Content Warning: discussion of execution gets a bit gruesome.
Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey, A Weak Woman in a Strong Battle: Women and Public Execution in Early Modern England (University of Alabama Press, 2022) provides a new perspective on the representations of women on the scaffold, focusing on how female victims and those writing about them constructed meaning from the ritual. A significant part of the execution spectacle-one used to assess the victim's proper acceptance of death and godly repentance-was the final speech offered at the foot of the gallows or before the pyre. To ensure that their words on the scaffold held value for audiences, women adopted conventionally gendered language and positioned themselves as subservient and modest. Just as important as their words, though, were the depictions of women's bodies. Drawing on a wide range of genres, from accounts of martyrdom to dramatic works, this study explores not only the words of women executed in Tudor and Stuart England, but also the ways that writers represented female bodies as markers of penitence or deviance. The reception of women's speeches, Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey argues, depended on their performances of accepted female behaviors and words as well as physical signs of interior regeneration. Indeed, when women presented themselves or were represented as behaving in stereotypically feminine and virtuous ways, they were able to offer limited critiques of their fraught positions in society.
The first part of this study investigates the early modern execution, including the behavioral expectations for condemned individuals, the medieval tradition that shaped the ritual, and the gender specific ways English authorities legislated and carried out women's executions. Depictions of the female body are the focus of the second part of the book. The executed woman's body, Lodine-Chaffey contends, functioned as a text, scrutinized by witnesses and readers for markers of innocence or guilt. These signs, though, were related not just to early modern ideas about female modesty and weakness, but also to the developing martyrdom tradition, which linked bodies and behavior to inner spiritual states. While many representations of women focused on physical traits and behaviors coded as godly, other accounts highlighted the grotesque and bestial attributes of women deemed unrepentant or evil. Part Three considers the rhetorical strategies used by women and their authors, highlighting the ways that women positioned themselves as stereotypically weak in order to defuse criticism of their speeches and navigate their positions in society, even when awaiting death on the scaffold. The greater focus on the words and bodies of women facing execution during this period, Lodine-Chaffey argues, became a catalyst for a more thorough interest in and understanding of women's roles not just as criminals but as subjects.
Jana Byars is the Academic Director of Netherlands: International Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender.
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