Gender, crime and the local courts in Kent, 1460-1560
This thesis examines gender differentiation in prosecutions for minor offences in local secular and ecclesiastical courts in Kent from 1460 to 1560. Chapter one explains the need for research on gender and crime in local courts, and for studies bridging the historiographical gap between medieval and early modem England. Chapter two examines crimes against property, arguing that reasons other than gender may explain the apparent lenience towards female thieves. Women were disproportionately prosecuted for small thefts and peripheral offences like hedgebreaking and receiving: this could indicate, not that they lacked initiative, but that they were more likely to be prosecuted for offences which were overlooked when committed by men. The reverse appears to be true for physical violence, the subject of chapter three. Here the evidence suggests that men were charged for very minor assaults, whereas minor violence by women was only prosecuted in special circumstances. Almost equal numbers of men and women were prosecuted for verbal offences, the subject of chapter four, but the women were accused mainly of scolding or quarrelling with their social equals, and the men of insulting or slandering their social superiors. Chapter five deals with prosecutions for sexual misconduct. Thechurch courts were relatively lenient towards females accused of fornication or adultery-, both ecclesiastical and secular jurisdictions, however, prosecuted `bawds', who were mainly female, and prostitutes, but rarely the men who used their services. Chapter six is concerned with alleged sorcerers (mainly women), and with sabbath breakers, illegal games-players and vagabonds (largely men). The concluding chapter discusses the similarity of the policies of the ecclesiastical and secular courts, and the tendency for charges against women to be vague and generalised while those against men were specific. It then focuses on the different crimes for which men and women were typically presented, particularly sexual and verbal offences for women and physical assault for men. These and other gendered offences reflect contemporary assumptions and fears about femininity and masculinity: women were expected to be quarrelsome, malicious gossips and sexual delinquents, while physical violence was expected and feared in men. It is suggested that the way local courts exercised their considerable discretion over what, and whom, to prosecute reflected and reinforced these preconceptions, and operated both to control women and to minimise men's fears about them.