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Week Ten: the "Female Mind": Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909)

Lecture summary:

In the nineteenth century, biological and medical arguments were used to support opinions about the existence of a ‘natural’ difference between men and women, and the intellectual inferiority of women. For example, in anthropology, this gave rise to the idea that the smaller size of a woman’s brain signified lesser intellectual capability. This week we will examine how criminal anthropology interpreted the differences between women and men, and the extent to which phrenology and Darwin influenced criminal anthropology.

Tutorial focus

In the nineteenth century, biological and medical arguments were used to support opinions about the existence of a 'natural' difference between men and women, and the intellectual inferiority of women. For example, in anthropology, this gave rise to the idea that the smaller size of a woman's brain signified lesser intellectual capability. This week we will examine how criminal anthropology interpreted the differences between women and men, and the extent to which phrenology and Darwin influenced criminal anthropology.

Among the questions to keep in mind when studying this week's primary sources are:

  • What proofs do Lombroso and Ferrero provide for women's inferiority in relation to men?
  • According to Lombroso and Ferrero, what are the differences between a normal woman and a female offender?
  • What is 'atavism'? What is its role in the phenomenon of criminality, and human deviancy in general?

Required reading:

  • M. Gibson, Born to Crime. Cesare Lombroso and the Origins of Biological Criminology (2002), especially chapter 2.
  • D. Horn, The Criminal Body: Lombroso and the Anatomy of Deviance (2003), chapter 2.
  • D. Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, 1848-1918 (1989), chap. 5.

Recommended further reading:

Lombroso, Female Offender

Lombroso' s most important book is L'uomo delinquente (1876; 2nd edition, 1878; French trans., L'Homme criminel , 1887; German trans., Der Verbrecher , 1887; 4 th edition, 2 vols., 1889; 5 th and final edition, 3 vols., 1896-7; English version, Criminal Man According to the Classification of Cesare Lombroso , briefly summarised by his daughter Gina Lombroso Ferrero, with an introduction by Cesare Lombroso, New York, 1911).

He applied the methods of natural science (observation, measurement, experimentation, statistical analysis) to the study of criminal behaviour. Lombroso rejected the classical theory of crime, associated with Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, which explained criminal activity as freely chosen behaviour based on the rational calculation of benefit and loss, pleasure and pain - that is, criminals commit crime because they believe crime pays. Lombroso, by contrast, argued that criminality had an organic, hereditary basis; that it was a product not of rational, if perhaps erroneous, thought processes, but of a biological criminal tendency. He promoted the theory of 'atavism', which categorised criminals as developmental throwbacks, savages, reversions to more primitive stages of human evolution.

Some skulls from L'uomo delinquente, 1889

According to this theory criminals were distinct biologically from non-criminals , almost a different species, and they manifested certain stigmata or physical anomalies (abnormal jaw and skull formations, facial asymmetries, unusual ears, eye defects, abnormal noses, protruding lips, irregular teeth, a receding chin, excessive wrinkles, longer than normal arms, extra nipples or fingers or toes, etc.), which the criminologist could use to diagnose their criminality. Enrico Ferri coined the term 'born criminal' to express Lombroso's theory.

Cesare Lombroso: drawings of criminals- 1886

In later editions of L'uomo delinquente Lombroso broadened his theory in an attempt to account for the various cases of criminality that he came to believe were not caused by atavism. He stressed increasingly the idea that some criminals were the degenerate end-points of diseased, regressive evolutionary lines, and postulated a causal relationship between epilepsy and criminality. In Le Crime: Causes et Remèdes (1899; English trans. Crime: Its Causes and Remedies , 1911), perhaps because of the influence of his collaborator, Enrico Ferri, Lombroso further widened the range of his criminal typology to include occasional or 'evolutive' criminals who were not, strictly speaking, throwbacks to primitive man. He subdivided the occasional criminals into various categories, such as pseudo-criminals, those who commit illegal but not immoral acts (e.g. in self-defence), criminaloids, those who have a relatively weak biological tendency to commit crime, whose criminal behaviour is prompted mainly by environmental conditions, or by sheer opportunism; and habitual criminals, who have no organic criminal tendency, and fall into a life of crime because of poor parenting and education, or perhaps by association (e.g. the Mafia).

Drawings of noses from Lombroso's L'uomo delinquente,

Lombroso also identified a small number of so-called epileptoids who commit crime because they are affected by epilepsy. Finally, he separated out criminals of passion, those who commit violent crimes when possessed by the 'irresistible force' of love or anger or because their honour has been impugned. Included in this group are political criminals, who are unusually, perhaps pathologically, intelligent or sensitive or altruistic or patriotic or pious. In Crime; Its Causes and Remedies , Lombroso suggested that about 33% of criminals were born with a criminal instinct. In 1896 he had put the figure at around 40%.

As early as the first edition of L'uomo delinquente, Lombroso included observations on the specificity of female criminality, pointing out that prostitution represented the typical form of female crime. In 1893, Lombroso extended his analyses and with his son-in law Guglielmo Ferrero (1871-1942), he published La donna delinquente, la prostituta e la donna normale (The criminal woman, the prostitute and the normal woman). The two authors portrayed the normal woman as strongly associated with motherhood, which many physicians of the late nineteenth century thought was women's biological goal. Lombroso and Ferrero represented the normal woman as a good bourgeois mother, sexually passive, without any autonomy, dependent on the father of her children, and naturally and organically monogamous and frigid. Lombroso, like many of his contemporaries, thought that women were inferior to men. He used biological data such as the smaller size of the average female brain and body to allegedly demonstrate the intellectual inferiority of women. Supported by evolution theories of the time, Lombroso described women as ' undeveloped' men. While participating in the struggle for existence, men had acquired more skills, and so were in a superior evolutionary stage compared to women [see attachments].

Recommended readings

  1. Primary Sources

Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Man / translated and with a new introduction by Mary Gibson and Nicole Hahn Rafter [1876] (2006)

Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Guglielmo, Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman / translated and with a new introduction by Nicole Hahn Rafter and Mary Gibson [1893] (2004)

2. Secondary Sources

Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900 (1980).

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1991).

David Garland, Punishment and Welfare: A History of Penal Strategies (1987).

Mary Gibson, 'On the Insensitivity of Women: Science and the Woman Question in Liberal Italy, 1890-1910', Journal of Women's History 2 (1990): 11-41.

Mary Gibson, Born to Crime : Cesare Lombroso and the Origins of Biological Criminology (2002).

Mary Gibson, 'Labelling Women Deviant: Heterosexual Women, Prostitutes and Lesbians in Early Criminological Discourse', in P. Wilson (ed.), Gender, Family and Sexuality: The Private Sphere in Italy, 1860-1945.

David Horn, The Criminal Body. Lombroso and the Anatomy of Deviance (2003).

Huertas, R., 'Madness and Degeneration', History of Psychiatry 4 (1993), 141-158.

S. H. Mannheim, Pioneers in Criminology (1972 ).

Daniel Pick, Faces of degeneration: A European disorder, c.1848-c.1918 (1989).

Leon Radzinowicz and Roger Hood, The Emergence of Penal Policy in Victorian and Edwardian England: Volume 5 of A History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750 (1986).

Susan Sleeth Mosedale, 'Science Corrupted: Victorian Biologists Consider the "Woman Question", Journal of the History of Biology 11 (1978): 1-55.

Frank M. Turner, Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England 1974).

Martin J. Wiener, Reconstructing the Criminal: Culture, law, and policy in England, 1830-1914 (1990).

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