‘Murderesses in German Writing, 1720-1860: Heroines of Horror’ by Susanne Kord

Chapter 1 – Criminal women: on bodies, paradoxes, performances and tales – This book chooses to focus on murderesses because they embody a number of paradoxical principles. Murderesses, in particular, were extremely rare; therefore, they were the least likely of all criminals to receive a positive portrayal from the press. Thanks to the discourse on women and violence, women were often paradoxically constructed as being both inherently violent and incapable of aggression.

 Chapter 2 – The evil eye: witches – The belief in witchcraft was still widespread during the Enlightenment, a fact evident in the trial of Anna Göldi. Much was made about the physical characteristics of witches, and for Anna, she was often described as having the ‘evil eye’. Paradoxically, the belief in a magical ‘evil eye’ could even be implicitly linked to great talent, as is the case with the poet Anna Louisa Karsch.  Though a respected female poet, Karsch’s piercing gaze and fabled ugliness were often cited as indications of her poetic genius. Descriptions focusing on her intense stare were pejorative, meant to invoke the image of the evil eye and perhaps hint at a possible otherworldly source for her tremendous talent. Also, contemporary depictions of her had distinct witch-like features, a fact even Karsch noted for herself and worried over.

Chapter 4 – Pride: husband killers – The murder trials of Maria Katharina Wächtler and Christiane Ruthardt had considerable social significance. For one, both women found themselves at the center of political debate (for Wächtler, it was the validity of torture; for Ruthardt, it was the need for capital punishment). Secondly, each case was followed by news media such as pamphlets, serials, stories, prints, etc., and so they had a big social impact. Here, both consequences were aided by popular and sensational literature. In the pamphlets of the day, neither woman was accurately represented. Instead, they became characters to the public and were only interesting for their refusal to conform to stereotypical female-gender norms. This popularity and interest in the strange nature of these women brought more people into the sphere of public debate. The paradoxes these women’s cases represented were that they were perpetrators of violence, yet victims of the State, and as both deserving of punishment for their deeds, yet also deserving of admiration for their composure during trial.

Chapter 5 – Shame: child killers – Prior to the 18th century, seduction and its consequences were a source of humor, and stories about it usually ended in either the celebration of the seducer’s wit and cunning or the girl’s parents let the two marry each other as they wish. The conceptual change that occurred in stories of seduction during the 18th century was that the girl’s inexperience was reinterpreted as ‘virtue’ rather than funny ‘naiveté’.  Accompanying her loss of virtue was a sense of shame that ultimately led to her death. Often these women also had childlike qualities, traits that were probably emphasized in order to evoke pity in her sad fate and also to serve as a model for teaching sexual morality to women and girls. In literature dealing with the subject of infanticide, guilty mothers also took on a childlike innocence and naiveté. In these texts, the resulting shame from an illegitimate pregnancy also robbed the woman of her will to live. Shame and death were linked, and the women in these stories used death as a way to avoid the shame of seduction. Analyzing these stories against their contemporary social context can reveal that their characteristics were products of male fantasy – ‘male’ because women’s participation in infanticide was minimal, and ‘fantasy’ because it didn’t take into account other possible motivating factors (sociological, historical, economical, legal, etc.). The reality was that the majority of women accused of infanticide never confessed to it. Literature on the subject and the debate surrounding it converged on the subject of shame as a motivating factor, but the reality was that even when shame-inducing penalties were abolished, infanticide still continued and shame was rarely listed as a reason in court documents.

The debate surrounding infanticide continued because it forced thinkers to reconsider a number of issues: the death penalty and its purposes, the status of children born out of wedlock, and the status of unwed mothers. Infanticide was also particularly problematic for the way it contradicted traditional female roles: it seemed to negate femininity by rejecting maternal instincts and also seemed to express it by emphasizing ideas of shame and virtue.

