The Abuse of Women—A Worldwide Issue - European Traditions
wife husband beat soul
The subservient role of women was well established by the Middle Ages. During the fourteenth century in France, a man could legally beat his wife for failing to obey his orders as long as he did not kill or permanently maim her. The 1371 tale of Geoffrey de la Tour de Landry reflected the contemporary attitude toward "the wickedness of a nagging wife" and the proper punishment for her behavior:
Here is an example to every good woman that she suffer and endure patiently, nor strive with her husband, nor answer him before strangers, as did once a woman who did answer her husband before strangers with short words: and he smote her with his fist down to earth; and then with his foot he struck her in her visage and broke her nose, and all her life after she had her nose crooked, which so shent [spoiled] and disfigured her visage after, that she might not for shame show her face, it was so foul blemished. And this she had for her language that she was wont to say to her husband, and therefore the wife ought to suffer, and let the husband have the words, and to be her master, for that is her duty.
There were some, however, who cautioned men to treat women with some restraint. Bernard of Siena, Italy, advised the husband in 1427 to treat his wife as well as he did his fowl and livestock. It is doubtful whether his advice was heeded, though, since Siena was also home to the Rules on Marriage, which declared:
When you see your wife commit an offense, don't rush at her with insults and violent blows, rather, first correct the wrong lovingly. [If this doesn't work] scold her sharply, bully and terrify her. And if this still doesn't work … take up a stick and beat her soundly. It is better to punish the body and correct the soul than to damage the soul and spare the body. You should beat [your wife] only when she commits a serious wrong. Then readily beat her, not in rage but out of charity and concern for her soul.
Social and religious values were designed to teach women that it was their duty to yield to their husbands' desires. If they resisted, however, those values also taught that it was in a woman's best interest to have the badness beaten out of her. Violence was justified if an appeal to reason or faith was unsuccessful. Wife beating was rarely viewed as the first recourse.