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The Trials of Marriage: Marriage As Reported in 18th and 19th Century Newspapers and Other Accounts

By Conrad Plowman

Reports of court cases by a reporter who was present, are the closest we have to primary sources.

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In the 18th and 19th centuries, the provincial and national newspapers reported aspects of marriage at all levels of society, and are a valuable source of contemporary accounts, often entertaining, which allow us to view the changing attitudes to marriage, and see them in the context of their times. 

Advertisements for wives and husbands appeared from the second part of the 18th century onwards, and the newspapers covered proposals and weddings which were unusual and/or amusing. There was widespread coverage of court cases resulting from adultery, and breach of promise, and the records of the Old Bailey of trials for bigamy, a statutory offence, show punishments from execution to branding, transportation, and imprisonment. Ending a marriage by divorce was not available to the great majority of the population, and wife selling was often regarded as a perfectly acceptable alternative. Attitudes and laws relating to the role and status of wives are seen to change considerably over the two centuries.

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