During the 18th century, Dorothea Altwein and Catharina Höhn were tried for killing their newborn babies. Both cases were problematic for their procedural irregularities. In Dorothea’s case, judges selectively chose what facts they wanted to believe or disbelieve, and evidence for the trial was either ignored or unexplored and unconfirmed.  In Catharina’s case, her defense was openly ridiculed. These two cases demonstrated how ideas about infanticide and femininity influenced the nature of the cases prosecuting it.

Chapter 6 – The female self: poisoners – There are two general ideas about murders conducted through poison. The first is that such murders were mainly committed by women, and the second was that women’s preference for poison was rooted in their feminine ‘nature’. However, statistics show that women made up only half or fewer of all poison murders. Some possible explanations for these ideas was that though women committed only a small fraction of murders, a large enough amount was done through poisoning that women were stuck with the characterization, and that women had a practical monopoly on food preparation (a major method of administering poisons) until the 20th century. Perhaps accounting for this discrepancy between reality and common notions was the widely discussed nature of female criminality and their representation as natural killers.  Writings about poisoners focused on the ‘character’ of a woman rather than that of the actual poisoner.

One famous female poisoner was Gesche Gottfried, who murdered a number of her family members during the early 19th century. What was particularly striking about her case was that her motives remained unexplained even to this day. Since motive could not be determined, her character was used instead. Written works following the case focused on her character as a way to explain the killings. What they focused on was her seeming absence of character at all, and that any kindness done by her was just the impersonation of a good woman. An analysis of documents about her case can further reveal that it was her crimes against femininity that led to her arrest – officers only decided to follow up tips after inquiring into claims about her adultery. Her rejection of her traditional roles also played a big role in her conviction. Through eliminating her family, Gesche broke ties with the only functions that society gave her, and that was unacceptable.


‘A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present’ by Pieter Spierenburg (Part 2)

Chapter 4 – Patriarchy and Its Discontents: Women and the Domestic Sphere – Due to its rarity in records, there is no standard when it comes to women and intimates as victims and perpetrators of homicide and assault. However, when women did resort to violence outside of the domestic sphere, it was usually against other women. Just like in violent relations between men, honor played a large role in the altercations between females. One popular form of female violence was nose-slitting. Though there were a variety reasons explaining why women engaged in violence, fighting between females was often viewed as unimportant and comically illustrated.

Any statistics of violence against women only reflect cases of serious violence (though casual violence may have been as prevalent as violence among men, it was less persecuted).  Attacks by males against women were mainly one-sided. Some trends to female victimization are that attacks against female strangers by men were less fatal than attacks against wives or lovers. Also, more casual violence against women occurred in larger towns, partly due to the heightened anonymity of large populations. Women were in danger for a number of reasons, and circumstances such as their occupations or lack of honor made them easy targets for violence and sexual assault.

Chapter 5 – Marks of Innocence: Babies and the Insane – There was a strong link between infanticide and illegitimate birth. Bastardy was often the result of courtships gone wrong, and a woman risked losing her honor if she ended up pregnant by a former suitor. Poverty also played a huge role in infanticide. For example, domestic servants who found themselves pregnant were quickly dismissed, and so many women killed their babes in order to keep their jobs.

In cases involving the insane, normal standards of punishment did not apply.

The death sentence made indirect suicides possible – thanks to strict moral codes, those seeking death but unwilling to risk the stigma associated with suicide would often commit crimes that warranted the death penalty.

HIS102D: Term Paper References

Secondary Sources

1. Alford, Violet. “Rough Music or Charivari.” Folklore 70.4 (1959): 505-518. JSTOR. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. – This article explores three reasons for staging a charivari: remarriage of a widow or widower, the beating of a man by his wife, or an adulterous wife.

2. Amussen, Susan Dwyer. “”Being Stirred to Much Unquietness”: Violence and Domestic Violence in Early Modern England” Journal of Women’s History 6.2 (1994): 70-89. EBSCO. Web. 21 Feb. 2012. – This article focuses on attitudes to domestic violence and opinions about its legitimacy during the early modern period in England. This article is useful because it addresses social anxieties about violent wives, the goals of marriages, and the public nature of marriages and community intervention in marriage.

