- Female Criminality in the British Courts from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century
At first glance, Karen Jones's Gender and Petty Crime in Late Medieval England, Gregory Durston's Victims and Viragos, Deirdre Palk's Gender, Crime and Judicial Discretion, and Deborah A. Symonds's Notorious Murders, Black Lanterns, and Moveable Goods make a disparate group. Palk and Durston deal with crime in eighteenth-century London, while Jones's focus is many centuries before and centers on Kent. Symonds, by contrast, examines early-nineteenth-century Edinburgh. Jones makes use of documents from a wide range of jurisdictions, including quarter sessions, ecclesiastical, manorial, and leet courts. Symonds has instead focused her energies on only one courtroom, mining the depositions and printed literature surrounding an infamous trial of 1828. Palk and Durston also hone in on one court in particular, though in their case it is London's Old Bailey, and both cover much more than a single year. Durston traces certain types of cases in the Old Bailey Proceedings throughout the eighteenth century, whereas Palk begins her study of these records in 1780 and ends with 1830. Though geographically and/or temporally distinct, each of the four books offers insight into women's experiences in the criminal justice system, and each [End Page 161] considers the ways in which gender may have played an important part in these experiences.
Taken as a whole, these studies expose the difficulty of writing a single history of femininity and crime. All have purported to do this, more or less, yet each has taken a vastly different approach. After outlining the authors' contributions to discussions of female involvement in violent and property crimes, this essay will explore the ways in which each has advanced our understanding of the many agents affecting the perpetration and disposition of female crimes, and finally assess their interpretations of the role of gender in judicial discretion.
An overall issue that has plagued historians writing on violence in Britain has been the degree to which women were seen as violent and charged with acts of aggression in the past. The current picture is that women were considerably less violent than men, but were not exempt from charges of minor aggression like assault.1 Durston's work certainly accepts this at face value and attributes the eighteenth century's low levels of female murderers at the Old Bailey to women's lesser propensity to indulge in physical attacks. Jones, too, acknowledges the fact that the "proportion of female assailants . . . is startlingly low" in medieval Kent (70). Both Jones and Durston speculate that the true nature of women's violence is distorted in the legal records—the former connecting the low levels to the fact that physical aggression was instead often prosecuted as verbal, and the latter contending that the male victims of women's attacks would have avoided formally charging them out of humiliation. Symonds and Palk tend to avoid openly speculating about the lower numbers of women charged with violent crimes. Palk instead chooses to focus upon the types of crimes at the Old Bailey that do contain high female involvement: shoplifting, pick-pocketing, and false money. Though Symonds's book deals with homicide, she, too, investigates the women in the murder case more for their economic motivations than their bloodthirst.
Karen Jones devotes a considerable amount of space to the category of "verbal violence," and it is here, she...