Murder in Shakespeare's England is not quite what you might expect. For one thing it is not really set in the England of Shakespeare but in that of the Stewart kings, the era of the Great Fire of London, of the later plague years, of war with the Dutch, and of Pepys' Diary. As lurid and suggestive as the title is, the book is actually a well researched study of the social mores and expectations of the average person of 17th Century England.
As the author, Professor Vanessa McMahon, suggests these are individuals not always given a voice in other sources. They tend to be people whose lives are difficult to access in the general way of things. Many were probably only marginally literate, most held no distinctive political or social posts in society. The author cleverly manages to create at least a shadowy image of life for these men and women by looking at the documentation of inquests and of murder trials where the depositions of average people shed light on the life of their time.
To a great extent, the book merely verifies the picture presented in general texts on the period. Legal documents are very terse, and in many cases the deponents are not really given the voice the author suggests, because significant redaction was done by the clerks responsible for presenting the data. Also the records tend to be incomplete, so outcomes are not always recorded. Much of the profile of contemporary people the author presents is therefore stilted. Women, children, servants and the elderly are characterized as subject to routine household violence by males who are expected to be violent by virtue of their "nature."
To some extent this is true even among the world's cultures and social classes today, but to make a broad generalization from the few responsible for the violence and the victimization to all people would be as unrealistic as denying that such events occur at all. In the instance of Murder in Shakespeare's England, the nature of the data source would be expected to skew the profile in the former direction. The author does point this out in the text, but I felt that the picture was still a grim one. My observation of cultures where women, for instance, are viewed as oppressed by westerners-as in the Middle East-suggests that the dynamics of the culture are such that it is not always experienced from within in quite the way that outsiders suppose. This would be true of life in the 17th Century as well. That is not to say that a modern person plunked down in the 17th Century wouldn't experience major cultural shock. In fact they would. Experience and expectations form a major portion of our sense of "right" and "wrong." Technology and living conditions also play a part.
The author makes the maximum use of every scrap of data she has mined from the records at her disposal, and the bibliography and notes reflect this. So does the text, which tends to repeat some facts and conclusions in several places, giving the reader a feeling of deja vu. I have the distinct feeling that this is a dissertation presented as the author's first offering to the "publish or perish" gods. If so, it's not bad. She captures the imagination by painting a picture of the life and times of the 17th Century that is replete with interesting characters: feisty neighbors, pathetic and helpless social outcasts, irritable servants, difficult wives, soldiers away from home and family, etc. The setting has the novelty of the past, with the familiarity of a culture that is distantly ancestral to our own. It's well worth reading.
FOR THOSE WRITING PAPERS: in history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and criminal justice. Is it valid to use this type of data to construct a picture of society? What effect does the source of data have on the conclusions? Is there any way to provide a contrasting image? History can give us the facts about what happened in a given situation, but interpretation of those facts draws upon the cultural expectations and experiences of the writer; how might an anthropologist or a sociologist look at the same data set that this author did and interpret it differently? If you were to look at life in the 1950's suburbs or rural areas, do you think you could find similar expectations and behaviors as those the author identifies as characteristic of 17th Century people? What types of social pressures existed on people that might produce similar behaviors? The author discusses some of the ways in which the courts were unequal in their handling of cases from one person to the next. How has the criminal justice system changed over time with respect to dealing with gender, racial, ethnic, economic, and other parameters?