chapter  5
18 Pages

Women, witchcraft and the legal process


The problem of gender is one that has only recently begun to attract the attention of historians of crime, of the law, and of the operation of legal systems. There have, of course, been a number of works that have demonstrated th~ potential fruitfulness of variolls lines of approach: the different participation rates of the two sexes in various types of offence; male and female involvement in litigation, perhaps most notably in church court slander cases; and on such gender related (or indeed gender specific) matters as infanticide and scolding. 1 Yet it remains clear that considerable work needs to be done both in charting the statistical contours of such matters as prosecutions brought against men and women, and the punishments inflicted upon them, as well as in using court records to help to understand gender as a sO':ial construct, as a bundle of assumptions or attitudes about how men and women should behave. 2 The difficulties in following such a course are, unfortunately, more severe when women are under consideration. The English legal system was run by men, the statutes it enforced were drawn up and promulgated by men, and the English common law seemed designed to constrain the rights of women as much as possible. 3 At first sight then, it would seem that historians studying the relationship between women and the legal process in the past have had their task restricted to doing little more than cataloguing the ways in which women were disadvantaged.