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Reviewed by:
  • Crime, Justice, and Discretion in England 1740–1820, and: Gentrification and the Enterprise Culture: Britain 1780–1980
  • Albert J. Schmidt
Crime, Justice, and Discretion in England 1740–1820. By Peter King (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 H.c., 2003 Pb. xiii plus 383 pages. $95 H.c. and $35 Pb).
Gentrification and the Enterprise Culture: Britain 1780–1980. By F. M. L. Thompson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001 H.c. and 2003 Pb. ix plus 200 pages. $45 H.c.; $24.95 Pb).

Although it may seem odd to treat these two works in a single review, they claim affinity in that the focus of each, admittedly nebulously, is on the social history of property. They are seminal, too, in that they reflect the failure of old historical models in the face of new empirical research. The dominance of the “bloody code” in recounting eighteenth-century English criminal justice is quite [End Page 259] as much challenged by King as conventional notions of England’s landed elite are by Thompson.

King’s method is one of examining the details in each stage of the criminal justice process—the pretrial phase, offences and defenders, and trial and punishment. Its yield is remarkable: instead of the law’s having unfolded as an instrument of the propertied for terrorizing and exploiting the propertyless, it lent itself quite as much to negotiation, accommodation, and compromise. The law, it turns out, effectively limited as well as permitted elitist excesses. Douglas Hay notwithstanding, the law was pluralistic, shaped by interacting groups in English society. That it allowed for discretion, lots of it, leads King to label his period “the golden age of discretionary justice”.

King’s stunning conclusions are hardly more compelling than his methodology. Scrutinizing the stages of the criminal justice process—a task which entailed sifting Essex and other county criminal records—while herculean, produced rewarding empirical results. The reader is hard put to doubt conclusions based on detailed encounters with victims, magistrates, and offenders in the context of crime patterns, life-cycle change of offenders, trials, verdicts, sentencing and the impact of gender and age, pardoning, and the rituals of punishment . King has written a painstakingly researched work, the data of which have been analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively and organized for maximum effect. Although this book lays to rest once and for all the myth of the “bloody codes” as a terrorist device against property offenders, it does not blithely discard the harshness of Georgian criminal justice. King shows how gallows-certainty was tempered with discretion that allowed for a variety of outcomes in property offences.

However central property was to gentrification, the felonious accumulation of it and the consequences for having done so are not remotely Thompson’s concern. Nor did he engage in the kind of empirical research undertaken by King. Rather Thompson’s very small and readable book is a distillation—his 1994 Ford Lectures—of a lifetime’s research on England’s landed aristocracy. His contribution writ large is one of summarizing, clarifying, and critiquing—essentially, in order to “explain the course of social and economic history in terms of the clash of cultures and the struggle for ascendancy between competing value systems” (p. 1). His vehicle for this undertaking is the nagging problem surrounding gentrification and entrepreneurialism, themes that have impinged mightily on English society as well as historiography.

In a nutshell, Thompson’s work examines the proposition that gentry culture, hailed as “the hero of expansion” (the gentry emulation hypothesis) for the eighteenth century, was for the twentieth century impugned as one of “stagnation and contraction” (the gentry debilitation hypothesis, p. 7). This is but another way of saying that Britain’s early economic dominance, stimulated by entrepreneurial striving for landed wealth and status, eventually faltered when a resultant gentry culture based on hierarchy and patriarchy undermined the once vibrant enterprise ethic. The author argues convincingly that the process was not so simple.

Thompson’s methodology merits recapitulation: In treating Aristocrats as Entrepreneurs (ch. 2) he finds no evidence that aristocratic values were monolithic. While some elites were self-indulgent, arrogant, and parasitic, there were entrepreneurial [End Page 260] types driven by profits. Arguably...

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