Added: September 28, 2013 – Last updated: April 2, 2016


Author: Esther Snell

Title: Trials in Print

Subtitle: Narratives of Rape Trials in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey

In: Crime, Courtrooms and the Public Sphere in Britain, 1700-1850

Edited by: David Lemmings

Place: Farnham and Burlington, VT

Publisher: Ashgate

Year: 2012

Pages: 23-42

ISBN-13: 9781409418030 (hbk.) – Find a Library: Wikipedia, WorldCat | ISBN-13: 9781409473169 (EPUB) – Find a Library: Wikipedia, WorldCat | ISBN-13: 9781409418047 (PDF) – Find a Library: Wikipedia, WorldCat

Language: English

Keywords: Modern History: 18th Century | European History: English History | Prosecution: Trials


Link: Google Books (Limited Preview)


Author: Esther Snell, School of Business and Law, Southampton Solent University


»As suggested previously, in Britain royal justice was public justice because trials were held in open courts, with some measure of local community participation, whether active or passive. At the same time, however, the publicity attending proceedings necessarily involved mixing ‘official’ judgment according to law with community opinion about personal behaviour, and this could have deleterious implications for the individuals concerned, even if they attracted no official legal sanctions. In her chapter for this volume (2), Esther Snell considers precisely this issue, by discussing the stigma of shame that attached to victims of rape prosecuting at the Old Bailey between 1700 and 1800. The central problem in regard to rape was that the court required detailed evidence of the fact, but it was shameful for women to discuss sexual intimacy in public. Thus even the tiny minority of women who ultimately prosecuted the offence normally found themselves inhibited about describing the act; and as a result many were subjected to a barrage of questions aimed at revealing direct evidence of penetration. In these circumstances the courtroom was regularly represented as a relatively hostile environment for the plebeian women and girls who were most exposed to the offence, and this was sometimes compounded in particular cases, for very young victims were often adjudged to be incompetent to plead, while more mature prosecutors might be exposed to misogynist treatment upon disclosing the details of their assaults.
Rape victims’ ‘exposure’ was only taken further by the narration of Old Bailey trials in the form of the pamphlet Proceedings, or Sessions Papers, published eight times per year on the authority of the Corporation of London. As Snell points out, besides exacerbating the shame of the victims concerned, publication of their stories and their reception in the courtroom must also have helped to shape popular attitudes about what was criminal and who should be punished for it, judgments that would in turn have influenced decision making on the part of victims about whether to prosecute. Certainly evidence about delay in reporting offences, of post-assault familiarity with the defendant, and of previous extramarital sexual experience were presented in the reportage as factors that usually engendered doubts in court about the veracity of the victim, and such apparently entrenched prejudices can only have discouraged women from prosecuting rape. Moreover, Snell shows that only a small minority (less than 14 per cent) of rape cases prosecuted at the Old Bailey in the eighteenth century resulted in a guilty verdict, and regular readers of the Sessions Papers would have assimilated that dismal fact. As she points out, in the pages of these accounts ‘the Old Bailey met popular culture and was assimilated by it’; in the case of rape, these representations of justice must surely have had a depressing emotional impact on plebeian women.« (Source: David Lemmings. »Introduction: Criminal Courts, Lawyers and the Public Sphere.« Crime, Courtrooms and the Public Sphere in Britain, 1700-1850. Edited by David Lemmings. Farnham 2012: 9-10)


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Hitchcock, Tim. The English Historical Review 129(540) (October 2014): 1218-1220. – Full Text: Oxford University Press (Restricted Access)

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Wikipedia: History of Europe: History of England | Court: Old Bailey