Whether it happened behind closed doors or openly in public spaces, violence against women in intimate relationships occurred as much in the past as it does today. But modern terms like ‘domestic abuse’ or ‘intimate partner violence’ do not easily translate across history. Five hundred years ago, violence against women in intimate relationships was primarily seen as physical ‘correction’: husbands were entitled to discipline their wives and children, and occasional violence was acceptable and even expected in marriage. One historian, Judith Bennett, even depressingly argues that ‘wife-beating’ was ‘a normal part of marriage’ in medieval England.
In our modern era, our understanding of what constitutes abuse in intimate relationships has significantly broadened, encompassing physical violence, but also coercive control and other forms of non-physical abuse, such as emotional, verbal, financial, sexual and even digital abuse. It is also widely recognised that domestic abuse can affect men as well as women, and can occur in same-sex relationships as well as opposite-sex partnerships.
While social understanding and legal acknowledgement of violence against women in intimate relationships has significantly changed over time, important assumptions about domestic violence were forged centuries ago. A first step in tackling intimate partner violence in the 21st century is to understand where these ideas and attitudes have come from. Violence against married women is the most common type of intimate partner violence that appears in historical records. This article focuses on the long history of violence against wives in medieval (c.400-1500 AD) and early modern (c.1500-1800 AD) Europe, while referring to specific examples of court cases from early modern Scotland.
In medieval and early modern Europe, a husband had the moral authority to exercise violence to discipline his wife, without resorting to undue force. Catholic and Protestant writers and thinkers discussed models of the ideal ‘godly’ household, with husbands situated at the top of the family hierarchy. The pronouncements on husbandly entitlements cited in Gratian’s 12th-century canon (ecclesiastical) law text Decretum informed generations of opinions:
“A man may chastise his wife and beat her for her own correction; for she is of his household, and therefore the lord may chastise his own… so likewise the husband is bound to chastise his wife in moderation… unless he be a clerk, in which case he may chastise her more severely.”
In other words, violence against wives was considered a necessary consequence of the gender hierarchy in society more generally: husbands were considered ‘kings’ of their households and wives and children were deemed ‘subjects’. A husband was therefore justified in using ‘moderate correction’ to ‘chastise’ his wife but was forbidden from inflicting any serious injury or harm.
By the early modern period, violence against wives was increasingly considered unfavourable and even unacceptable by various moralists and thinkers. The English Puritan William Gouge in his popular household manual Domesticall Duties (1622) argued that it was immoral for a husband to beat his wife. But the majority of Christian thinkers, Catholic and Protestant alike, tended to agree that the authority of the husband required occasional reinforcement with physical punishment, so long as he did not overstep the bounds of modesty and reason.
When violence by a husband against his wife did attract the notice of the courts, responses and penalties varied considerably. Church officials in church courts and magistrates in secular courts tended to agree on one matter: violence against wives had to be justified and motivated by the need to maintain discipline, not the result of uncontrollable anger. Throughout the medieval and early modern period, wife-beating was not considered illegal so long as the husband proved he was punishing his wife for her disobedience or negligence of duty. Secular and ecclesiastical court records across Europe contain thousands of instances of wife-beating. In many cases, the husband was simply reprimanded, fined, or forced to stake pledges from friends and associates to guarantee good behaviour in future.
If a husband exhibited extremely violent behaviours towards his wife, she could appeal to various legal and social measures to try and make him change his behaviours. At other times, a prying neighbour or an eavesdropping servant might intervene to protect a vulnerable wife from her aggressive husband by pushing him away or reporting him to local authorities. In 1651, a Scotsman called William McNair was questioned by church officials for repeatedly beating and ‘striking’ his wife. Neighbours alleged that they heard William regularly assault his wife behind closed doors, with his wife often crying for help late into the night. In response, William argued that he simply ‘corrected’ his wife for ‘not doing what she was told’, which he insisted was ‘lawful’ as her husband. According to William, he was rightfully protecting his household and his reputation.
On certain occasions, wife-beating could be formally charged as an assault, although such prosecutions were rare unless a husband’s violence resulted in his wife’s severe injury or death. A landmark case in medieval Scotland discussed the legal penalties to be imposed on men who were accused of killing their wives. In this case, a husband, who regularly gave his wife a ‘cuff’ to ‘correct her’, was accused of causing her death after she refused food and drink due to his abusive behaviours and subsequently died. In the end, the judges decided that the husband did not cause his wife’s death as he simply ‘chastised her’ as any ‘loving’ and ‘affectionate’ husband would do. If a husband was found guilty of causing his wife’s death, he would face a lengthy prison sentence or, at worst, execution.
A wife sometimes received equal blame for provoking her husband’s violent behaviour. In 1654, a Scotswoman called Jonet McCrae told church officials that her husband regularly beat her when he was drunk, and that:
‘whenever she flees, her husband follows her’.
While Jonet’s husband was criticised for his excessive drinking and violent behaviour, Jonet was urged to return to her marital home and told to ‘amend her faults’ and refrain from angering her husband in future. In 1654, a Scotswoman called Catherine McCray was similarly disciplined by church officials for ‘abusing her husband with her wicked tongue’, despite evidence suggesting that her husband regularly beat her while in a drunken stupor.
Husbands often justified their actions on the grounds that their wives had been unfaithful, or prone to excessive drinking or gambling. If a wife committed – or was perceived to have committed – adultery, or failed to manage her household affairs as her husband’s representative, then the violence employed by a husband was far more likely to be viewed as at least partially excusable in the eyes of the community, and of the law.
This is not to say that husbands were encouraged to physically discipline their wives with impunity, however. In fact, husbands who resorted to excessive violence were regularly reprimanded by neighbours, family members and local authorities. In 1642, a Scotsman called John Matman was banished from his hometown for reportedly placing a scold’s bridle – a metal device used by the church and legal officials to punish ‘gossiping’ women – on his wife’s head ‘out of his own drunken humour’. In 1655, John Ferguson was similarly disciplined by church officials for beating his wife while drunk and attempting to sell her to an English soldier for ‘half a croun’; the equivalent of around £13 today. Husbands who exhibited excessive violence and extreme cruelty towards their wives were seen as dangerous and uncivil, with men only entitled to discipline their wives within the boundaries of patriarchal authority.
Many aspects of violence against wives seem constant over the centuries. The assumption that the woman was either primarily, or at least partially, responsible for the assault through their behaviour, or as a result of various aspects of their demeanour, persists to this day. In 2021, the World Health Organisation published statistics on violence against women in intimate relationships. Estimates suggest that about one-third (27%) of women aged 15 to 49 who have been in a relationship report that they have been subjected to some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner, the majority of whom are male.
Historical cases of violence against wives in medieval and early modern Europe serve as a reminder of the long history of violence against women in intimate relationships. While attitudes have certainly changed – very few people would think it is acceptable for a man to beat his girlfriend or wife ‘within reason’ today – we still have a long way to go to fully eradicate domestic violence and abuse against women in intimate relationships. Challenging outdated, sexist attitudes of gender roles within relationships represents a small step towards building a society where women feel safe and secure, without living in consent fear of reprisal from an abusive partner. Perhaps now is the time to make the 21st century a century for women.
This article first appeared on FutureLearn as part of the course ‘Gender-Based Violence: Responding to Intimate Partner Violence and Abuse’.