşenur Çenesiz has written a synopsis. She explained the effects of values and ethos of historians on the subject matter.


What would be your reaction if I told you about women sold by their husbands in a public auction square like a slave or an animal with a rope around their necks? What if you knew that Wife Selling was not figurative but a historical fact, as one of the common customs in 19th century? Most probably, you would be sorry for them and blame their husbands for their barbarism and brutality. Let’s try to look at this issue from a different perspective.

Historians conceptualized the abovementioned tradition as Wife Selling. (Though the time it started and ended is speculative, it is generally believed to be applied from the 12th century to the 19th century.) The debate on the reasons why people, especially from the humbler classes of societies, needed it has caused a deep division among historians. With their own value judgements, bourgeois historians have tended to see Wife Selling as barbarism and backwardness.

Gravure showing wife selling practice
a gravure showing the selling of wives practice

Wife Selling as a Practice of Divorcement

Yet, it is also possible to assume that the commerce of wives had had a symbolic value which made divorcement possible. Marxist historians, such as E. P. Thompson, highlight the necessity for reading this activity as a reaction to the authority. In his work, which studies approximately 300 examples, Thompson argues that the women sold had gave their consent on selling. Apparently their prices were not as high as a normal commercial activity. It must have been a symbolic price. Therefore, Wife Selling can be read as an alternative for divorcement for those who couldn’t get divorced because of the oppression of the state and the church.

The reason of this divergence among historians, most probably, caused by the nature of the discipline per se. Values of her time and position affects the three fundamental components of her research: What does a historian takes into consideration? What does she ignore? How does she cope with this scope? The divergence between the bourgeois and the Marxist historians on the Wife Selling practice demonstrates this problem explicitly. The first describes it as an indicator of being backward and underdeveloped. Because it judges the past with its own criteria of development. Conversely, the latter sees a struggle between the people from humbler classes of the society and religious-political authorities.

All in all, it is important to keep in mind that the history studies are, most of the time, to be shaped by the lenses of the historians. So, it can’t always be objective.

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