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Crime in England and Wales 1500-1750 - 30 credits (HS1841)

Module Tutor: Dr Garthine Walker

Course Description

This Advanced Option explores the nature of and attitudes to crime and punishment in early modern England and Wales. Through a dialogue between intensive primary source analysis and close readings of secondary literature, we shall evaluate the assumptions that underpin the history of crime. The range of unlawful activities covered include murder and other homicides such as duelling, spousal murder, and infanticide; property crimes from simple theft and burglary to highway robbery and piracy; the speech crimes of sexual slander, scolding, and sedition; witchcraft, and sexual offences such as rape and sodomy. We may structure our discussions of individual topics and their historiographies around several connected themes. The most prevalent of these is culpability: on what basis did early modern people ascribe guilt or innocence to those prosecuted, and to what extent were beliefs about full or partial culpability reflected in sentences and punishments? We shall discover that culpability was rarely a straightforward concept, but rather has to be considered in relation to several other categories, including class and status, gender, age, honour, religion, and community. The issue of change over time is addressed throughout the module. In order to explore these issues, we shall engage with a rich array of primary sources. Many of these were produced by or about the legal process itself, such as witness testimony, confessions, indictments, legal manuals, legislation, officially sanctioned printed trial reports, ordinaries’ accounts of executions, and newspaper accounts of trials and punishments. We also examine the portrayal of crime, criminality and the courts in a number of other popular forms, including the ‘street literature’ of pamphlet accounts of murder and witchcraft and ballads, criminal biographies, and plays.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: not running in 2013/14

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures, seminar discussion of major issues and workshops for the study of primary source material. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

Seminar and Source Workshops:
The primary aim of the sessions will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants, focused in particular on primary source material. Seminars and source workshops for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students:

(a) to discuss topics or issues introduced by the lectures,

or (b) to discuss related themes, perhaps not directly addressed by the lectures, but drawing on ideas culled from those lectures.

and (c) to analyse different types of primary sources available, discussing the principal ways in which they can be used by historians.

Seminars and source workshops will provide the student with guidance on how to critically approach the various types of primary source material. Preparation for seminars and workshops will focus on specific items from the sources and related background reading, with students preparing answers to questions provided for each session. Both seminars and source workshops will provide an opportunity to discuss and debate the issues with fellow students. Classes will be divided into smaller groups for discussion purposes, with the results presented as part of an overall class debate at the end of the session.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one essay relating to primary sources [20%], an assessed essay [30%] and an examination paper [50%].

Course assignments:

The Assessed Essay relating to primary sources will contribute 20% of the final mark for the module and must be no longer than 1,000 words.

The Assessed Essay will contribute 30% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words.

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Summary of course content

  • Early modern crime & primary sources
  • The historiography of early modern crime
  • Homicide: legal categories & criminal justice
  • Domestic killing & popular print
  • Homicide trial reports
  • The duel
  • New-born child murder
  • Infanticide trial transcripts
  • Theft & other property crimes
  • ‘Decline of violence’ debate
  • Sexual violence: rape & its attempt
  • Sexual ‘deviance’: sodomy & cross-dressing
  • Unlawful words: scolding, slander & sedition
  • Witchcraft: an exceptional crime?
  • The Witch of Edmonton: pamphlet & play
  • Punishment: from torturing the body to reforming the soul?
  • A criminal underworld? I Ballads, pamphlets, & newspapers
  • A criminal underworld? II John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera

Learning outcomes

  • display a comprehensive critical understanding of the history and historiographies of crime and criminal justice in early modern England and Wales
  • elucidate and evaluate a detailed critical understanding of the relative merits and demerits of a range of interpretations of early modern crime, deviance and punishment
  • demonstrate a detailed understanding of the nature and significance of primary sources for the history of crime, including potential problems they pose and how historians have or may best overcome them
  • present their analyses and arguments clearly and concisely in one 1,000 word non-assessed assignment and one 2,000 word assessed essay in accordance with the scholarly conventions of historical writing, and in examination answers

Skills that will be practised and developed

  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
  • formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • an ability to modify as well as to defend their own position.
  • an  ability to think critically and challenge assumptions
  • an ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.
  • time management skills and an ability to independently organise their own study methods and workload.
  • work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions.   

Suggested preparatory reading

John Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England 1660–1800 (1986)
Malcolm Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (2001)
Cynthia Herrup, The Common Peace: Participation and the Criminal Law in Seventeenth-Century England (1987)
Mark Jackson, New Born Child-Murder: Women, Illegitimacy and the Courts in Eighteenth-Century England (1996)
Alexandra Shepard, The Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (2003)
Garthine Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (2003)
Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913 (, version 7.0, 24 March 2012).