"The Butchery Which We Call Justice": Petit Treason and Domestic Crime in the English Common Law, 1351-1828


From 1351 to 1828, women who killed their husbands were not charged with murder but instead with petit treason, a special category to designate the killing of one’s superior. Petit treason was a capital crime, and convicted petit traitors received the same punishment as high traitors, heretics, and witches: execution by burning. “‘The Butchery Which We Call Justice’: Petit Treason and Domestic Crime in the English Common Law, 1351-1828” uses petit treason as a case study to explore the evolution of the English legal system. Over the five hundred year tenure of petit treason, judges, juries, defendants, and other legal actors reshaped medieval legal standards. Petit treason was directly affected by changing attitudes toward gender roles, social hierarchy, and both domestic and monarchical authority. This project analyses petit treason in three phases. During the textualist period, from 1351 to 1691, courts generally followed the letter of the law in trial proceedings, jury verdicts, and sentencing. In the transition period from 1691 to 1752, the approach changed, as common law principles were incorporated back into petit treason proceedings. The bounds of the Treason Act were stretched by judges, juries, and executioners, who challenged statutory law. The convergence period, from 1752 to 1828, witnessed the culmination of a struggle between top-down statutory law, enacted through legislation, and ground-level common law driven by the courts. In 1828, Parliament abolished petit treason as part of an international movement towards legal codification. The evolution of petit treason fit into a larger transformation in the prosecution of domestic crime, a parallel which is explored through comparison with infanticide, petit treason by a servant, and a husband’s murder of his wife. By tracing the evolution of criminal law through the family, this project reveals a tension at the core of the English legal system. This case study illustrates the ongoing conflict between common law and statutory law. Petit treason addressed the paradox of women’s place in the home, both as a subject and as an actor, and how public attitudes towards authority and the law shifted over time. Resting on court records, popular media, and legal guidebooks, this project assesses the intersection of gender, violence, and power in the early modern home.



gender, petit treason, infanticide, domestic violence, medieval history, early modern history