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Response to Review no. 230

I wish to thank Robin Briggs for his attentive and highly engaged discussion of The Crimes of Women in Early Modern Germany. He raises important questions about the broader framework of ideas and attitudes which supported attitudes towards women, practices of punishment and changes in disciplinary regimes during the eighteenth-century. Heide Wunder’s recently translated He is the Sun, She is the Moon: Women in Early Modern Germany provides perhaps the most comprehensive background discussion of gender relations and ideas about gender in Germany between 1450-1800, and Isabel Hull’s study, which Briggs mentions, is indeed the first one to look at changing administrative responses to sexual crime during the eighteenth century. She shows that local state bureaucrats were simply unable to implement high sentences and fines against ordinary citizens, and that the bribery and haggling which ensued further reduced trust in legal impartiality. I have myself developed the complexity of these issues from the viewpoint of local communities in an article which will be forthcoming in a volume of essay I am editing for Cambridge University Press. It is entitled Gender in Early Modern German History and due to be published in 2002.

There are many themes around these questions and other issues explored in my book which future research will hopefully pursue. One of the questions which still interest me most is how views of sexual abuse within the family changed during the eighteenth century. Up to 1700 girls and women of any age were punished for having been abused by any relative. As chapter 7 of my books shows, this attitude followed from the general view that women were sexually desirous and happy to seduce even relatives. When were women first seen as victims of abuse? Was there a discussion similar to the infanticide debate in eighteenth century Germany, which redefined murdering mothers as weak victims of male control?

This final chapter of my book on incest also demonstrates best the way in which I have tried to work analytically in an original way. It tries to unravel the emotional dynamics of families in which abuse took place, and this analysis still has relevance to understand contemporary cases, as I have subsequently learnt through conversations with judges and other experts. It makes us aware that we need to rethink how step-relations, for example, influenced the experience of family life, and what remarriage meant, which fears and demands it could facilitate. My analytical interest thus began to focus on the question of how early modern subjectivities were structured and how emotions could be given expression to, and such a deepened understanding of emotionality in history is what the chapter on incest particularly works towards. I have since developed this interest in an article on contemporary perceptions of the body and somatized emotions, which is forthcoming in History Workshop Journal.

In addition I strongly endorse an overall agenda which opts for comparative research on German Catholic and Protestant communities, independent, imperial cities and territorial towns and villages in order to analyse social change. German research on gender has somewhat neglected the seventeenth century, and especially the period after the Thirty Years’ War – but I hope that my study shows the usefulness of a longer view up to 1700, and beyond. Only a series of such studies which sensitively work from the local level will provide us with a reliable sense of chronologies of change and of the processes by which women of different status groups and ages internalised or resisted specific norms about gendered behaviour. Only then, I believe, will we get a better idea of how the notion of women’s inherently desirous and unruly nature – which was so powerful in European history for such a long time and had such consequences for women’s life particularly during the early modern period – shifted towards the idea that women could possess a better nature than men and even civilise them.