- Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England
In this stimulating book Randall Martin provides an authoritative analysis of the way murders allegedly committed by women were reported in the popular press in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He begins with fascinating puzzle: even though women accused of murder were at a disadvantage relative to men so accused - see the work of Garthine Walker and Susan Dwyer Amussen on this point - county records show that women were discharged or acquitted in greater proportion than men. Martin partially locates the origins of this discrepancy in an unlikely source: the growth of popular crime news, which while recirculating traditional negative images of wicked women (murderous wives and unnatural mothers), nevertheless also 'nurtured discourses of social and legal equity towards female homicide. 'Equity, the legal principle that allows for the mitigation of penalties in extenuating circumstances, is thus central to Martin's analysis. He argues that, in spite of the obvious hostility to the accused evident in most accounts, readers were nevertheless capable of reaching alternative interpretations, which in some cases permitted a degree of sympathy with the alleged murderers. In support of this argument Martin draws on a wide range of primary sources - court records, private correspondence, medical notes, legal manuals, advice books, plays, broadside ballads, pamphlets, gallows speeches, reports of trial and executions, and newspapers - offering careful, sober, and sophisticated analyses of dozens of harrowing texts [End Page 253] (e.g., Dreadful News from Southwark: or, A True Account of the Most Horrid Murder Committed by Margaret Osgood on Her Husband Walter Osgood ).
Martin organizes his study into an introduction, four substantial chapters, and a brief conclusion. Chapter 2 focuses on the tension between official and extrajudicial viewpoints in two controversial cases of women convicted of petty treason and burned for murdering their abusive husbands. In his third chapter Martin examines the gallows conversion as a social and a represented practice that allowed varying degrees of resistance on the part of the condemned and drew a range of responses from spectators and readers. Chapter 4 is devoted to the fascinating topic of poison, widely considered to be a woman's weapon (see Snow White's apple, Lord Randal's eels), and the first recourse of the adulteress wanting to kill her husband (see Alice Arden). Nevertheless, Martin argues, the increasingly secular and material analyses of evidence in crime reports prompted diverse responses even to female poisoners. In his final chapter Martin considers cases of infanticide and child murder. Like poisoning, infanticide was viewed as a particularly female crime and one that violated a sacred bond. In spite of the demonization of the 'unnatural mother' rampant in the popular printed news, however, juries were frequently unwilling to convict women charged with infanticide.
Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England makes melancholy but salutary reading. It illuminates uncomfortably the world of domestic violence in early modern England and reminds us again and again that readers (and jurors) are agents and not simply tabulae rasae. Genuinely interdisciplinary, this book will be of interest to any scholar of seventeenth-century England and especially one engaged by the intersection of crime, gender, and popular culture.
Karen Bamford, Department of English Literatures, Mount Allison University