A number of feminist writers have expressed the view that women in England have, historically, been treated as property; and they are backed up by some historians. To what extent is this contention valid? What is the evidence that has been used to support it?
We can start our examination with the laws relating to adultery-a crime with a strong connotation of property, the woman's body being illicitly given to a man other than its 'owner', her husband.
It is certainly the case that punishment of women guilty of adultery could be extreme. In the reign of Cnut, they stood to lose both nose and ears. 1 Alfred decreed: 'If anyone lies with the wife of a man whose wergild is 1200 shillings, he shall pay 120 shillings compensation to the husband; to a husband whose wergild is 600 shillings he shall pay 40 shillings compensation'. 2
Feminist historian Nazife Basher considers that the prominence of rape in English statute law from Anglo-Saxon times until the sixteenth century 'was due to the law's concern with the protection of male property rather than to its concern with the welfare of women'. 3 What is the evidence to support this statement?
During the Anglo-Saxon period, King Aethelbert decreed:
if a man lies with a maiden belonging to the King he shall pay 50 shillings compensation. If she is a grindling slave he shall pay 25 shillings compensation… If a man lies with a commoner's serving maid, he shall pay 6 shillings compensation… with a slave of the second class [he shall pay] 50 sceattas… if with one of the third class 30 sceattas…. 4
Klink argues that such crimes were clearly regarded as having