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Welsh History Review


Vol. 10, nos. 1-4 1980-81

Crime and the law : the social history of crime in Western Europe since 1500 : Book review.

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SINCE 1500. Edited by V. A. Gatrell, B. Lenman and G. Parker.
Europa Publications, 1980. Pp. 381. £ 20.00.
In this fascinating and lively book, the editors rightly claim that the
'relationship between those who make and those who break the law is
just beginning to claim a central place in social history'. They are at some
pains to justify their subject in the light of possible criticisms from
traditional historians and from those of an orthodox Marxist persuasion.
They insist that the new research marks a significant advance of the old
'uncritical and anecdotal' history of crime that was once so popular with
the British public. It must be said, however, that the nine chapters of this
book are of uneven quality and length. One of the best, that by Dr. V. A.
Gatrell, constitutes more than one-third of the book, and is an extension
and modification of work published elsewhere. Another major
contribution is by Bruce Lenman and Geoffrey Parker. One is impressed
by the broad sweep of their knowledge and analysis and by their
willingness to face awkward technical and theoretical problems. These,
and perhaps three other chapters, do justice to the ambitious title of the
There are at least four main themes running through this book. The
first of these is the treacherous character of the evidence, notably the
sheer bulk of some records, the disappearance of others, and the
difficulty of deciding how much weight to place on offical files and
criminal statistics. Dr. Sharpe, for example, shows how the law in a
seventeenth-century village was often enforced outside the institutions of
assize and quarter sessions. In rural Wales this point was still relevant
two hundred years later.
The second theme concerns the meaning of delinquency. Dr. Larner,
in her largely bibliographical chapter, re-affirms that the crime of
witchcraft can be understood only in the context of political and social
tension and cosmological beliefs. Similarly, Jennifer Davis argues that
the garotting panic in London in the early-1860s was partly created by
those in authority, and Robert Tombs tells us that the concept of 'the
dangerous classes' was a convenient myth in nineteenth-century Paris.
On the other hand, Michael Weisser and Victor Gatrell, in their chapters
on early-modern Spain and nineteenth-century England and Wales, state
firmly that criminal records do reflect changes in criminal behaviour as
much as changes in official sensitivity and policing. Dr. Gatrell believes
that the sharp fall in the number of known offences after the 1860s is a
development of great importance in modern British history.
The third theme is the emergence of state law and policing after 1500 at
the expense of community law and punishment. In their impressive
account of this state victory in early-modern Europe, Bruce Lenman and
Geoffrey Parker reveal that it was a gradual process with much regional
variation. Dr. David Philips looks at one aspect of this story, and
considers why people first demanded and then accepted the new police in
London. Running parallel to this is another theme, the relationship
between economic change and developments in law, policing and crime.
Several chapters illustrate the well-established point that urbanization
and industrialization both require different forms of behaviour and
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