Crime, Gender, and Sexuality in Criminal Prosecutions

By Louis A. Knafla | Go to book overview

Female Criminality and Subversion in Early Modern Ireland

Andrea Knox

Female criminality and subversion in the early modern period has been the focus of several recent studies. 1 The work of Laura Gowing and Sharon L. Jansen on female crime in early modern England has highlighted both treasonous words and the language of insult as areas of particular focus for early modern authorities. 2 This kind of scholarship is a departure from early studies of English crime, which often conflated areas such as theft and moral crimes (such as adultery) and was often governed by modern conceptions of “serious crime” such as burglary, robbery, rape, and murder. 3 Studies that focus on specifically female crimes have moved recently from these “serious” areas where women were more often the victims or accomplices to crimes that women perpetrated. Female crime in the early modern period came to be defined increasingly as verbal and disruptive. From litigation over sexual insults to the relatively small number of English women tried for treasonous words, oral political resistance became a focus for English authorities. The background of specific tensions of the period offers an explanation for the concentrated focus upon female disorder. The growing influence of the reformation and the accompanying ideas of familial control helped to shape the ways in which society came to be organized. 4 The growing power structures in early modern England sought to regulate and order the lives of the population at every level of society. English courts began to deal more commonly with the unruly words of women, from the scolds and gossips through to the seditious and treasonous words of women. Scholars who have argued for the use of litigation together with women’s testimonies have shown women’s use of legal agency. 5

While these studies have broadened the focus of the history of female criminality in the early modern period, both American and European scholarship have tended to center on the experience of English and continental

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