Did you know that it wasn’t until recent history, the 20th century, that it became unlawful for husbands to beat their wives? Domestic violence has been a harsh reality for women for thousands of years. In my latest novel, The Novice, the underlying theme is domestic violence. I wanted to demonstrate the cycle of violence. If a woman in medieval times could free herself from the cycle of abuse, today’s women can choose to do the same. What follows is a historical timeline of domestic violence through the centuries.
In Rome, the Law of Chastisement came into effect. Because a husband was liable for his wife’s actions, this law gave husbands the absolute rights to physically discipline their women provided that he beat her with a rod or switch no greater than the girth of the base of the man’s right thumb. This rule became a guideline for more than a thousand years.
The Church re-affirms a husband’s authority to discipline a wife. Holy Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, has his wife burned alive when she was no longer of use to him.
900 to 1300 A.D.
In medieval Europe, the Church sanctions wife beatings. Priests advise abused wives to win their husbands’ good will through increased devotion and obedience. Women are viewed as a lesser species, without the same feelings and capacity for suffering than men.
A Friar in Siena writes Rules of Marriage, religious laws that support wife-beating.
A woman named Christine de Pizan accuses men of cruelty and beating their wives. She begins the fight for women’s basic humanity, better education, and fair treatment in marriages.
Saint Bernardino of Siena asks his male parishioners to restrain themselves when disciplining their wives and to show them the same mercy they would show their hens and pigs.
In England, Lord Hale, a woman hater who regularly burned women at the stake as witches condones marital rape. Apparently, a husband cannot be guilty of rape because marriage was a contract and when a wife gave herself to a husband, she could not retract her consent.
Early settlers in America permit wife-beating for correctional purposes, however there is growing movement to declare wife-beating illegal.
In Russia, the Church sanctions the oppression of women by issuing an ordinance that made it legal for a man to beat or kill his wife for disciplinary purposes. But if a Russian woman killed her husband for injustices, the penalty was for her to be buried alive with only her head above the ground, and left to die.
In England, women and children are taught that it was their duty to obey the man of the house. Violence was encouraged.
In Germany, two lesbians were placed on trial for lesbianism and domestic violence. Both women were found guilty. One was sentenced to death. The other was sent to jail for 3 years and then banished, not because she was the victim of the violence, but because she was simple-minded.
England abolishes the right for men to chastise women.
Sweden gives men and women equal inheritance rights.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are founded long before any organization to prevent cruelty to women.
A man in North Carolina was charged with striking his wife with a switch about the size of one of his fingers, but smaller than his thumb. The court upheld his acquittal on the grounds that no court should interfere with family government in trifling cases.
General Sherman, when he was negotiating the Treaty of 1868 with the Navajos insisted that the Navajos select male leaders only. The rule stripped Navajo women of their ability to participate in decision-making and taught Navajo men that it was okay to rob women of economic and political power, and to beat them.
Francis Power Cobbe published Wife Torture in England. In it, she documented 6,000 of the most brutal assaults on women over a 3 year period who had been maimed, blinded, trampled, burned and murdered. She believed that abuse by men continued because of the belief that a man’s wife was his property. Her concerns resulted in a new law that allowed victims of violence to obtain a legal separation from the husband; entitled them custody of the children; and to retain earnings and property secured during the separation. But only if the husband was convicted of aggravated assault and the court determined she was in grave danger.
In England, the law was changed to permit a wife who had been habitually beaten by her husband to the point of life endangerment to separate from him, but not to divorce him
During the reign of Queen Victoria, new laws came into effect whereby wives could no longer be kept under lock and key, life-threatening beatings were considered grounds for divorce, and wives and daughters could no longer be sold into prostitution.
A French court rules that husbands have no right to beat their wives. Prior to this, the Napoleonic Code decreed that, “Women, like walnut trees, should be beaten every day.”
Mirella Sichirollo Patzer, October 27, 2014