Sale of a Wife
DESCRIPTION: A (ship carpenter), hard up for money for drink and tired of quarreling with his wife, puts her up for sale. After a lively auction, a sailor wins her. He takes her home and they live happily
EARLIEST DATE: 1928 (Sam Henry collection)
KEYWORDS: abandonment humorous husband wife sailor
FOUND IN: Ireland Britain
REFERENCES (3 citations):
SHenry H226, pp. 511-512, "The Ship Carpenter's Wife" (1 text, 1 tune)
Peacock, pp. 253-254, "Cabbage and Goose" (1 text, 1 tune)
Eddie Butcher, "The Ship Carpenter's Wife" (on IREButcher01)
NLScotland, L.C.Fol.178.A.2(119), "The Ship Carpenter's Wife," unknown, c. 1830-1850
cf. "In Praise of John Magee" (plot)
cf. "Nebuchadnezzar's Wife" (theme)
cf. "The Scolding Wife (V)" (theme: sale of a wife)
cf. "Danny Sim's Sow" (theme: sale of a wife)
cf. "John Hobbs" (theme: sale of a wife)
Auction of a Wife
Wife for Sale
NOTES [485 words]: The National Library of Scotland site notes that this sort of thing actually did happen, and even includes a broadside (NLScotland, L.C.1268, "Sale of a Wife," W. Boag (?), Newcastle, describing an event of July 16, 1828) allegedly documenting such a sale.
Porter, p. 28, reports, "When divorce was prohibited by both Church and State, husband and wife could separate by the simple expedient of the former selling his partner to another man. The transaction was considered legal provided that more than a shilling was paid for her and that she was put up for sale with a halter around her neck, to indicate that she was being disposed on in the same way as horses or cattle might be." Porter reports several instances over the years, the most recent being in 1972 (!). The latter case, in Northumberland, frankly sounds like a version of the Swapping Song; the man sold his wife for a horse and cart, sold that to get an automobile, and sold that to get a motorcycle.
Palmer, p. 97, tells of an announcement in an Annual Register of 1773 of the sale of one Mary Whitehouse in Birmingham for one guinea. Palmer also has tales of a seller leading his wife by a halter and having to pay toll on the turnpikes. He goes on to cite other instances of the phenomenon. One wishes we had more insight into the feelings of the particular parties.
Briggs, pp.246-247, has a tale in which we do have some insight into how people felt. Titled "The Sale of a Wife," it reminds me a little of the famous "What Do Women Want?" question found in chivalrous tales (see, e.g., "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" [Child 31]). The wife's first husband treated her very poorly, and finally sold her (taking her to market in a halter, which apparently was a required part of the ritual). The second husband brought her home, and when she said, "You've got me and everything about me," he said something to the effect that he wanted only her. And she responded by pulling out a large pouch of money.
Deane/Shaw, p. 55, has a story from an old man (which they did not verify) that, although likely not true, shows how entrenched the custom was: A man would regularly take his wife to an auction and sell her -- and she would go home with the buyer, kill him, and steal his money. Then she would go home and the process would repeat until the wife was killed by the daughter of one of her new husbands.
Simpson/Roud, p. 390, have an article on wife-selling, stating that the practice was known for at least 300 years. It notes, however, that the transaction was usually agreed to quietly by wife and first and second husbands before the public auction. They note the first recorded instance seems to have been in 1553, and also observe that the custom is used in Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. See their bibliography for additional sources on the ritual. Also see Simpson, pp. 95-96, for the examples that she herself assembled. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Briggs: Katherine Briggs, British Folktales (originally published in 1970 as A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales), revised 1977 (I use the 1977 Pantheon paperback edition)
- Deane/Shaw: Tony Deane and Tony Shaw The Folklore of Cornwall, B. T. Batsford, 1975
- Palmer: Roy Palmer, The Folklore of Warwickshire, Rowman and Littlefield, 1976
- Porter: Enid Porter, The Folklore of East Anglia, Batsford, 1974
- Simpson: Jacqueline Simpson, The Folklore of Sussex, B. T. Batsford, 1973
- Simpson/Roud: Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, 2000
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