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Gender and Petty Violence in London, 1680-1720 (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 40, Number 2, Winter 2006
pp. 508-510 | 10.1353/jsh.2007.0039

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Reviewed by
Gender and Petty Violence in London, 1680–1720. By Jennine Hurl-Eamon ( Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2005. xii plus 213 pp. $44.95).

Jennine Hurl-Eamon's Gender and Petty Violence in London, 1680-1720 joins a rapidly expanding field of historical violence studies, and the book's focus on "petty" violence—physically or verbally aggressive acts seen as "relatively minor, but nonetheless unacceptable" (2)—fits squarely within the historiographic turn from spectacular crime toward violence's role in daily life. Based on lower-court records, it relies heavily on "recognizances," which compelled offenders to appear in court, answer for their crimes and possibly face one of several minor punishments. While not uncharted territory, such sources remain under-researched, and, as shown here, they offer vivid glimpses of life in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century London. Where the author tries to break new ground is in arguing that the gendered nature of violence has been overstated.

Part one, "Prosecutors," illuminates a legal milieu which featured broad official discretion in defining offences and setting punishments. Confirming the well-established image of a society that tolerated violence, Hurl-Eamon also explores the contested margins of that tolerance. She depicts prosecutors as "savvy litigants" and court confrontations as exercises in "self-fashioning" (16) that reveal a strategic "competition for victimhood" (17) used to "gain power before the law" (22). Building upon this perspective, the historiographical consensus on the legal and public disinterest in curbing men's violence against women is questioned. For example, although felony rape prosecutions were difficult, expensive [End Page 508] and usually futile, prosecutions for lesser offences—which often led to fines—frequently succeeded, and some classes of assault victims (e.g., pregnant women and battered wives) won "a narrow margin of power before the courts" by appealing to social and judicial sympathies (61). While such uses of the legal system are significant, it is questionable whether such narrow margins and minor victories fundamentally challenge current historiography.

Is seems, for instance, neither surprising nor "paradoxical" that assault victims—whether men or pregnant women—aimed at "stressing their weakness in order to strengthen their case" (30, 52), although this is repeatedly emphasized. The analysis also relies too heavily on a vague notion of "empowerment." While female prosecutors may have had some success in the lower courts, they, as the author points out, often had few other choices, needed to fit their complaints within narrow categories of victimization and had to be satisfied with the lenient penalties that courts often imposed. Perhaps this was better than nothing, but depicting these results as "empowerment" strains the evidence and is analytically unhelpful. Similarly, men's willingness to present themselves as victims is interesting (if, again, not quite unexpected); nonetheless their prosecutions do not support the claim that "the thousands of male assault victims were not afraid of losing their masculinity by describing their injuries from an attack" (24). Perhaps these men were indeed risking their masculinity but prosecuted anyway, or maybe the kinds of assaults they suffered obviated any risk. What if the prosecutors in these cases were not representative of all men? Furthermore, "masculinity" has always involved a complicated set of cultural meanings and social relationships, being more a matter of degrees than a possession to be simply won or lost.

The impression that a potentially more subtle analysis is sacrificed to an enthusiasm for broad-brush revisionism is confirmed in part two, "Perpetrators." Here the focus is on violence in the contexts of private disputes, rioting and political protest. A variety of interesting material is presented; however, the most obvious problem is that recognizances, which were previously depicted as the tools of "savvy" victims strategically using the court system to their own advantage, are henceforth treated as reliable sources for reconstructing patterns in real violence. For this and other reasons, some of the author's conclusions about gender and violence do not withstand closer scrutiny.

In particular, the quantitative evidence upon which the book so heavily relies should have been used more carefully. Citing only one of several problematic instances, it is calculated that 31 percent of assault recognizances against male perpetrators involved "damage...