Skimmington Revisited – 2002

Inherent to the exposition and research of intimate violence and abuse of women by male partners during the past twenty to thirty years has been the historical perspective of ‘Patriarchal’ authority. The subordinate status of women during earlier periods of history, whereby women had fewer legal rights than men, has been supplemented within the field of study of intimate violence by reference to wives being the appropriate victims of marital chastisement by husbands over history (Dobash and Dobash, 1978). A consequence of such analysis is that a world view (Dutton, 1994) has developed in which only, or almost only, women as wives, cohabitees or girlfriends, are viewed as the victims of intimate violence under the schema of Patriarchal authority.

This paper, however, contends that English historical evidence, and later analysis of it, shows that in the Nineteenth century and before there was not only concern for male violence against wives, but also considerable concern for the violation of Patriarchal norms of the violence of wives against husbands. This paper explores the evidence of the Charivari exposure of men who were beaten by their wives (Steinmetz, 1977). It attempts to appraise this historical evidence and relate it to the present day situation in which violence by women to intimate males has become controversial and what has been termed ‘The Great Taboo’ (George, 1994).

A Rule of Thumb?

A central tenet to Patriarchal male authority, the dominance of males in heterosexual relationships, has been suggested to be that both in England, and later in America, a ‘law’ existed which allowed husbands to chastise their wives providing that they used a stick no thicker than their thumb. The so called ‘Rule of Thumb’ has, over the last thirty or so years of research and advocacy for female victims of intimate violence, been an important clarion for the exposure of the ordinariness of male violence towards women and the subsequent enactment of measures to combat it. Surprisingly, despite vast and wide reaching research of the subject of intimate violence, rather little further examination of historical issues has been undertaken. In her book

‘Who Stole Feminism’, however, Hoff Sommers (1995) touched upon this historical matter and undertook research into the so called ‘Rule of Thumb’ noting that a popular textbook in women’s studies stated that:

“The popular expression ‘Rule of Thumb’ originated from English common law which allowed a husband to beat his wife with a whip or a stick no bigger in diameter than his thumb. The husband’s prerogative was incorporated into American law.” (page 203).

Riding Skimmington:

The popular custom, which characteristically involved a noisy and mocking procession often involving hostile laughter and derision, was a widely distributed and well known phenomenon in England, although it may have originated and been particularly associated with certain regions such as the West Country (Barrett, 1895). A key element of the procession was that either the victim himself or the victim and his wife or indeed “the neighbour next nearest the church” or even a paid volunteer, were paraded on a donkey or horse. In other versions, a ‘stang’ or ‘cowlstaff was used in the procession.

Where only the man was the subject, he was forced to ride facing backwards holding the horse or donkey’s tail, but where both the man and his wife were subject they were often forced to ride ‘back to back’.

Neighbours of the beaten husband were sometimes the subjects ridden and ridiculed on the basis that they were guilty of failing to convince the errant couple to conform to the social norm of a man being the authority in the household. Skimmington Revisited M J George

It is from the West Country (ie. Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon) of England that the name most associated with the custom arose. ‘Riding Skimmington’ or ‘Skimmington’ was the term particularly associated with the beaten husband. Although these processional devices were also known as ‘Riding the Stang’ and other terms in other parts of the country (see Davis, 1971, footnote 48), it is uncertain as to whether these other terms referred to Charivari customs that were aimed particularly at beaten husbands (Barret, 1895). Thus it is probably as ‘Riding Skimmington’ that the Charivari against the beaten husband was most known and the word ‘Skimmington’ became a name of derision for the beaten husband as well as for the processional humiliation, whilst ‘Mrs Skimmington’ denoted the husband beating wife.

The word itself derives from the skimming ladle used by women in the West Country in the process of making cheese and depicted as a useful weapon to assault their husbands. For instance, an English stone church engraving, surviving from the period around 1200 AD, shows a woman hitting a prostrate man with just such a ladle.

Clearly the attitudes shown by the sample population of this study by Cook and Harris (1994), are rooted firmly within the same continuum of entrenched prejudice that gave rise to Skimmington Ridings centuries ago. Also, recent evidence of the discrimination that victimized men experience within the wider social framework when they try and seek help or sympathetic action by professionals or social or legal agencies is consistent (see Stitt and Macklin, l995; Cook, 1997 ). For instance, it is noteworthy that, although some examples exist (see Ingram, 1984, footnote 27; Beattie, 1975), the rarity of prosecutions being brought against females for assaults of intimate males has been historical (Wiener, 1975), not just modern and contemporary ( Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz, 1980; Cook, 1997).

Indeed, it might be stated that it is not intimate violence by men against female partners that has been ignored historically and accorded under `The Rule of Thumb’, but rather that the unassailable rule of thumb of history is that,
as the ancient poem states very clearly “No concern’d jury damage for him finds. Nor partial justice her behaviour binds”. So now it is the very denial and trivialization within a public discourse, in what many might consider a more
enlightened age, which is the Charivari. The prejudicial treatment of victimized men within legal and social agencies is the means by which the Skimmington is re-enacted and revisited. Such is the manner for the historical enforcement
of Patriarchal Skimmington Revisited M J George authority, the dictum of oikos and the oppression of the ordinary man and hence every man.

An inversion by which predominantly now a malfeasant elite, rather than just a malevolent common folk, exact a punishment and humiliation of men, not just for their forbearance of abuse, but for deeming to bring their plight
to official attention – for the former transgression giving rise to the `Skimmington Rides’ of old was not just that the abuse occurred, but that it was seen by another. All in order to keep the secret of the ‘Great Taboo’ (George, 1994). Uncertainty out of certainty, misrule out of rule, disorder out of order and all vice versa, with truth the greatest casualty.

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