No doubt people who know more about the 18th and 19th Cs would be familiar with this, but it was a new one to me …
Whilst continuing my investigations of coverture, I came across [dis-covered?] a rather scandalous supposed marriage custom, which was considered to ward off some of the obligations which a husband would incur, in the normal course of things, in relation to his wife’s debts. The generally sensible C.S. Kenny notes the existence of ‘an old legal superstition … that a man does not become liable for his wife’s debts if she marries him in her shift’.[i] The idea was that this practice of turning up for the wedding without much in the way of clothing showed that the bride was not bringing property to the groom, and, since his obligation to pay her debts could be conceived of as a consequence of, or some sort of balance to, the property she brought to him, he was not undertaking to pay the debts. Kenny, in an essay published in 1879, tells us that ‘old newspapers’ give examples of such marriages. Checking that up sounds like an enjoyable little project for a less busy time.
For now, I note that there are some exchanges on this in Notes and Queries in the 1850s, referring to these events as ‘smock marriages’ or marriages ‘en chemise’ (in French, so much posher – or more sexy and salacious?) all started off by a question by one J. Eastwood, who found a ‘Curious Marriage Entry’ in the ‘register books of a small village in Wiltshire’ (frustratingly not named! – though there is mention of a parish, Chiltern All Saints! – which presumably = Chitterne, near enough to Warminster), to the effect that Anne Sellwood, who was married to John Bridmore ‘in her smock, without any clothes or head-gear on’, on 17th October, 1714’. [ii] Another correspondent, C.H. Cooper, noted that this business of smock marriages and their supposed effect had been pointed out as a ‘vulgar error’ in a work of 1842, but also that it was ‘still prevalent at Cottenham [Cambs]’.[iii] The field of operation of the ‘vulgar error’ was extended north and west by a further letter from one Shirley Brooks, who reported it in Shropshire, and also came up with an ingenious interpretation of its supposed justification: the bride was conceived of as purchasing her husband’s protection – so entering into a contract – but if she came to him with nothing, then there was no consideration for that purchase of protection. Clever, eh? Mad, but clever.[iv]
It is also said to have been known at Kirton, Lindsey (Lincs) – possibly in even more scandalous form: there is mention of ‘a state of nudity’. As ‘K.P.D.E.’ puts it, on the authority of ‘a venerable person’, there had been an example of the practice, in that ‘highly civilised town’, in his lifetime, the bride to be leaving her home ‘from a bedroom window’ and putting some clothes on while on the ladder, coming down.‘[v]
It is mentioned, in historical scholarship, in the context of whether or not it preserved a woman’s financial independence.[vi] (Contrast this context with the concerns of the Notes and Queries letter writers, who were really bothered about the other side of the coin: the husband’s independence of claims relating to his wife’s debts).
I find myself wondering how this particular myth might have grown up. What conversations might there have been in the lead-up to a marriage, with brides being persuaded to eschew dressing up, in favour of a spot of streaking? And what place might there have been for the desire to see – and write about – [more or less] naked women?
Image – no, not a naked woman. Nor some sort of racy undershirt, of the sort to quicken the pulse of a Victorian Notes and Queries reader. We are sticking to safer ground here, with a general suggestion of love and such … using swans. Things are much simpler for swans … Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash
[i] C.S. Kenny, The History of the Law of England as to the effects of Marriage on Property and of the wife’s legal capacity (London, 1879). 94.
[ii] Notes and Queries, 1st ser, vol VI, 485, 561; (1852)
[iii] N & Q 1st ser. vol. VII, 163 (1853).
[v] N & Q VII, 17. Further 18th C examples are given, from Kent and London, and a later query mentions an early 18th C instance from Yorkshire: N & Q vol. 152 (1927) p 169, by P.D.M. See also R. Chambers, Book of Days vol. 1 (London and Edinburgh, 1863), 259, cited in Erickson, below.
[vi] e.g. A.L. Erickson, Women and Property : In Early Modern England, (London, 1995( 146.