18thc ‘Judge Thumb’ and Current Domestic Violence Debates

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New domestic violence legislation is being debated in the UK at the moment. In 1782 Sir Francis Buller, later known as ‘Judge Thumb’, ruled famously (I should say infamously) that a husband could beat his wife if the stick was no thicker than his thumb.

See Fictions of Law ch 1 pp.31-2 for more information. The entire chapter looks at 18thc marriage laws and their depiction in contemporary fiction.

Extract: The issue of ‘domestic chastisement’, be it by incarceration or beating, was debated by both legal and literary writers throughout the seventeenth century and continued to cause concern into the nineteenth century. Since the late seventeenth century, courts regarded chastisement as admonition or confinement to the house, not physical punishment. This power was, according to Blackstone, ‘confined within reasonable bounds’, the husband being ‘prohibited from using any violence'(I,p.444). Yet in 1782 Sir Francis Buller made the famous and outrageous ruling that a husband could beat his wife if the stick was no thicker than his thumb. He was amusingly named Judge Thumb thereafter but some took the ruling seriously. Beattie notes ‘there was still a great deal of wife beating’ in the eighteenth century. Marder notes that mid nineteenth-century criminal records show on average nearly 1,500 cases a year of aggravated assault on wives.

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