chapter  III
3 Pages

III.8 Judicial sources

ByJOANNE MCEWAN

Judicial records – or official documents produced by the criminal justice system – comprise a substantial but often fragmentary body of extant sources for the study of historical emotions. Created at various points in the legal process, sources such as indictments, depositions and petitions can provide us with insights into the actions and behaviours that particular societies deemed unacceptable, as well as community responses, individual motivations and emotional investments. Social and gender historians have been utilizing these sources since the 1980s. More recently, emotions scholars have also begun to recognize how they can inform us about the emotions experienced and expressed by individuals, and also the expected emotional norms, regimes or styles of various settings. The social and emotional potential of these types of sources has not always been easily reconciled, however, with their official and formulaic nature. Early crime historians were careful to point out the mediated nature of legal sources. They were, for instance, always created in the wake of extraordinary circumstances, especially when they related to serious crimes, and they were always dictated by formal procedure and their purpose within a legal framework. This affected the way they were structured, the information they contained and the kinds of insights we can glean from them. Additionally, while we know a great deal about the legal processes that generated these documents, specific details about exactly how they were created are often lacking. Sources that read like personal narratives – confessions and depositions, for example – were in fact written down by third-party clerks, and this adds a layer of mediation: we do not know if and when the clerk left out certain details he regarded as irrelevant or unimportant, whether he altered phrasing, or whether the narrative was shaped by questions or requests for clarification that were not recorded. We should also not assume that people were not cognizant of the potential consequences of their legal testimony. This, along with other factors, influenced whether they said anything and, if so, how they framed what they said. So long as we keep these limitations in mind, however, legal sources can tell us about emotions in a number of ways.