3. Cawte, E.C. “Parsons Who Rode the Stang.” Folklore 74.2 (1963): 399-401. JSTOR. Web. 18 Feb. 2012. – References three instances where parson or their wives were part of skimmington ride ceremonies.

4. Cunningham, B. Howard. “”A Skimmington” in 1618.” Folklore 41.3 (1930): 287-290. JSTOR. Web. 18 Feb. 2012. – Cunningham’s article provides a short description of the custom of “Skimmington riding,” a ceremony where inhabitants of a town would form a procession and ridicule husbands or wives that did not conduct themselves in the proper manner. The bulk of the article is dedicated to recounting a skimmington ride that occurred in 1618 in the village at Quemerford near Calne in England.

5. Dobash, Russell P., and R. Emerson Dobash. “Community Response to Violence against Wives: Charivari, Abstract Justice and Patriarchy.” Social Problems 28.5 (1981): 563-581. JSTOR. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. – The section ‘Community Regulation of Inversions of Domestic Authority’ was very informative and had a large reference section with a ton of promising search leads.

6. George, M.J. “Skimmington Revisited.” Journal of Men’s Studies 10.2 (2002): 111-117. Gale. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. – The article provides a history of skimmington rides in early modern England.

7. Gray, Douglas. “Rough Music: Some Early Invectives and Flytings.” The Yearbook of English Studies 14 (1984): 21-43. JSTOR. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. – This article explores the use of skimmington in satire and literature, mentioning works such as Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and Samuel Butler’s Hudibras. Could be a great reference if I chose to read these two works and analyze them.

8. Ingram, Martin. “Ridings, Rough Music, and the “Reform of Popular Culture” in Early Modern Engalnd.” Past & Present 105 (1984): 79-113. JSTOR. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. – This article provides a great background for charivaris in early modern England and even has a number of pictures of skimmington rides. The references were also a great help in narrowing my search and gave me some new ideas on topics to look for related to my subject.

9. Thompson, E.P. “Rough Music Reconsidered.” Folklore 103.1 (1992): 3-26. JSTOR. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. – This article explores the wide range in uses of ‘rough music’, from good-natured joking to brutal satire. It also provided a number of primary sources to explore and helped give them some context.

Primary Sources

1. Grose, Francis. A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue. The third edition, corrected and enlarged. London, 1796. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. UC Davis. 22 Feb. 2012. – The definitions of “riding skimmington” (p.189) and “rough music” (p. 191) from an 18th century dictionary written by Francis Grose.

2. Ireland, Samuel. Graphic Illustrations of Hogarth. London: R. Faulder, 1799. Print. – This book contains a Hogarth print titled “Hudibras encounters the Skimmington” along with commentary by Ireland.

‘A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present’ by Pieter Spierenburg

Introduction – In this book, the term “murder” denotes all forms of private and non-accidental killing. In 1998, Johan Goudsblom introduced a 3-stage theory about the monopolization of violence: (1) adult males monopolized violence, and excluded women and children from its organized use; (2) in military-agrarian societies, an elite class of warriors monopolized violence, excluding other social groups such as peasants and priests; and (3) relatively autonomous warrior elites increasingly had to yield to larger organization, such as institutionalized states. Possibly helping this progress along was a civilizing process, theorized by Norbert Elias as the process where standards of behavior became ever stricter, requiring greater self-control from individuals. Another important factor in the monopolization of violence was the changing concept of honor and what it applied to. Honor was highly gendered, so what was considered honorable for a man was not considered honorable for a woman. Female honor was based on chastity, passivity, and silence. Because female honor was passive, women had little opportunity to control their honor themselves. That burden was transferred to men, and the defense of women’s honor was an important component of male honor. Male honor also depended on physical courage, courage, and the propensity for violence. Being insulted amounted to an attack on one’s honor, which could only be repaired by a counter-attack. During the early modern period, honor played an overwhelming role in the majority of murders in Europe.

