Adultery And Inheritance                     

The divorce rate is rising and the marriage rate is falling - here I want to look at some possible reasons for both, and if there's anything we can - or should - do about it. But first a quick history lesson... (and thanks to Michelle of for some of these facts)

Double standards of chastity for men and women were enshrined in the laws which governed marriage and property rights in England until the late nineteenth century and in other parts of Europe until the early twentieth century.

Inheritance went through the male line. Unless a baby was swapped at birth, there was no doubt as to who was its mother. For many years royal births had to be witnessed to avoid such a contingency. Blood tests were not used and DNA not yet discovered so there was no indisputable proof of fatherhood.

A wife's adultery could result in the birth of offspring not fathered by the legitimate husband. Women were therefore made the target of legal constraints. These constraints did not apply to men, for if their adulterous affairs led to unmarried women giving birth, their children were more patently illegitimate. The children could not inherit, though provision might be made for them.

Working class women were not troubled by the laws of inheritance. Marriage usually offered them (as for their richer sisters) the best option. There was no welfare state provision. Jobs paid starvation wages, but that was better than nothing. Without work, the spectre of the workhouse loomed ahead. Organized charity, with few exceptions, was, in the words of J.B. O'Reilly, 'scrimped and iced in the name of a cautious, statistical Christ'. Marriage then provided a safeguard of some kind.

The possible earning power of a husband gave to his wife and children a degree of security. By contrast a mistress, unless of a rich and very generous man (traits which do not always go together), was in a very vulnerable position, and her children might be even worse off. Until the end of the nineteenth century, 30 out of every 1,000 children still did not survive their first year.