murder, early modern England, women, popular literature, pamphlets, broadsides, plays, Elizabethan, Jacobean;


This thesis examines artistic and literary images of murderous women in popular print published in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. The construction of murderous women in criminal narratives, published between 1558 and 1625 in pamphlet, ballad, and play form, is examined in the context of contemporary historical records and cultural discourse. Chapter One features a literature review of the topic in recent scholarship. Chapter Two, comprised of two subsections, discusses representations of early modern women in contemporary literature and criminal archives. The subsections in Chapter Two examine early modern treatises, sermons, and essays concerning the nature of women, the roles and responsibilities of wives and mothers, and debates about marriage, as well as a review of women tried for murder in the Middlesex assize courts between 1558 and 1625. Chapter Three, comprised of four subsections, engages in critical readings of approximately 52 pamphlets, ballads, and plays published in the same period. Individual subsections discuss how traitorous wives, murderous mothers, women who murder in their communities, and punishment and redemption are represented in the narratives. Woodcut illustrations printed in these texts are also examined, and their iconographic contributions to the construction of bad women is discussed. Women who murder in these texts are represented as consummately evil creatures capable of inflicting terrible harm to their families and communities, and are consistently discovered, captured, and executed by their communities for their heinous crimes. Murderous women in early modern popular literature also provided a means for contemporary men and women to explore, confront, and share in the depths of sin, while anticipating their own spiritual salvation. Pamphlets, plays, and broadsides related bawdy, graphic, and violent stories that allow modern readers a glimpse of the popular culture and mental world of Renaissance England.


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Graduation Date



Larson, Peter


Master of Arts (M.A.)


College of Graduate Studies


Liberal and Interdisciplinary Studies

Degree Program

Interdisciplinary Studies








Release Date

September 2009

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Masters Thesis (Open Access)