Chapter 1 – Romeo’s Kindred: The Fragility of Life in Medieval Europe – Upper-class aggressiveness was a major characteristic of the Middle Ages. Aggression from elites had the greatest chance of going unpunished when their victims came from the humble poor. Many elites felt that it was within their rights to harass any social inferiors who displeased them, and actively did so whenever they perceived a slight. One popular form of violence was the vendetta, and they could encompass a wide variety of players, such as whole families, including their dependents, retainers, lawyers, in-laws, servants, and even local magistrates. Because of their loose involvement in vendettas, authorities could show a considerable amount of understanding towards people who killed for honor and revenge. Homicides and crimes committed because of a vendetta were considered honorable, but there were a number of crimes that fell outside the confines of honor. Two examples of such would be thievery and suicide. Also, those who belonged to marginalized groups were always in great danger of violence. Because these minority groups were low in status, they were often denied any entitlement to honor, making them easy targets.

Chapter 2 – Sealed With a Kiss: From Acquiescence to Criminalization – Following a violent act, there were two types of voluntary settlement: (1) one to prevent revenge after a single murder, or (2) one to end feuding after at least one member of each party had been killed by the other party. All these settlements involved reconciliation between the two groups, and during this period, these events often involved a big show of remorse and forgiveness, sometimes even in ceremony form. There were four basic components to a reconciliation ceremony: (1) there was payment of financial compensation to the victim’s family and to the third party arbitrating the reconciliation; (2) the performance of rituals focusing on the killer’s regret; (3) rituals indicating the newfound peace between the two parties; and (3) religious provisions, such as donating money to the poor or paying to have the victim’s name added to a monastery. Reconciliations often involved collective groups meeting over the murder(s); it was rarely a meeting among individuals. These ceremonies were important because they were a method of preventing more violence. City councils and princes helped by encouraging reconciliations. An alternative to peacemaking through public ceremonies was the prosecution of the murderer. There were 2 ways a murder could escape trial: (1) they could seek sanctuary, or (2) they could get a pardon for their crimes. From the 16th c. onward, these methods were losing their saving power. During this period, a system of justice from above emerged, and courts increasingly took the initiative against criminals. Crimes were also redefined as encroachments on victim’s rights and also on the rights of the community and the public peace. In summary, this process of criminalization followed from the disappearance of feuding and private reconciliation to the extension of capital punishment to most cases of culpable killing.

Chapter 3 – Swords, Knives, and Sticks: The Social Differentiation of Male Fighting – During the early modern period, male-on-male violence went through a major development that was characterized by the social differentiation of attitudes and practices. Here, a widening social gulf separated those of the population that led relatively peaceful lifestyles and those who led violent lifestyles. If vendettas were a legacy of the Middle Ages, the early modern period saw its successor: the duel. Conducted between two individuals, the duel was a major innovation of violence, and had two forms: the formal duel and the popular duel. Formal duels took place amongst elites and their social equals. Formal duels followed a distinct sequence of events, where a written challenge with a proposed duel-date was issued by a combatant. Their opponent, once he agreed to the fight, had the right to choose the weapons of the conflict. Due to these strict rules, many elites considered the formal duel to be part of the repertoire of upper-class, polite behavior. Popular duels, on the other hand, were appropriate for everyone else. Unlike formal duels, popular duelists often fought with knives rather than swords. The total volume of violence dropped during the 17th and 18th centuries. This was due to a decrease in male aggression, which was in part due to the social differentiation in male fighting. Because elites believed that dueling befitted only gentlemen, they kept their quarrels amongst the upper-classes. This idea trickled down socially, so that by 1700 even the respectable upper layer of working class avoided knife brawls with those of the lower class. This decreasing aggression among elites slowly transformed into a non-violent lifestyle, with many cherishing peace over violence.

‘Violence in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800’ by Julius R. Ruff

Chapter 1: Representations of Violence – Because news was spread either orally or through printed media, early modern Europeans formed many of their perceptions about violence around less than factual sources such as rumors, songs, popular entertainments, newspapers, and pamphlets. Violent themes had a double-effect on readers/listeners, both shocking audiences with tales of brutality and providing a fascinating glimpse of a person who disregarded religion and social norms. Representations of violence were important for a number of reasons. First, they helped create the idea among early modern Europeans that their world was becoming increasingly violent, even though in reality it was becoming less violent. Second, they helped link crime and violence with urban life. In short, the representations of violence in early modern European society through word of mouth and printed publications can be more accurately labeled as ‘misrepresentation’ due to its lack of accuracy.

