ALBION'S FATAL TREE: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England by Douglas & Others Hay
Kirkus Star

ALBION'S FATAL TREE: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Five distinguished British historians gather around Tybum Tree to witness ""the moral drama of the gallows""--the climactic moment of 18th century criminal justice. England, during this period, boasted one of the bloodiest criminal codes in Europe. The gallows tree was the perfect symbol of a system of authority which ultimately rested on terror. This, needless to say, is not the conventional interpretation of the majesty and impartiality of British law--contrasted throughout the century to arbitrary Continental systems with their censors, police spies and lettres de cachet. Hay begins by noting that between 1688 and 1820 the number of statutory crimes increased from 50 to 200; many of them were capital offenses. In a brilliant essay on the ideology behind the hangman, he argues that the English ruling class was embarked on a ""radical redefinition of property"" whereby previously innocent or venial acts were criminalized. Other essays examine the clash of popular ideas of social justice with the absolute claims of property as reflected in the myths of the offenders--the poachers, smugglers and highwaymen who became heroes of broadsides, ballads and local uprisings. The contributors, who include John G. Rule, Peter Linebaugh, Cai Winslow and E. P. Thompson, explore attitudes to hangmen and gibbeters; the riotous carnival atmosphere which prevailed at executions; speeches from the dock; petitions for pardon and the attempts by friends of the condemned man to rescue the body from the agents of physicians and surgeons who snatched corpses for anatomical dissection. It's a remarkable book, one which brings to life the violent Hogarthian world and the endemic guerrilla battles between the lower classes and the men of property who resisted all attempts to rationalize the legal code because they well understood that a judicious mixture of paternalism, terror, caprice and mystery was needed to keep ""loose and disorderly persons"" at bay. As one jurist of the period reminded his brethren, ""physical strength lies in the governed.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1975
ISBN: 1844677168
Publisher: Pantheon