Garthine Walker - University of Warwick

Garthine Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early
Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
330 pp. ISBN 0521573564
Early modern gender history has been a dynamic area of scholarship
since the mid-1990s. Important monographs by Bernard Capp,
Anthony Fletcher, Laura Gowing and Alex Shepard have enhanced our
understanding of a patriarchal society obsessed with morality and social
order. Garthine Walker’s contribution offers a study of the dynamics of
social interaction and the role of gender as a dynamic force. Her work,
a history of social meanings, engages with debates in legal, political,
cultural, social and gender history. Walker weaves together quantitative
and qualitative analysis to explain how notions of gender and order
intersected and impacted on early modern practice and discourse.
Walker’s approach draws on the practice of social history ‘from
below’ and the positivist social science methodologies of existing
histories of crime. She uses the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin to argue that
law in early modern England was a negotiated concept used by women
and men to define themselves and others to bolster claims of legitimacy.
Records of Cheshire county quarter sessions, Palatinate great sessions
and cases brought before London-based courts by the people of
Cheshire form the core material of her study. Walker utilises a wide
range of clerical and popular literature as well. Her work focuses on
male and female violence, homicide and theft, moving away from a
consideration of ‘female’ crimes such as infanticide and witchcraft to
consider whether the law treated women and men committing the same
types of offences differently.
Early modern patriarchy endorsed violence as part of everyday
life. Violence was used by church and state, by social elites against the
lower orders, by elders against youths, and by masters and mistresses
against household subordinates. Walker demonstrates that the right of
patriarchs to use force against unruly subjects changed because the civil
war challenged notions of divinely ordained violence.
considerations of the mid-seventeenth century and changes in gender
discourse over time are important. Both have received little attention
due partly to historians’ heavy reliance on church court records for their
Walker argues that male violence was more acceptable than
women’s. Men displayed physical prowess to maintain honour, assert
self-identity and subordinate others. Physical retaliation was deemed an
appropriate response to affront. Male homicide was often classified as
manslaughter because it could result from male ritual fighting. By
contrast, ideas about female honour made it difficult to ascribe positive
connotations to women’s violence. Instead women talked of preserving
and saving household integrity in cases of domestic violence. They
stressed how men breached the physical and moral boundaries of their
households and bodies. Female vulnerability and weakness were utilised
in order to make male aggression unacceptable. Although few women
described themselves in entirely passive terms, they emphasised passive
resistance rather than active response. However the use of weapons,
pre-emptive strikes or poisoning by women accused of homicide did
not meet legal or social criteria of self-defence, and female homicides
were nearly always classified as wilful murder.
Walker suggests women operated within a culture of criminality
overlapping with and coexisting alongside that of men. What people
stole depended on gendered activities and knowledge. Women received
stolen goods during their everyday economic tasks and were more likely
to steal commodities they were responsible for marketing. Female
conviction rates were also affected by marital status. By contrast theft
by men was associated with boundary violation through burglary.
The law was an extension of household authority but usually only
a last resort when domestic order had broken down. Yet violent,
obstructive or disorderly behaviour was not blamed solely on moral
failings and the breakdown of authority. Walker argues that historians
should consider criminal actions and disorderly behaviour as methods
used to maintain the economic, social and moral integrity of the good
household, and notes the way in which the middling sort ascribed
particularly to this discourse.
Walker’s book is one of the first studies of early modern gender
to give equal weight to ordinary women and men. Its regional focus is
refreshing and raises questions of typicality and uniqueness that will
hopefully encourage further scholarship. Crime is moved from the
social margins and seen in terms of acts of protection and resistance.
Walker places households at the centre of social history, rightly giving
them as much importance as the people of early modern England.
Tim Reinke-Williams, University of Warwick
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