In a previous chapter we saw how the bulk of crime committed in Tudor and Stuart England was small-scale in character, involving, as it did, things like brawling, petty theft and drunkenness. This continued to be the pattern throughout the rest of the early modern period. The cases that came before the Wiltshire courts in 1736 illustrate the point. Things stolen included cheese, butter and bread. A sow had also gone astray, “a piece of old blanket”, a knife and “a shift worth 5/-”. The woman who stole the last item was publicly whipped and sentenced to three months hard labour. The Wiltshire affrays in 1736 were equally unremarkable. Typical here was the offence of the brickmaker John Watkins who, while in the local alehouse one day, got carried away and called his neighbour and fellow building worker Thomas Hopkins a “rogue and son of a whore” and “pulled the said Hopkins by the nose”. Indeed, many of the crimes brought before the courts in these years were not only minor but victimless. A farmer would be reprimanded for failing to scour a ditch, a housewife for selling ale without a licence, a cottager for letting his geese wander the common unyoked. Between 1560 and 1699 no fewer than two-thirds of all the charges that went forward to the assizes and the quarter sessions from the Essex parish of Terling were of this regulatory, non-personal kind.
KeywordsEighteenth Century Common People Ruling Elite Early Modern Period Legitimate Activity
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