New Treasons

I have reported a few times on the imbalances in the British legal system with respect to capital crimes, for example, that women were burnt at the stake for murdering their husbands as this was deemed an act of treason. This is due to an amendment to the Statute of Treason of 1352. It originally covered only acts relating to the king and the realm, but it was expanded. This is from Barbara A Hanawalt’s book The Wealth of Wives:

“and in addition there is another kind of treason that is to say when a servant kills his master, a woman kills her husband or a man in religious orders kills his prelate, to whom he owes faith and obedience.

In declaring these actions treasonous, the law meant that a woman who killed her husband, a servant who killed his master, and a monk who killed his abbot would be punished as a traitor.  Women would be burned, and a man drawn, hanged and quartered. No new law was needed, as this had log been the practice. But the curious addition of private, familial violence to a statute dealing with  state treason tells us much about the shoring up of patriarchal authority  in the period following the Black Death.”

The Black Death did not just kill lots of people, it shook their faith in god and authority. Pillars of the community, the pious were just as likely to be struck down as the lower order and criminals. The lack of labourers meant that they could demand higher wages, which added to the nervousness of those in power.


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