‘Angels with dirty faces’: Violent women in early modern Scotland

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The study of violence and violent activity is one that has engaged scholars for generations. It has only been relatively recently, however, and especially in relation to the early modern period, that any analysis of this type has involved violent female behaviour. Traditionally, historians have tended to marginalize women’s involvement in violent criminal activity in that era, arguing that it was uncharacteristic and uncommon. As Pieter Spierenburg has argued, violence was a male culture in which women did not participate.1 Instead, more attention has been paid to women’s role as victims, and to male offenders, who were believed to dominate criminal indictments as far as aggressive behaviour was concerned.2 The reasons for this anomaly are not clear. Scholars have long held the view that women never strayed from the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, that females relished their role as the ‘gentler sex’, and that as a result they steadfastly remained within familiar and fixed ideological limits.3 Furthermore, the only perceived exceptions 2 See, for instance, John M. Beattie, ‘The Criminality of Women in Eighteenth Century England’, Journal of Social History 8 (1975): 80; Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, 1996), 152; Sharon Howard, Law and Disorder in Early Modern Wales: Crime and Authority in the Denbighshire Courts, c. 1660-1730 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008); James A. Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England 1550-1750, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, 1999); and Garthine Walker and Jennifer Kermode, introduction to Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England, ed. Jennifer Kermode and Garthine Walker (London: UCL Press, 1994), 4. For more on women’s role as victims, see Anna Clark, Women’s Silence, Men’s Violence: Sexual Assault in England 1770-1845 (London: Pandora, 1987); Elizabeth A. Foyster, Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660-1857 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Frank McLynn, Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Routledge, 1989), ch. 6.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFemale Transgression in Early Modern Britain: Literary and Historical Explorations
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9781317135883
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016
Externally publishedYes


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