Women Thieves in Early Modern England: What Can We Learn from Narrative Sources?

Women Thieves in Early Modern England: What Can We Learn from Narrative Sources?

By Armel Dubois-Nayt

Études Épistémè, No.14 (2008)

Introduction:  It is only with the renewal of social history in the 1980s and 1990s that women’s petty crime became a field of historical research per se and that women thieves started to recover their place in an accurate representation of the past. Earlier attempts made by historians of crime had not been convincing. Their works continued to bear the marks of gender prejudice or distorted historical truth by developing ontological theories on the natural tendency of women towards crime. Women’s history has inherited some of these misconceptions and it is still common today to read about so-called women’s crimes: namely witchcraft, infanticide and scolding for the early modern period. And yet, most women offenders in early modern England were thieves. It seems, therefore, that “women’s crimes” as a category of analysis should be revisited to encompass not only the spectacular but also the ordinary, as I will now argue.

According to the Assize records for Sussex which cover the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), 12 women were tried in that county and over that period of time for witchcraft, 24 for infanticides and 127 for all kinds of theft. Property crimes were, therefore, by far the most common type of criminal behaviour amongst women, just as they were amongst men. This has been overshadowed by the urge to introduce gender into the history of crime along with the related principle of the sex gap. This was facilitated by two series of data ready for use by historians: one, on the one hand, that showed the under-representation of women amongst property offenders, and another, on the other hand, that proved that an overwhelming majority of people indicted at the time for witchcraft and infanticide were, indeed, women.

Yet, with hindsight, it seems that by concentrating so much on the marginal aspects of women’s criminal behaviour, historians have proved that gender as a category of analysis is a double-edged ideological tool and can serve to widen the gap between men and women instead of emphasizing their common experiences. Today the history of women’s petty crime in early modern England has made up for lost time thanks to historians such as James Anthony Sharpe, Garthine Walker, J. M. Beattie and J.S. Cockburn, who was the first to pioneer this field of research. Their statistical reviews of the period have made us more familiar with the idiosyncrasies of these women whilst underlining the ties that bound them to their male counterparts. They have established a series of paradigms that I will sum up briefly as an introduction to my own research.

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