For at least 300 years, according to popular belief, a man could get rid of his wife, and, more importantly, get rid of any responsibility for her future upkeep or actions, by selling her to another man. The sale normally had its formalities - it would take place in the market or at a fair, the woman would be led by a halter, and any tolls or fees usually payable for the sale of animals would be carefully paid and recorded. Most importantly, the sale would take place in front of witnesses. For her part, the wife had normally given her consent and in many cases the deal had already been agreed privately, and the purchaser was someone of her choice. The first definite recorded instances come from the 16th century, with the diary of Henry Machyn being the earliest: 'The xxiiij day of November [1553] dyd ryde in a cart Cheken, parsun of sant Necolas Coldabby, abowt London, for he sold ys wyff to a bow-cher'. Wife-selling is reported regularly in early folklore collections and local newspapers until the late 19th century, and is used in Thomas Hardy's novel of The Mayor of Caster-bridge (1886).
   ■ S. P. Menefee, Wives For Sale: an Ethnographic Study of Popular Divorce (1981); E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common (1991), 404-66.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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