Women and Crime in Later Mediaeval England: An Examination of the Evidence of the Courts of Gaol Delivery, 1388 to 1409

Women and Crime in Later Mediaeval England: An Examination of the Evidence of the Courts of Gaol Delivery, 1388 to 1409

Garay, Kathleen E.

Florilegium, vol 1. (1979)


For more than a century now criminologists have been giving some attention to the phenomenon of female involvement in criminal activity. However, the female criminals of earlier eras, particularly those of the later mediaeval period, have not been the subjects of such scrutiny. Indeed, if we are to vie credence to the romance literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the woman was the meek, self-effacing and virtuous helpmeet of her husband. We cannot imagine, for example, that the daughters of the Knight of La Tour Landry would even fall foul of the law or even be suspected of the most trivial offence.Yet the legal evidence of the period makes it clear that women could and did appear before the courts as accused as well as accusers. They are found to such an extent that a Victorian interpreter of the court records has concluded that the women of the later mediaeval period were, “except in the very highest rank, almost as brutal as their husbands or paramours,” that they were, indeed, “such as the circumstances in which they lived had made them — strong in muscle but hard of heart — more fit to be the mothers of brigands than to rear gentle daughters and honest sons.”

In the brief discussion which follows, it will not be possible to present any composite picture of the later mediaeval female or even of the woman who was accused of criminal activity. The evidence to be presented is culled from the records of a single English court during the period 1388 to 1409 and is further limited both in terms of the social class of the suspects and of the crimes of which they stood accused. The records of the Court of Gaol Delivery inform us only about indictments of felony; trespasses were only rarely brought before it, and for such less serious offences the rolls of the Justices of the Peace are more informative. As far as the background of the female suspects is concerned, it is immediately apparent that the Gaol Delivery Court was not normally concerned with members of the upper classes, for in an examination of almost 9,000 indictments  involving both males and females only eleven suspects have been identified who may be considered as nobility or even as gentry, and of these few only one was a woman.

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