The Violent Abuse of Women in 17th and 18th Century Britain (Hardback)
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are the gateway between the medieval world and the modern, centuries when the western societies moved from an age governed principally by religion and superstition to an age directed principally by reason and understanding. Although the worlds of science and philosophy took giant strides away from the medieval view of the world, attitudes to women did not change from those that had pertained for centuries. Girls were largely barred from education – only around 14% of women could read and write by 1700 - and the few educated women were not permitted to enter the professions.
As a result women, especially if single, were employed in menial jobs or were forced into a life of petty crime. Many survived by entering the ‘oldest profession in the world’.
The social turbulence of the first half of the seventeenth century afforded women new opportunities and new religious freedoms and women were attracted into the many new sects where they were afforded a voice in preaching and teaching. In a time of unprecedented and unbridled political discussion, many better educated women saw no reason why they should not enter the debate and began to voice their opinions alongside those of men, publishing their own books and pamphlets. These new and unprecedented liberties thus gained by women were perceived as a threat by the leaders of society, and thus arose an unlikely masculine alliance against the new feminine assertions, across all sections of society from Puritan preachers to court judges, from husbands to court rakes.
This reaction often found expression in the violent and brutal treatment of women who were seen to have stepped out of line, whether legally, socially or domestically. Often beaten and abused at home by husbands exercising their legal right, they were whipped, branded, exiled and burnt alive by the courts, from which their sex had no recourse to protection, justice or restitution. Many of the most brutal forms of punishment were reserved exclusively for women, and even where the same, they were more savagely applied than would be the case for similar crimes committed by men.
This work records the many kinds of violent physical and verbal abuse perpetrated against women in Britain and her colonies, both domestically and under the law, during two centuries when huge strides in human knowledge and civilisation were being made in every other sphere of human activity, but social and legal attitudes to women and their punishment remained firmly embedded in the medieval.