A Little Bit of Me

Jottings and Writing, miscellanous misgivings

Battered Husbands

2068014877_ac6c18d1c7_mThe “battered husband” is acknowledged in the historical record (Underdown and Underdown) and a matter established in folklore tradition (Barrett; Steinmetz; Steinmetz; Underdown and Underdown). In the UK, as in the rest of Europe, a tradition dating back at least as far as the 1500s signified a previous social acceptance of such a husband and social approbation for him, his wife and even his neighbours (see George, 2001). “Riding Skimmington” or “Skimmington” was the social vehicle used by the communities of towns and villages of England after this fashion to exert obedience to a norm that a husband should control his wife, and wives should show deference to husbands (Underdown, 1985a). Indeed, text (e.g. the Lutrell Psalter: twelfth century) and icons representative of the husband-beating wife and battered husband can be traced back in England to the Middle Ages. A thirteenth century stone carving (Speake, 1983) shows a woman hitting a prostrate man with a cheese skimming ladle, from which the word “Skimmington” derives. Another example from the very early 1600s is the plaster frieze depicting a wife beating her husband and a “Skimmington” procession. This is still in existence today at the great house at Montacute in Somerset, a part of England where such ritual processions were particularly evident according to the historical record (George, 2001).

In his detailed account of the customs of “Riding Skimmington” and “Riding the Stang,” Barret, in a paper presented to the British Archaeological Association in 1895 (Barrett, 1895), noted that “Riding Skimmington” or just “Skimmington” was the particular and elaborate custom intended to satirise and deride the husband beater and scold and punish the beaten husband. The remarkable aspect of “Skimmington” in its various regional performances was that it could not only be visited upon the hapless husband and husband beating wife, but also upon neighbors. Thus, Barrett quotes a sixteenth century reference as follows: “1562, Shrove Monday, at Charing Cross, was a man carried by four men, and before him a bagpipe playing, a shawm, and a drum beating, and twenty links burning about him. The cause was, his next neighbours wife beat her husband; it being so ordered that the next (emphasis original) should ride about the place to expose her.”

These customs can also be found to have occurred in other parts of Europe (Barrett; Davis; Shorter; Steinmetz; Underdown and Underdown) founded upon ancient customs of “Charivari.” While they took various forms and were used to admonish a range of social improprieties, the custom was at its most elaborate when dealing with the “domestic disorder” and the transgression against sex roles of the beaten husband and husband-beating wife (Barrett and Shorter). They included forcing the beaten husband to ride a donkey backwards in some continental customs (Davis, 1971). Citing earlier references of these customs in France, Shorter (1976) stated “In old regime France, where women were prized for their size and strength, it might well happen that a strapping peasant woman would shove her husband about with the result that a `Riding’ for the husband and sometimes the wife would ensue.” Such was the power of shame inherent for men in this, apparently, wives had little trouble getting their husbands to leave the bastion of male sanctity, the bar, voluntarily given that these wives were “ordinarily a little quick to strike out” according to contemporary report. In summary, it was noted that, whilst the subject of these rituals has received little academic attention, there is evidence for their existence, pre-nineteenth century, from New England to Bavaria at the very least (Shorter, 1976).

A host of male film actors have built their careers around the portrayal of violence, linked to masculinity, as seemingly reflective of the wider society in which men’s use of violence is accepted as “normal” and is legitimated by the attitudes of men generally (Archer,1994). This perhaps started with roles played by such actors as John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart in films immediately before and after the Second World War and has continued. Few realize, however, the irony or the reality, that despite their portrayals of a “Macho” masculinity in film, both John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart suffered violence from a wife in real life. John Wayne by his second wife, Conchita Martinez. 2 Humphrey Bogart from his wife, Mayo Methot, who was described by contemporary observers as having a vicious “right hook” (Bogart & Provost, 1995). The heroic and manly screen personas they portrayed arguably became icons of mid-twentieth century masculinity, which is a stark and manifest contrast to their actual life experience as one time “battered husbands.”

Henry is a quiet, home loving man who dotes on his wife. He is so kind and considerate he gets up his wife’s nose. So, every few months, she punches him in the face and breaks his nose to teach him a lesson. (Police, The Voice of the Service, February 1995, p. 28)

She was extremely aggressive. She had bitten her husband all over his body and broken his skin. She had scratched and cut his face to pieces. (Police Sargent Sue Reed quoted in Cosmopolitan, UK, February 1995)

Men were recruited through newspaper adverts and the survey found that 50% reported their female partner used a weapon in assaults upon them; 25% had been stabbed; and 33% had been kicked in the groin. Kicking, punching, scratching, clawing, biting, and burning with cigarette ends were amongst the assault methods described. One-third stated they had been suffered assaults when asleep, which included assaults using such items as knives or a hammer. Sleep deprivation was also commonly reported along with other forms of nonphysical abuse. Police officers were particularly identified as being unsympathetic to these male victims.

He not so much as jerked awake as rose from the dead, screaming, sweating, and gasping for breath. Vividly, he recalled the donkey under him, he facing backwards. Excruciating, he recalled the wooden ladle striking his bare buttocks, over and over again, until they streamed with blood. Horrifically, he recalled the gloating visage of Emma, as she vigorously went about her work. Thank God, it had been a dream. Then, he looked down at his naked body. His slight, pale, thighs were crisscrossed with angry, red welts. He saw that his pubic hair, once bushy and prolific was now but stubble. He saw the spreading bruise down his right leg. He shook his head feeling like a Labrador dog emerging from water, and tried to form a memory of hos this had happened. He remembered the pre-bed hot chocolate and the near instantaneous sleep. He had been drugged! She had done it again. Drugged, branded, shorn, and beaten.


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