Bigamy: A Male Crime in Medieval Europe?

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Abstract

Crime is often gendered. This article argues that the crime of bigamy was a male crime in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Catholic world. Courts prosecuted male bigamists far more often and more harshly than female offenders. However, drawing in particular on records from the fifteenth-century bishop's court of Troyes, I argue that women also committed bigamy. Judicial and social gender biases identified only male bigamy as fully criminal behaviour.
The reasons for this gender difference lie in the different roles of spouses as prescribed in Christian law, theology and culture. For a man to commit bigamy fundamentally violated his responsibilities as a husband. Female bigamy, by contrast, was to an extent tolerated as a lesser evil. Better a woman have two living husbands, one present and one absent, than no husband at all.

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