Sara Butler

title.none: Jones, Gender and Petty Crime (Sara Butler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.020 08.04.20

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sara Butler, Loyola University of New Orleans,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Jones, Karen. Gender and Petty Crime in late Medieval England: The Local Courts in Kent, 1460-1560. Gender in the Middle Ages, vol. 2. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2006. Pp. vi, 241. $90.00 978-1-84383-216-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.20

Jones, Karen. Gender and Petty Crime in late Medieval England: The Local Courts in Kent, 1460-1560. Gender in the Middle Ages, vol. 2. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2006. Pp. vi, 241. $90.00 978-1-84383-216-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Sara Butler
Loyola University of New Orleans

The years 1460 to 1560 were a formative yet trying time in the history of England. To name but a few hurdles encountered by the island kingdom, the period opened with England faltering on both foreign and domestic fronts. Still reeling from its losses at the close of the Hundred Years' War, England plunged into a prolonged period of civil strife, further depleting the kingdom's already vitiated economy and striking a fatal blow to the English spirit and the people's deep- seated need for stability. The rise of the Tudors under Henry VII, whose cautious foreign policy and enforced frugality made way for a belated economic recovery and engendered a strong sense of English unity and pride, was certainly a highpoint in the middle of this period. Nonetheless, under his successors England's fragile economy and foreign reputation were once again at risk, not to mention the further damage to the English psyche caused by repeated religious upheavals under Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary Tudor that must have left most Englishmen and women asking themselves exactly what beliefs they were supposed to profess now. Because of the accelerated nature of change and a certain underlying sense of pandemonium apparent throughout this century, it is simply good sense to address the period as a whole. However, precisely because it is a time of transition, effectively straddling two ages (and disciplines of history), this century is almost never examined as a whole.

Over the past decade, spurred on by a desire to uncover the origins of a "crisis" in values evident in this turbulent era, a few brave historians have bucked tradition and transgressed "the Great Divide." Marjorie McIntosh's seminal work, Controlling Misbehavior in England, 1370-1600 (Cambridge, 1998), which highlighted the long- reaching roots of municipal concerns over specific forms of social misbehaviors, confirmed the need to reconnect the sixteenth century with the late Middle Ages in order to bring greater meaning to the somewhat eccentric qualities of early modern England. Karen Jones's Gender and Petty Crime in Late Medieval England follows in McIntosh's footsteps, eager to address the distinctly gendered nature of the anxiety plaguing this century. Although disappointing in its limited contribution to the debate, Jones's book undermines a number of fundamental assumptions about gendered expectations of the sixteenth century.

Jones is determined to demonstrate that the theory of a "crisis in gender relations" tied to the chaos of the era is not supported by the legal material. She pinpoints the erroneous conclusions of previous historians to an over-reliance on royal records. The royal courts offered male suspects alone benefit of clergy (and thus exemption from the death penalty). Because literacy was taken as an indicator of clergy, this was a vital form of mercy exploited by most men in an age of increasingly widespread literacy; and yet, it was an option unavailable to women (other than nuns) until 1623. This imbalance in process means that the courts could not treat men and women equally in cases of felony and thus, the very premise of a comparison of men and women's treatment in the courts is untenable. This is complicated by other factors, most specifically an overriding sense in the period that the king's courts were an inappropriate venue for the disciplining of women. Jones hopes to correct this vision by relying instead on local and ecclesiastical records, where women appeared frequently as defendants. Using these records, Jones performs a broad, numerical survey of the gendered participation in petty crimes and their treatment by the courts, including: offenses against property, assault, verbal violence, sexual misbehavior, witchcraft, Sabbath-breaking, gaming, and vagabondage. In the process, Jones makes a number of crucial observations. Where others have highlighted growing anxiety about women's anti-social behavior, Jones instead argues that male conduct was seen as a far more pressing concern. Egged on by the introduction of hopped beer during the 15th century, a much more potent but less expensive alternative to traditional ale, the increased drunkenness of Englishmen led to a new vision of masculinity intimately tied to drinking at the alehouse, and in turn prompting a whole host of misbehaviors, from unemployment, gaming, and ill rule to vagrancy. Increased anxiety also cast an ominous shadow on the conduct of women. Although, where others have focused on scolding (a form of verbal violence in which a person is prosecuted for being disruptive to his/her community), Jones suggests that there is no discernible crisis evident in cases of scold prosecution. Rather, Jones observes that the more significant change was the criminalization of certain forms of female misbehavior (such as witchcraft and infanticide), which ultimately meant that women's petty crimes carried greater consequences than did men's.

Studying such a broad range of crimes for this challenging period is no easy task. Certainly, the reason why most historians have shied away from bridging the gap between the eras is the double burden of historiography, requiring an extensive knowledge of both the medieval and the early modern secondary literature. Karen Jones's book demonstrates that she is exceptionally well-read in both histories and for all natures of crime involved (as evidenced by a fourteen-page bibliography of secondary sources). This great wealth of knowledge, however, has not always been put to the best of uses. The book suffers from several serious flaws.

Jones spends far more time on the historiography than she does on her own evidence. At times, this is understandable. Scolding, for example, is a subject of great controversy upon which few scholars have agreed except to argue that it was a woman's crime. Drawn to the enthusiasm of the debate, Jones provides an overwhelming summary of the historiography, listing argument after argument in her effort to examine the issue from every angle ever studied. The conclusion of her study, that there is no discernible increase in concern and that men and women were prosecuted in roughly equal numbers for verbal offences even if scolding itself was a female crime, is significant and does add to the debate; and yet, Jones's tedious reportorial writing style diminishes the value of her own conclusions, making them seem like an afterthought to the lengthy debate. Furthermore, Jones focuses too heavily on the weaknesses of her records. Jones expends much time on the many questions concerning the stereotype of the scold that she would like to answer (such as, marital status, age, repetitive quality of the crime), only to make it clear that her records are not of sufficient detail to comment. The debate over scolding is just one example of her tendency to overindulge in the secondary sources. A good two-thirds of the book would seem to be filled with other people's arguments. With such a specialist angle and selling at $90 USD, Jones's book is not going to attract a popular readership. Those reading it will be well aware of the historiographical debate. While it is important to establish her knowledge of the scholarship, the end result is that Jones does not appear to be saying much that is original.

Furthermore, with such a broad theme as gender to explore, Jones's book touches on a great diversity of issues, ranging widely from petty theft to witchcraft to rape (among others). All of these subjects are ones that have been written about extensively--how can one slim volume attempt to address all of these subjects adequately? Nor do the records lend themselves to a meaningful discussion of all these subjects. The reader is left with the distinct feeling that a series of articles focused where the records were most plentiful might have been more appropriate, masking the disjointed nature of the study.

Finally, while the author is to be commended highly for bridging the gap between eras and shouldering the double-burden of the scholarship, Jones fails to acknowledge the dangers of ranging too far afield. For example, given the radical changes in Christianity and the status of the church courts during the English Civil War and the Restoration, are historical studies centered on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries really relevant? Repeated reliance on records from such a late period implies continuity, not change, and would seem to undermine the premise of this study.

These flaws aside, legal historians will welcome Jones's study. With such a thorough analysis of the sources and chock-full of useful tables offering firm statistical evidence of gender distinctions, Jones's book will certainly become a touchstone for future studies of petty crime.