Journal Article

Beyond the rule of thumb: The materiality of marital violence in England, c. 1700-1857


Marital violence is profoundly shaped by the material world. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century court cases catalogue abusive husbands’ use of dwellings and domestic objects to imprison, beat, threaten, and intimidate their wives. Print culture from this era similarly viewed wife beating in material terms. The author of ‘Overcrowded Dwellings’ (1857) for example, linked cheap, poor quality houses to domestic violence. Cramped and dirty, the ‘male portions of the households dislike the appearance and the noisomeness of their room, and they stop at the parlour of the public house.’ Their wives followed suit or became slatterns; the result ‘a perpetual motion of a moral and immoral character,’ expressed in marital violence. This article contends that investigating the materiality of marital abuse through its articulation in and around particular places, spaces, and objects focuses our attention upon its intensely visceral dimensions, exposing the human suffering at its centre. It also adopts the conceptual premise that spaces and objects are ‘actants,’ a term coined by the theorist Bruno Latour ‘to describe anything that has agency (and for Latour, everything does).’ Thus, the article explores the patriarchal tensions embedded in the physical structure of the household and its control, arguing that space and objects shaped marital violence both as an act and an idea. Moreover, it proposes that the material culture of marital abuse performed 'emotional work' in the sense that it acted upon people’s perceptions, influencing social and cultural constructions of wife beating across the period.

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Begiato, Joanne

Oxford Brookes departments

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences\Department of History, Philosophy and Religion


Year of publication: 2018
Date of RADAR deposit: 2017-08-08

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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