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Petit Treason in Eighteenth-Century England: Women's Inequality Before the Law

Shelley A. M. Gavigan

York University - Osgoode Hall Law School


Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 3, p. 335, 1989

This article examines the English law of petit treason (murder of a husband by his wife or a master by a servant or a religious superior by a religious inferior) and its implications for married women charged with murdering their husbands. From 1351-1828, a woman accused of killing her husband was liable to be indicted not for willful murder but for the aggravated offense of petit treason and, until 1790, she faced public execution by burning if convicted. Relying on eighteenth century legal treatises, reported cases, press accounts of women's trials, and second my sources, the author discusses the cases of several women tried for petit treason. The general legal position of married women in eighteenth century England is also examined, and it is argued that the law of petit treason was a logical extension and consistent expression of women's unequal position in marriage and subordinate status more generally.With the elimination of the aggravated penalty of burning at the stake, and the ultimate repeal of petit treason altogether, married women who killed their husbands achieved a measure of formal equality previously denied them. However; the author argues that the significance of petit treason cannot be explained adequately by a trans-historical concept of patriarchy or male dominance. Analysis of both the form of Iaw, and the form of patriarchal relations enforced and reinforced, is identified as of paramount importance.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 21

Keywords: criminal law, women, law, domestic murder, petit treason, legal history

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Date posted: December 21, 2009  

Suggested Citation

Gavigan, Shelley A. M., Petit Treason in Eighteenth-Century England: Women's Inequality Before the Law (1989). Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 3, p. 335, 1989. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1519461

Contact Information

Shelley A. M. Gavigan (Contact Author)
York University - Osgoode Hall Law School ( email )
4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3
416.736.5558 (Phone)
416.7365736 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://www.osgoode.yorku.ca/faculty/Gavigan_Shelley_A_M.html

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