"Rule of Thumb"

Cecil - I challenge your information about the American legal system not supporting a man’s right to hit his wife. It has in fact been upheld by more than one court over the history of America. See http://www.libraryindex.com/pages/2031/Abuse-Women-Worldwide-Issue-AMERICAN-TRADITIONS.html. Your expert source is biased against women and their right to have a voice in stopping domestic violence. I would urge you to find factually information versus opinion if you wish to appear to “know it all.”

Not all men hit women, but enough men hit women that it is a drain on the family, urban/rural, county, state, federal, business, religious and non-profit communities and organizations. This is not a new “thing” in our history, it has existed since the beginning of man. Despite federal and state laws it is still common and culturally accepted. Please stop supporting the false perceptions that it doesn’t happen and if it does its a woman’s fault. Men choose to hit - it is NEVER a victims fault!


  1. As will inevitably be pointed out before I am done typing, it is considered proper to supply a link to column upon which one is commenting. To wit, I assume the referent is this piece.

  2. The OP does appear to have missed the point of the column. Cecil is not claiming that spousal violence has not been a pervasive problem in human societies up to and including the present day. What he does claim is that the phrase “rule of thumb” does not originate in legal allowances for a man to beat his wife.

  3. That said, the OP is correct in that Christina Hoff Sommers’ book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women is not a reliable source, and it was not a good idea for Cecil to have used such a biased author as bedrock material when addressing this topic.

  4. This *ad hominem *aside, Cecil’s conclusion is still correct. A better citation would be UCLA Professor Henry A. Kelly’s peer-reviewed article “‘Rule of Thumb’ and the Folklaw of the Husband’s Stick,” *Journal of Legal Education *44 (3) [Sep 1, 1994], 341-365. The phrase “rule of thumb” did not originate in legal sanction for wife-beating. Saying this does not diminish the problem, but it does clear up the silliness of resorting to ignorance in proving your point.

ETA: Whaddya know, I WAS the first person to provide a link to Cecil’s column!

After StusBlues did such a good job I wonder if anyone else will look at the link you provided, but I did. I’m not sure what sort of cultural circles you’re moving in which either require you to say “not all men hit women”, or that make you think men beating women is culturally acceptable.

Anyway, that source is rather poor. I don’t claim to be an expert on the laws of the past, but that cite isn’t convincing. I mean under the heading “Early Laws Allow Chastisement” the two cites are a law forbidding it and a case in which a man was convicted of assault and battery for beating his wife. I’d have been looking more for something along the lines of a law making “chastisement” legal, or a court case in which a judge ruled in favour of a battering husband on those grounds.

I only skimmed that page, but I saw eight or nine cited laws and legal cases, each of which explicitly either ruled against a specific man beating his wife, or made it illegal in more general terms.

And I’m sure Cecil never had any intention to imply that violence is generally a victim’s fault, or that it doesn’t happen, or anything like that. Also, “domestic abusers choose to hit”, please, rather than “men choose to hit”, so as to both distinguish between men who do and do not hit, and between those who hit and are men and those who hit and are not men.

That’s an impressive work, but Kelly was apparently unaware that the Welsh (ca. 1000) did have a sort of “rule of middle finger,” which established that (among other things) a husband could “take revenge for his wife’s behaviour by striking her three times with a rod as long as a man’s forearm and as thick as his middle finger on any part of the body except the head.” At least that’s what scholars of medieval Wales tell us about what’s codified in The Welsh Law of Women.

Which is not to say, of course, that “[the] rule of thumb” derives from some obscure instruction about how to beat one’s wife.

On the other hand, this little-known 10th-century Welsh sentencing guideline may deserve a place in future discussions about Blackstone, Buller, and various 18th-century attitudes towards applying a stick of some digit-thickness to the missus.

– Tammi Terrell

Granted, cases where the defense was accepted would be better, but in the cited examples, the judges state that a certain amount of reasonable chastisement would have been acceptable. You have to realize that the women could not bring charges, so the only reason there would be cases at all would be extreme cases. This appears to be an example of the “file drawer” problem. You only see the examples that violate the threshhold for unreasonable. Nobody would bother filing an example that would pass the legal measure.

Nevertheless, we can find no record that there was a “rule of thumb” in this sense. The new information on Welsh law, however, suggests that there might—might, I say—be a half memory of it underlying the otherwise unexplained citations of 1824 and 1874. (A thousand years ago, of course, Wales was an independent nation; it was conquered by Edward I, but not finally absorbed into England until Henry VIII.)

But, all such things aside, there is no indication that the idiom “rule of thumb” has any such origin; the fact that it’s been actively sought for some time now makes the probability of any connection massively unlikely, especially since the first known connection (1976) between “rule of thumb” and the (almost certainly fictitious) law is clearly intended to be a spur-of-the-moment pun.

True, but I am not claiming there is any relation to the legal situation and the origin of the phrase. sjml appears to be more concerned about the actual legal status of beating one’s wife rather than whether there was a law stating one could use a stick of a certain size to do so.

Those 19th-century citations don’t have to depend, at least not directly, on old Welsh practice. As Kelly (and others, elsewhere) have pointed out, Justice Buller, ca. 1782, was supposed to have contended that a husband could correct his spouse with a stick no thicker than his thumb. Nothing’s been found in official court records corroborating that he ever made such an observation, but the anecdote (whether true or false) saw a lot of circulation afterwards, well into the 19th century.

What Buller (or the Buller anecdote) was relying on is unclear, at least to us now. It was written before him that “old common law” and “ancient privilege,” as Blackstone (1765)* put it, allowed a man to physically correct his wife (Blackstone, however, specified that this could never involve violent chastisement), though nobody has yet unearthed anything before Buller and after publication of the body of laws of Wales that mentions dimensions of sticks that one was allowed to use for such a task.

Swift (1711) comes close to this specification, though, when he wrote that (of something he claimed had transpired at least three decades earlier),

Even Swift’s description of Dr. Marmaduke Coghil’s stick requirement – “such a little cane or switch as he then held in his hand” – may have been of some similar proportion to that which was described in Welsh law (a stick no thicker than a man’s middle finger and no longer than his forearm). And even the Welsh husband could hit his errant wife no more than three times and never on the head. (And even if the Coghill anecdote were fabricated, Swift’s inclusion of it shows that he was at least familiar with this way of thinking.)

So, I’d suggest that there seems to have been more than a “half memory” before Buller of a custom allowing a man to hit his wife with a stick of some dimension, at least in moderation. Perhaps this understanding persisted, unwritten, in “the lower rank of people,” as Blackstone described the uneducated and unenlightened, into the 19th century.

But, as you’ve said, none of this had anything to do with the phrase “rule of thumb.”

– Tammi Terrell

  • relevant text is about two-thirds into the chapter.