The Common Peace
Participation and the Criminal Law in Seventeenth-Century England
By Cynthia B. Herrup
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1987
Online Publication Date:January 2011
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511560576.002
As recently as fifteen years ago, scholars considered the criminal law of Tudor and Stuart England barbaric, the backwater of an increasingly sophisticated legal culture. They saw crime in early modern England as a simple, largely stable tableau of saucy thieves outwitting bumbling constables. Neither generalization stands today. As scholars have looked beyond the proscriptions of the law into its practices, notions of both the law and crime have been transformed. Rather than a subject with but a “miserable history,” the criminal law appears now as a responsive mechanism of considerable flexibility (albeit one without the subtlety of its private counterparts). Rather than the province of Shallow and Dogberry, crime and its control appears now as a ground on which villagers struggled over basic definitions of morality and power. Criminal law and crime have rightfully earned a new respectability in the study of early modern England.
However, if recent research helps to explain what individuals in early modern England called crime or criminality, it has been less useful in uncovering how people arrived at their definitions. Whether interpreting verdicts as measures of criminal behavior or as measures of social discipline, scholars have generally treated the procedures of the law as background.