"rule of thumb" revisited

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sun Dec 10 19:02:02 UTC 2006

A great find, Bonnie. It suggests that the "rule of thumb" canard may have been spread by actual historians rather than the fantasizing masses.


Bonnie Taylor-Blake <taylor-blake at NC.RR.COM> wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Bonnie Taylor-Blake
Subject: Re: "rule of thumb" revisited

Gerald Cohen wrote:

> A while back there was an ads-l discussion about the
> possible rationale for "rule of thumb." I just noticed a
> website which discusses this issue, including the incorrect
> interpretation that a man with a cheating wife was permitted
> to beat her if the rod used for this punishment was no
> thicker than a thumb. See
> http://www.debunker.com/texts/ruleofthumb.html

I know this is getting rather far afield (and I wasn't around for the last
discussion), but I just wanted to mention that when it came to wife-beating
in medieval Wales there apparently *was* a sort of
rule-of-the-middle-finger, so to speak. Or at least according to scholars
of medieval Wales (and I'm not one).

Of course, sharing the following is in no way meant to support the notion
that the phrase "rule of thumb" stemmed from various wife-beating practices.
I'm merely providing this text because I think it illustrates that at least
some ancient legal types seemed to have paid attention to "rod dimensions"
when it came to disciplining the old lady.

-- Bonnie

(From Dafydd Jenkins and Morfydd E. Owen. _The Welsh Law of Women: Studies
Presented to Professor Daniel A. Binchy on His Eightieth Birthday, 3 June
1980_. [Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1980]. ISBN 0-7083-0771-X.)

"The main source of our knowledge of the Welsh law of women is the tractate
which in some manuscripts is clearly marked off as containing _Cyfraith (or
_Cyfreithiau_) y Gwragedd_; it is found in some form in all the most
important books of _Cyfraith Hywel_. In [_Llyfr Iorwerth_], the tractate is
introduced by the rubric 'Eman e dechreun ny o kyureythyeu e guraged' (Here
we begin the laws of women), and ends with the words: 'Ac uelly e teruena
keureyth e guraged' (and thus ends the law of women).'" [p. 2]


"If a wife leaves her husband's bed and fails to allow him his conjugal
rights she has to pay him a minor fine or *camlwrw* [42] before she is
allowed to return *quia dominus eius est*. Likewise, the uttering of
shameful words make a wife liable to *camlwrw*. [43] *Camlwrw* is the minor
fine, specified as consisting of three kine, which is normally paid to the
king or territorial lord. The husband could accept this payment of
*camlwrw* or 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. [44] If he took revenge in
this way, he could not exact his fine; for revenge and compensation were not
allowed for the same offence in Welsh law. The shameful words that a woman
was not allowed to utter are specified in another triad: a woman was not
allowed to wish a blemish on his beard (to cast aspersions on his virility),
wish dirt on his teeth, or call him a cur. [45] Wrongfully giving away
property was also a beatable offence, since the kind of property a wife is
allowed to part with is specified and determined by actual status of the
husband. [46]" [p. 52]

[42] Bleg 61.20.
[43] Bleg 61.15; Lat A Section 52/43: Lat D 341.37: Lat B 223.10
[44] Bleg 61.17
[45] Ior Section 51/3.
[46] Ior Section 51/6-8.


"Bleg" is S.J. Williams and J.E. Powell (ed.), _Cyfreithiau Hywel Dda yn
ol Llyfr Blegywryd _ (_The Laws of Hywel Dda or The Book of Blegywryd_);
Cardiff, 1942; second edition, 1961.
"Ior" is A.R. William (ed.), _Llyfr Iorwerth_ (_The Book of Iorwerth_);
Cardiff, 1960.
"Lat" represents five redactions in Latin that correspond closely to the
Books of Cyfnerth, Blegywryd, and Iorwerth.

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