petit treason | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law 

Petit treason is a historical term from criminal justice referring to the crime committed when a person kills their legal spouse or a servant betrays their master.

Historical Origin of Petit Treason

The term petit treason originated from English common law, a system of law that both the United States and many other countries use as a foundation for their own legal systems. Above all, it was treated seriously, not only because of the violent act itself but also because it violated the societal norms and hierarchy of the time.

Defining Petit Treason

If we break down the term, ‘petit’ is a French word for ‘small’ or ‘minor.’ Thus, ‘petit treason’ means a ‘minor act of treason.’ But don’t be fooled by the ‘minor’ in its name. This crime was seen as grave and punishable by severe penalties.

This was considered a grave crime because it involved the act of betrayal or killing within an intimate or trusted relationship. Whether it was a spouse or a servant, the law considered these relationships as a form of fealty or duty, similar to the relationship between a citizen and their country. In other words, killing a spouse or a master was seen as an act of treason, albeit on a smaller, more personal level.

Examples of Petit Treason

Now let’s look at some examples.

First, if a wife killed her husband, it was considered petit treason. At the time, the law viewed the husband as the wife’s superior. Hence, if she murdered him, it was viewed as a form of betrayal, similar to a citizen rebelling against their country.

Second, the crime also included a servant killing their master. Servants, in those days, owed their masters a duty of loyalty, much like citizens owe their country. If they killed their master, it was seen as a betrayal of this duty.

Petit Treason Today

Afterward, laws and societal norms evolved. The concept was abolished in England in 1828, and it has no place in modern American criminal law. Today acts that would have been considered such are now classified under other crimes, such as murder or manslaughter.

Nevertheless, the idea is still relevant in the study of history and law. It helps us understand how societal norms and values shape our understanding of crime and punishment.

All things considered, petit treason is a reminder of how the law has evolved to reflect our changing understanding of personal relationships and individual rights.


In conclusion, petit treason is a term from historical English law used to describe the grave act of a person killing his or her lawful spouse or a servant betraying his or her master. It’s a window into past societal norms and legal thought. But, even if the crime no longer exists, it has left a lasting impact on our understanding of crime and punishment.

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Last Modified: 07/13/2023

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