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About this book

Providing a rounded and coherent history of crime and the law spanning the past 400 years, Histories of Crime explores the evolution of attitudes towards crime and criminality over time. Bringing together contributions from internationally acknowledged
experts, the book highlights themes, current issues and key debates in the history of deviance and bad behaviour, including:

? marital cruelty and adultery
? infanticide
? murder
? the underworld
? blasphemy and moral crimes
? fraud and white-collar crime
? the death penalty and punishment.

Individual case studies of violent and non-violent crime are used to explore the human means and motives behind criminal practice. Through these, the book illuminates society's wider attitudes and fears about criminal behaviour and the way in which these influence the law and legal system over time. This fascinating book is essential reading for students and teachers of history, sociology and criminology, as well as anyone interested in Britain's criminal past.

Table of Contents


Popular and academic interest in crime and law has never been greater. Students study the subject of crime and its context in increasing numbers on history, criminology, media, film, social policy, and legal studies courses. Crime and legal issues are also avidly read and followed by the wider public through a wide range of media. Studies of crime and the law are also areas which inform the investigation of social and cultural history in ways that a previous generation of historians could scarcely imagine. This book offers a detailed and informed synthesis of the important research undertaken in crime and the contexts associated with it during the last few years.
David Nash, Anne-Marie Kilday

1. Moral Crimes and the Law in Britain since 1700

This chapter considers the history of how crime has been related, throughout the historical past, with the idea of collapsing moral standards. At a fundamental level, how a society considers the morality of its citizens is frequently a clear indicator of how it conceives its governing role. How far should a government’s laws and policies aim to protect its citizens from harm (either that perpetrated by others or themselves)? How much is this intention compromised by the phenomenon of individual rights and liberties which effectively evolved during this period? The history of these also shows us how the moral paternalism of the State has partially (but interestingly not wholly) been defined as constituting ‘the public interest’. More intriguingly, this demonstrates the inherent balancing act that any liberal democracy, such as the UK, must face up to. Essentially, government laws have to balance the protection of the vulnerable against permitting freedoms that enhance the lives of individuals. Since the arrival of urban societies, governments and policing authorities have expressed concerns about the growth of so called ‘moral crimes’. These are ‘crimes’ that are considered to have wider impacts outside the context of the individual crime. Drunkenness, for example, may not be a significant problem on its own, but in the domestic sphere, it may lead to accidents or interfamilial violence. In the public sphere, it may lead to interpersonal violence, public order offences, theft or other crimes.
David Nash

2. Cruelty and Adultery: Offences against the Institution of Marriage

From the early to the modern period, cruelty (acts categorised as violence which were committed by husbands against wives) and adultery (extramarital sex) have been considered as offences with grave consequences for church, government, courts, and communities, as well as for individuals themselves. This is because the English state has historically viewed harmonious, stable marital relationships as crucial to familial and household order, and in turn, as the bulwark against crime, immorality and disorder. Two main factors have been perceived to undermine marriage both as a public institution and as a personal relationship: acts categorised as cruelty and as adultery. As such they were two of the primary grounds for judicial separation and, in varying forms, divorce until the introduction of ‘no-fault’ divorce in 1969. Given their perceived risk to marriage and therefore society, they have been subject to informal and formal regulation over time. This chapter traces the regulation of both offences by the state through legislation, charts their changing representation in the print media, and presents the fundamental shifts in cultural attitudes that shaped both phenomena. Given the constraints of space no attempt will be made to measure the incidence of the offences, establish causality, or detail their conviction or punishment rates.1
Joanne Bailey

3. Desperate Measures or Cruel Intentions? Infanticide in Britain since 1600

For over 400 years, British society has debated whether women who kill their offspring should be pitied or punished. The longevity of the crime of infanticide itself, as well as the divergent reactions to its perpetration, has resulted in the enduring persistence of child murder in historical and contemporary discussions of criminality, and female criminality in particular.1 Infanticide (which in this chapter is taken to mean the murder of a newborn child)2 is a rare example of a gender-specific crime where men were seldom involved.3 As a result of this, historians, in particular, have been fascinated with the crime of infanticide, as by its very nature, it offers a unique insight into the female experience which is so often hidden from view. Apart from the criminal evidence itself, midwives and local women offered their ‘expertise’ in the courtroom and descriptions of pregnancy, birth and maternity (experiences most of the time hidden from men) were debated in the traditionally male-dominated sphere of legal practice.4
Anne-Marie Kilday

