- Nature's Cruel Stepdames: Murderous Women in the Street Literature of Seventeenth Century England
Over the past decade, the print culture of early modern England has been the subject of considerable inquiry, with scholars paying increasing attention to the prose pamphlet, a genre that, like other street literature, catered to a variety of audiences spanning a broad social spectrum. By the 1580s, the market for inexpensive reading matter had become lucrative for London printers and booksellers. The proliferation of printed texts coextended with a number of social developments, including an increase in literacy and improvements in print technology that made print more affordable and more profitable. Pamphlets and other print genres such as almanacs, sermons, and ballads could be purchased cheaply from street-sellers, and covered a wide variety of topics ranging from foreign wars and Reformation polemics to natural calamities and sensational crimes. Although a number of recent book-length studies have focused on the early modern crime pamphlet, only a few of the texts have been reproduced in modern editions. In Nature's Cruel Stepdames, Susan Staub brings together eleven seventeenth-century pamphlets, published from 1604-92, that exploit the widespread fascination in early modern England with sensational "true" accounts of domestic crimes perpetrated by women. The edition is a valuable contribution to the scholarship on early modern popular, non-literary prose.
Although many crime pamphlets of the period were published anonymously, most of the authors seem to have been clergymen. Invariably, the title pages assert the authors' intent to instruct readers in virtue, yet "even religious figures wrote because these stories were so titillating" (6). The authored pamphlets included in the collection are Henry Goodcole's The Adultresses Funerall Day and Natures Cruel Step-Dames: or, Matchlesse Monsters of the Female Sex; Gilbert Dugdale's A True Discourse Of the practises of Elizabeth Caldwell; Thomas Brewer's The Bloudy Mother; Richard Watkins's Newes from the Dead. Or a True and Exact Narration of the miraculous deliverance of Anne Greene; and N. Partridge and J. Sharp's Blood for Blood. Five of the pamphlets included were published anonymously: they are Deeds Against Nature, and Monsters by kinde; Murther, Murther. Or, A bloody Relation how Anne Hamton . . . by poyson murthered her deare husband; A Hellish Murder Committed by a French Midwife; A pittilesse Mother, That most unnaturally at one time, murthered two of her owne Children; and Fair Warning to Murderers of Infants. In transcribing the texts, Staub has conservatively modernized and carefully annotated them, making them accessible both to scholars and students of the early modern period, as well as to readers interested in literary, social, and economic history, women's studies, and cultural studies.
In a comprehensive and informative introduction, Staub situates the domestic-crime pamphlet within its sociocultural contexts. Notwithstanding the proliferation of the figure of the criminal woman in the pamphlet literature, the actual number of violent crimes committed by women was small; yet new laws [End Page 279] increasingly made it easier to prosecute women for committing adultery and infanticide and for bearing illegitimate children. The crime pamphlets engage early modern society's ambivalence toward the construction of ideal womanhood at a time when anxiety about women's power and sexuality was increasing. Depicting women who murder their husbands and children "as both powerful and weak, sympathetic and sinister," the texts suggest that domestic conflict marks a shift, "however dubious," in women's social status, and that their portrayal of women executed for their actions indicates a new awareness of them "as individuals" (8).
In selecting the pamphlets for inclusion in the volume, Staub's aim was to combine representative texts with those that recount events in distinctive ways. Deeds Against Nature, for example, is a fairly conventional rendering of an unmarried mother's murder of her newborn child, and Murther, Murther typically tells of a husband's murder by his wife, whose violence is portrayed as a shocking act of...