Legal Eagle: The 'Rule of Thumb'

February 20, 2017

Spousal abuse is as old as the hills. It has been part of the history of mankind.

Most of the recorded history of spousal abuse has been overwhelmingly meted out to women at the hands of their husbands.

The question is therefore, why do men physically abuse women?

If you believe in the Bible you would know that in Genesis 2:21 [KJV] it is said that God removed a rib from Adam and created Eve and brought her to Adam.

She was called woman, having come from a man. Eve would eventually disobey God and was punished by God with increased pain at childbirth, when God said in Genesis 3:16, I will multiply thy sorrow and thy conception.

Wife-beating accepted

In 753 BC, during the reign of Romulus in Rome, wife beating was accepted as the law of chastisement gave a husband absolute right to physically discipline his wife.

In the Middle Ages [5th to 15th Century] noblemen beat their wives as often as they beat those who served them.

In many places in the Bible, women have been put under the authority of men.

Again in Genesis, speaking about women, the scripture said, “your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you”.

On the other hand, there are many passages such as Timothy 3:3 and Colossians 3:19 which command husbands to love their wives and to not be harsh with them.

In the 18th Century England, the existing laws sanctioned wife beating with good support from the church.

Wife beating was extremely common and was only frowned upon if it was brutal or excessive. It was every man’s right to beat his wife.

In the Georgian era [1714 to 1837] a husband was legally entitled to strike his wife in order to “correct” her so long as it was moderate.

In the 18th and 19th Century the courts in England were very supportive of wife beating.

For instance, in a case in 1853 a man who was married four times had beaten all four wives, based on the evidence of neighbours.

In another case before the court, judge Francis Buller ruled that a husband could beat his wife with a stick but it must not be bigger than his thumb.

The acceptance by the court of the size stick to beat a woman led to what is called “the rule of thumb”.

The sentences imposed on most of the abusive men were small fines or bound over to keep the peace.

Lawmakers in England responded in 1853 with the passage of the Aggravated Assault Act, which provided for greater penalty for those who beat women.

Although the new law did not provide for whipping, some magistrates commented that abusive men should be whipped with the “cat-o-nine tails”.

Battered women's shelters

In the USA, spousal abuse was rampant up to the 1970s with hundreds of shelters for battered women all over the country.

In Jamaica, over the years has intervened with legislations to protect women these include, but not limited to: the Matrimonial Causes Act, which provides for the court to make injunction to protect the parties; the Domestic Violence Act, which allows the court to make orders for one of the parties to leave the home; the Sexual Offences Act, which provides for complaint of rape by her husband; and the Evidence Act, which makes both parties to a marriage competent and compellable to give evidence against each other.

Some men are still of the view that husbands should be allowed to restrain or “correct” their wives but without physically abusing them.

For now this is only a pipe dream as no one can turn back the hands of time.

- Keith N. Bishop is an Attorney-at-Law and senior partner in the law firm of Bishop & Partners. He may be contacted at or by WhatsApp at 876-4608231.


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