Geoffrey Pimm, The Violent Abuse of Women in 17th and 18th Century Britain (Pen & Sword, 2019)
In The Violent Abuse of Women in 17th and 18th Century Britain, Pimm argues that the two centuries he covers were periods of profound change between the mediaeval and modern worlds. For women, however, that transition into an ‘enlightened’ future barely made a dent in their standing and treatment at the hands of the patriarchy: women were the ‘weaker vessel’ and easily influenced by the devil; they had few rights under a misogynistic law and little recourse to a gentler society. That sets the tone for Pimm’s catalogue of abuse directed against women at all levels of British society. It is a sometimes distressing read, but also fascinating.
Violence began at home where the man ruled over his wife and household almost without limits. That extended to children and servants. Sexual violence was a pronounced component of that abuse at one end of the spectrum, while libel and slander caused damage at the other end. Violence also underpinned many clandestine marriages and abductions. All of this was conducted under a lax legal system for perpetrators. But the legal system itself sanctioned extreme cruelty. Women sentenced to prison for even the most minor misdemeanours, including cross-dressing, were held in disgusting conditions, but they were also routinely whipped, often publicly in front of a crowd, some of whom attended for erotic satisfaction, and not just men. Branding and maiming also occurred as did the scold, a bracket placed round the head of female gossips and blasphemers. The latter might also be subject to ducking in the village pond or a river, or a whipping, and sometimes worse – Quakers had a particularly bad time at the hands of legally sanctioned religious fanaticism. The worst legal punishment for women was execution by burning, which was replaced by hanging under the notorious Bloody Code. Others were transported to the colonies where if anything conditions were worse than prisons. Women convicted of lesser offences might suffer the public pillory where they might endure anything from indignity to life-threatening violence. Being exposed in a cage was, however, on the way out in the 18th Century, though it was still used. Pimm concludes with the growing reform movement in the 19th Century that led to the end of these sustained levels of violence against women. Four appendices follow, providing more detail on some specific cases and a list of whipping offences in Jamaica from 1858, long after the Mother Country had stopped.
Pimm’s absorbing survey contains twenty chapters, which is disappointing in that there were so many facets to violent abuse against women. That might explain Pimm’s short chapter on the almost exclusively female crime of witchcraft, however, while I am not sure the Whipping Tom stories of obviously criminal behaviour quite fit into this book; they could have been excised to make more room elsewhere for deeper analysis. Pimm also derives many accounts directly from the sources, including some surprising perpetrators such as James Boswell, Jonathan Swift, and especially Samuel Pepys. Moreover, Pimm brings out the obvious patriarchal side to this story, but also the hypocritical class aspects, and he mentions race where applicable, all of which points to violence as an instrument of planned social control, though Pimm swerves round that conclusion. Nevertheless, Pimm has added to our knowledge of women during that transitional era in an enlightening but often uncomfortable read. 8/10