Women’s Criminality in Europe, 1600–1914 is an edited volume exploring major themes in the history of women and crime. The book’s stated purpose is to “shift the attention from the norms in the history of women and crime to the contextualisation of everyday practices of the crimes of women in early modern and modern Europe. We believe that contextualisation is the key to understanding female crime, its representation and its variation in time and space.” (p. 4) This approach is designed to explain both why women committed crimes and which crimes they committed. The contributors seek to balance the “cultural turn” with socio-economic explanations.
The volume begins with two chapters by the editors which readers will find particularly instructive. The introduction emphasizes the important reality that cannot be overstated – that past prejudices have been replicated by more modern-day historians. The editors repeatedly emphasize the significant reminder that the proportion of reported crime was markedly different before 1900 and runs contrary to the assumptions of many modern criminologists.
As noted in the introduction, there has been greater scholarship on the northern Atlantic nations of England, Netherlands, and, to a lesser extent, France. This volume does reproduce this emphasis, with an excursion to Australia. The editors do sometimes refer to whether women committed “fewer crimes” or not, tacitly suggesting that crime figures reflected the actual incidence of crime. This lapse is countermanded by chapters disputing the Feeley thesis on the “vanishing female” in criminal statistics.
The contributions take on several key divides in the scholarship: common law vs civil law jurisdictions; the urban/rural divide; North v. South; and pre- and post-1850/1870 patterns. The focus is still mainly on common-law and urban jurisdictions in the post-1850/1870 period. The volume is divided into three parts: Violence, Space and Gender; Prosecution and Punishment; and Representation of Crime.
In her study of adultery in early-modern Geneva, Sara Beam discovers that both sides of recent debates about the gendered treatment of adultery in the city were partially correct, “men were prosecuted frequently[...]women were punished harshly” (p. 92). Sanne Muurling tackles the supposed Mediterranean north/south divide and argues that it may not be as strong as has been suggested. The authors on non-common law countries seem more aware of the broader historiography.
The very welcome section on “Prosecution and punishment” is the largest and makes the most significant contributions. The conclusions about the gendered experience of various types of carceral institutions and the succeeding chapter by Auspert, de Koster, and Massin on the gendered perceptions of female behaviour – and the attempts to control their sexuality – accord with Joan Sangster and other recent North American scholarship.
One of the arguments taken up by several authors is the Feeley and Little thesis on the “vanishing” female – that the “real” criminality of women in England declined in the nineteenth century. There are interesting studies which recast this conversation or take up the mantle of Garthine Walker. In the early modern period, Johnson and Cox found that both men and women were imprisoned overwhelmingly for larceny and petty violence. Women are demonstrated not to have disappeared from the institutional and carceral settings but instead their treatment was gendered and the law allowed for their bodies and behaviour to be controlled by various means.
Williams and Godfrey offer a useful contribution by assessing how age affected the disposition of these women. Using the 1881 census, they found that women outnumbered men in carceral institutions – looking only at prisons, public asylums, and workhouses. While men outnumbered women in prisons, women were over-represented in the other carceral institutions studied. This is likely an underestimation because women were disproportionately held as inmates in other settings. Relying on this narrow resource, the authors also demonstrate that the age of the women corresponded to the type of carceral institution. Younger women were more likely to be imprisoned, middle-aged women were disproportionately housed in asylums, and the elderly were most likely confined to the workhouse – even when the women had engaged in similar behaviour.
As with any book, one volume cannot cover everything. Ethnic and religious minorities do not receive attention. Nonetheless, this is an impressive gathering of European specialists to make current scholarship accessible to a wider audience. Some language errors did slip through the editing process, but not so as to be distracting to the reader.
The contributions are often bound by their length to giving excellent summaries of the state of the field and demonstrating the potential for new investigations and uses of resources, some of which have been more recently made widely available via digitisation projects. Collectively, the chapters in this volume showcase how to exploit all available resources, like the census, which in the case of Britain has a longer and more reliable history than other states, and the Digital Panopticon. One might wish for more further-going research and conclusions. This is a criticism which only underlines the value of these essays.
One of the most valuable contributions is the bibliography which will no doubt prove an important resource for students and scholars alike. The editors, Manon van der Heijden in particular, have done a very good job situating the debates in terms of modern scholarship on women’s roles in the labour force and society. It is another well-placed and necessary attack on simplistic applications of the ideology of “separate spheres” as a way to “explain” women who commit crimes. This is very useful for those studying gender and women. We are reminded that gender prescriptions cannot be taken as substitutes for studying the actual lives of women and that broad generalisations across Europe and across centuries are not helpful or accurate. The lack of one easy explanation is a necessary consequence of considering the diversity of women’s experiences across Europe and across centuries, and especially when assessing their diverse socio-economic backgrounds. It serves as an important reminder that modern criminologists can sometimes be guilty of projecting backwards their assumptions about women’s roles and lives.
 M. Feeley and D. Little, The vanishing female: the decline of women in the criminal process, 1687–1912, in: Law and Society Review 25 (1991), pp. 719–757.