4. ‘Most Intimate Violations’: Contextualising the Crime of Rape

Apart from murder, the crime of rape is the most devastating in terms of its consequences and effect, and a much harder crime to prove, at least to the criminal law standard of beyond ‘all reasonable doubt’. Sexual intercourse is a very personal and private activity. Where consent is contested, cases will inevitably turn on whom the jury believe; the complainant or the man accused. Predictably, cultural and gendered stereotypes will dominate. Because of the very intimate nature of rape, independent evidence is rarely available, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a court to establish exactly what happened. Rape therefore presents significant and enduring problems for the law. This is exacerbated by the fact that, as Foucault surmised, people rarely speak the ‘truth’ about sex. From Victorian times sex became shrouded in myth and secrecy, making the true incidence of rape impossible to ascertain. Everyday language became desexualised, making it difficult for both sexes, but women in particular, to speak about sex openly and in explicit terms, thereby compromising the truth of their narratives, especially in the public delivery of courtroom testimony. Constructing a historiography of rape is, therefore, a considerable challenge and one compounded by the absence of information in the historical record, as official statistics and documents are often incomplete or unreliable, adding to the mystique.
Kim Stevenson

5. Murder and Fatality: The Changing Face of Homicide

The rates of lethal violence in English society have changed significantly since the Middle Ages. Viewed historically, fatal violence is best interpreted as an aspect of social interaction. Despite major changes in historical context and in the recorded incidence of homicide, patterns or ‘scenarios’ of killing seem far more durable over time. Therefore, we should ask whether the development of modernity meant alterations in behaviour so that people have less often resorted to extreme violence. Similarly, to what extent have historical changes in criminal justice and social regulation more widely served to inhibit extreme violence?
Shani D’Cruze

6. Criminality, Deviance and the Underworld since 1750

The underworld is a nebulous concept, not easy to capture and record. Whilst scholarly understandings recognise that crime and deviance are subject to networks, organisation and subcultures, the historical underworld has become obscured by cultural production. How to define the underworld is a problem. Thus it is not a ‘thing’ or a place; nor is it a set of practices, nor simply a literary construction. Our problems with definition lie in two broad areas. First, the underworld suggests something covert. The criminals who are associated with the underworld are those who are generally caught and have become involved in the criminal justice machinery. Yet a great deal of organised crime is undetectable, and certainly invisible to all but those most closely involved.1 As historians we can only hope to capture fragments of this covert world in its overlapping with the various branches of criminal justice. Secondly, the historical underworld has become defined by a series of vignettes. These are the stories of real life criminals and detectives that have shaped and continue to shape how we see the underworld. In many ways they are a set of myths, far removed from the original events or personalities involved.
Heather Shore

7. Fraud and White-collar Crime: 1850 to the Present

The contribution made by this chapter to the discussion of ‘histories of crime’ is an exploration of a number of dimensions of white-collar crime. The discussion will focus on exploring activity which in many respects does not appear to ‘fit’ with commonly held perceptions of criminal activity. Rather it is often presented as something which is somehow ‘different from’ other deviant behaviours, which are (much more readily) identified with criminality, and on occasions it is even suggested that it is seen as a ‘special’ type of deviance. Equally, these activities are perceived as causing considerable damage and being highly injurious across a range of societal interests. This is evident from the Attorney-General’s announcement during 2007 that ‘We are determined to tackle fraud — the “silent” crime that costs our economy and society so much: a minimum of £13.9 billion in 2005. If we can create a truly hostile environment for fraud in our society and economy, then we can reduce fraud.’1
Sarah Wilson

8. Policing the Populace: The Road to Professionalisation

The law does not exist in a vacuum, but is imposed by a variety of agencies, the most important of which are the police. As the entry-point to the criminal justice system, police have immense influence on which crimes are prosecuted, and which behaviour repressed, thus in order to understand how the criminal justice system has evolved, we need to know how policing has changed. The most influential starting point in the definition of policing is that of Egon Bittner, who claimed that the most distinctive characteristic of the police is that they are ‘a mechanism for the distribution of situationally justified force in society’.1 The officially generated definition of the role tends to reduce the police function to two main elements — crime control and order maintenance: the oath taken by British constables since the late sixteenth century specifically refers to the enforcement of the law, and to the preservation of the peace. Policing necessarily involves the exercise of discretion, often in situations where (in contrast to other points in the prosecution process) there are no clear-cut legal guidelines on the correct action to take. Hence it is paradoxically true that one thing that defines policing is the deliberate non-enforcement of the law when to do so would threaten to compromise the authority of the officer(s) concerned. Thus, police institutions are very strongly influenced by their culture and traditions; one reason why the study of police history is essential, if we are to understand the present.
Chris A. Williams

9. Execution as Punishment in England: 1750–2000

Capital punishment is the most extreme of the legislatively endorsed retributions dispensed by society to those convicted of offences deemed a serious threat to the community. This chapter examines execution in England in this socio-legal context, from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards.1 It charts the radical shifts in attitudes towards this punishment strategy that mark this period; one which witnessed a clear reconsideration of the moral case for using the death penalty but also scrutinised the manner of executions. Today in the UK, parliament effectively accepts that execution is no longer morally justifiable in a ‘civilised’ state.2
Judith Rowbotham
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