You have found the partner of your dreams and you settle down to your dream castle and start making your family of 12 children. However, there is a problem. Your true love has been doing you wrong. What to do? Well, your next steps very much depends on if you are the husband or the wife in this equation.
As we touched on in our piece on Courtly Love (http://www.historynaked.com/cult-courtly-love-feminist-leap-modern-myth/ ), despite what our friend Andreas Cappellanus said there were serious consequences to being unfaithful. Marriage was a sacrament of the Church and binding vows were taken. To break them had consequences. Plus, extra marital sex could result in illegitimate children. In a society where blood and birth order determined property rights, this was catastrophic.
This is one reason unfaithful wives were punished more harshly than unfaithful husbands. There was a great fear of a wife passing off her baseborn lover’s child as her noble husband’s heir. If a woman was caught committing adultery, the penalty could be as light as whipping or head shaving or as harsh as cutting off her nose and ears. The unfortunate lady could be made to do a shame walk around town like Jane Shore, Edward IV’s mistress. On towards the 1500s, an adulterous wife could be hanged. And we all know what happened to Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard for cheating on Henry VIII, the fact that it was arguably a pack of lies is irrelevant of course as apparently is the fact that justice is fair, when your husband is the judge.
However, most of the time, the lady was “enclosed” in a convent for an indeterminate period of time. Her husband could take her back or leave her there indefinitely. Edward Seymour, Jane Seymour’s brother, did this to his first wife, Catherine Fillol. She was found to be stepping out with Edward’s father. Edward disinherited his two children by her as he wasn’t sure if they were his half brothers and put her in a convent for the rest of her life.
Men, on the other hand, could be whipped for adultery but were usually banished from town. However, in the upper echelon of society most men had a mistress or mistresses and plenty of by-blows. Of course this was often “accepted” as part of and parcel of being a pesky wife and all the “uncleanliness” that went alongside of the job. Although Church scholars were divided, the general public judged unfaithful wives harder as they were bringing shame to their husbands and families. Sometimes courts turned a blind eye to a man who killed his wife’s lover, but there was a crack down on this in the 15th century. To get a royal pardon in France, a man had to show a pattern of his wife being unrepentant.
However, if a woman could show her husband was seduced by the wife of another man, she could demand a fine from the seducer’s husband. That seems a bit like insult to injury though. The poor guy has a cheating wife and he has to shell out cash? Rough.
So my advice to you, dear reader, is be kind and faithful to your significant others. You all look great with a nose.
Sources available on request