Chapter 2: States, Arms, and Armies – In the early modern period, state control of violence was tenuous at best. From the states’ end of control, many areas not only lacked centralized policing agencies, but they also relied on inadequate local police operatives, and depended on armies, rather than trained policemen,  to counter civilian threats to domestic order. Add widespread use of weapon into the mix, and the situation became increasingly violent and harder to control. Not only did peasants have easy access to wounding instruments, but animosity between civilians and armed soldiers led to ineffective state control and high levels of violent activity.

Chapter 4: the Discourse of Interpersonal Violence – The most common form of violence in early modern Europe was between people who already knew each other. When it came to assault, homicides often occurred over matters of honor and justice. One form of violence that went nearly unpunished was domestic violence. This was due, in part, to religious and civil law traditions that gave husbands and fathers almost total power within their households. Violent rapes were also severely overlooked by courts due a massive amount of incident underreporting. This was because of the social stigma of being “unvirginal” and the general skepticism of courts over whether a rape actually occurred or not. Another severe form of murder was that of newborn children. This was seen as a particularly heinous crime and was usually punished by death.

Chapter 5: Ritual Group Violence – Ritual behaviors are important because they reflect the learned behaviors of a particular society. Early modern Europe had a very powerful and popular youth group culture. Young men forged their identities while in a youth group, deriving these characteristics by participating in group functions. One role youth groups played was in the monitoring of local morals and marriages. Included in this job were the disapproval and approval of marriages and the enforcement of traditional male stereotypes. They demonstrated their courage through public displays of fighting prowess and risk-taking. Youth groups also organized local festivals, events that could provide perfect cover for violent actions. The conditions of a festival were dangerous: armed men roamed the streets, beer and wine flowed and normally law-abiding citizens discovered anonymity behind festival masks. One aspect of festivals that was particularly popular with violent men was team games, which gave men plenty of opportunities for revenge and physical assault under the guise of a sporting event.

Chapter 6: Popular Protest – Protests reflected the values of an essentially conservative society that respected tradition. Often, they were the caused by resistance to innovation and change (example – riots to protect the validity of beliefs that were being threatened by the Reformation). Riots typically went through two stages, with the first peaceful stage turning violent if demands weren’t met. Such violence was often justified by rioters who felt they were on the side of justice. Riots and protest were often used as a way to enforce the status quo. Intimidation (a form of protest) could be used against any person, property, or group that threatened community interests. Large riots represented a serious threat to the social and political stability of early modern Europe, and they often occurred during times of dearth and hardship. Those most active in riots were people who derived their identity from the salient issue driving crowd action. Once riots moved past local boundaries and ideologically merged with broader concerns, protest became rebellion. Collective violent acts diminished towards the end of the period because growing centralized states took proactive steps against their causes.

Chapter 7: Organized Crime – Organized crimes are offenses committed by people cooperating in repeated acts of law-breaking. Banditry was the chief form of organized crime. An overwhelmingly rural crime, it has sometimes been described as “social banditry”, a form of rebellion against peasant society. Though the state condemned social bandits, groups often managed to retain the support of their local societies.  Forms of banditry that were popular were highway robbery and armed attacks on prosperous farms and homes. Policing bandits was difficult because the state often lacked the funds to go after them. Another popular form of organized crime was smuggling. Because early modern states lacked the administrative infrastructure to directly tax incomes, they resorted to using excise fees, product assessment fees, or import taxes. Smuggling helped people get around this. There were 2 types of smuggling: the kind committed by small operators or the kind committed by large organized bands. A majority of smugglers were small group operators. Policing smuggling was difficult because of the nature of the crime – often, smuggled goods were brought in through boundaries that were difficult to police, like mountains, long coasts, etc.