Historians and Values

posted by Ayşenur Çenesiz April 7, 2018 0 comments

What would be your reaction if I told you about women sold by their husbands in a public auction square like a slave or an animal with a rope around their necks? What if you knew that Wife Selling was not figurative but a historical fact as one of the common customs in 19th century? Most probably, you would be sorry for them and blame their husbands for their barbarism and brutality. Let’s try to look at this issue from a different perspective.

The tradition which I mentioned above was conceptualized as Wife Selling by historians. Although the time that it started and ended is controversial, it is generally believed that Wife Selling had been being applied from the 12th century to the 19th century. The selling process, which carries a symbolic meaning, can be read as a practice making divorcement possible. The debate on the reasons why people, especially from the humbler classes of societies, needed it has caused a deep division among historians. With their own value judgments, bourgeois historians have tended to see Wife Selling as barbarism and backwardness. On the contrary, Marxist historians, such as E. P. Thompson, highlight the necessity for reading this activity as a reaction to the authority. In his work, which includes approximately 300 examples, Thompson argues that the women sold had gave their consent on selling and their prices were not as high as a normal commercial activity. It must have been a symbolic price.

When abovementioned arguments are considered, Wife Selling can be read as the alternative practice of divorcement for those who couldn’t get divorced because of the oppression of the state and the church.

It wouldn’t be wrong if the nature of the discipline was considered as the reason of this divergence. What a historian takes into consideration, what she doesn’t and how she does it, while she tries to find the connections between the causes and the effects, can be affected by the values of her time and position. The divergence between bourgeois and Marxist historians on the Wife Selling practice demonstrates this problem well. The first describes it as an indicator of being backward and underdeveloped because they judge the past with their own criteria of development. On the other hand, the latter prefers to see it as a struggle between the people from a humbler class of the society and religious-political authorities. All in all, it is important to keep in mind that the history studies are possible to be shaped by the lenses of the historians. So, it can’t always be objective.

Related Readings:

  • E. P. Thompson, “The Selling of Wives”, Customs in Common.
  • M. Stanford, A Companion to the Study of History.

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