From Byron's Don Juan:

Happy the nations of the moral North!
Where all is virtue, and the winter season
Sends sin, without a rag on, shivering forth
('T was snow that brought St. Anthony to reason);
Where juries cast up what a wife is worth,
By laying whate'er sum in mulct they please on
The lover, who must pay a handsome price,
Because it is a marketable vice.

Does it mean that in northern countries it was customary to fine an adulterous male?

Or does it imply that an adulterous male had no recourse for his passion except to find a prostitute (but then why "juries" - I doubt that the price of a prostitute was ever set by a jury)?

1 Answer 1


It may refer to the Common Law Tort of ‘criminal conversation’, where ‘conversation’ means ‘sexual intercourse’. Criminal proceedings could be brought by a spouse, usually the husband, against a third party seeking compensation for breach of fidelity.

Wikipedia states:

Suits for criminal conversation reached their height in late 18th and early 19th-century England, where large sums, often between £10,000 and £20,000 (worth upwards of £10–20 million in today's terms), could be demanded by the plaintiff, for debauching his wife.

The article further cites:

Sir Richard Worsley lost his case against George Bisset, after it had been found that he had colluded in his own dishonour by showing his friend his wife, Seymour Dorothy Fleming, naked in a bath-house (technically he won the case, as the fact of adultery was not contested, but the jury awarded only one shilling damages).

Which appears to confirm that juries would ‘cast up’ (calculate) the compensation due to the husband in respect of the value of his wife.

The cases brought were private prosecutions, and the sum is technically compensation for damages experienced by the spouse who brought the case, rather than a fine for breaking the law.

These cases have no direct relevance to prostitution, referring solely to a situation where a spouse is ‘debauched’ by a third party. The compensation is to the partner of the debauched individual, rather than the individual themself.

  • 2
    I didn't downvote, but maybe this could be improved by relating it just a little more clearly to the poem? You've provided some good information, but haven't really justified your conclusion that it's the right interpretation in this particular context.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Dec 28, 2017 at 16:03
  • :'( Your choice, of course, but I hope you don't leave! You've contributed some nice answers and useful info here, and it'd be a shame to lose you. If I may say so, I think sometimes you take criticism a little too personally. When someone (e.g.) advises you to change something in your answer, or to post a comment as an answer instead, it's just a suggestion, which you can always ignore if you feel your post is fine as it is.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Dec 28, 2017 at 20:10

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