Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Crime–Which, After All, Is Partially The Point

with 8 comments

Police forces as we know them are inventons of the nineteenth century.  In the English-speaking world, there were sheriffs and baliffs and officers of the court who took on some police functions, but in thirteenth century England, nobody felt the need for what we would call policing–for having somebody walking around, checking to make sure nobody was committing crimes.  Nor did they see any need for men whose lives were dedicated to investigating crimes that had occured and determing who must have done them.

I’m sure that, for most of the readers of this blog, none of this will come as new information.  I certainly knew about it long before I ever did any formal study in the Middle Ages. 

What I do not understand is why this fact doesn’t seem as odd to anybody else as it does to me.  Some of the problem is surely a matter of size.  Small towns and rural villages have less crime than large cities do because at least some crime in predicated on the assumption that the criminal does not know the victim. 

In fact, a lot of crime is.  People are, in general, much more willing to rob, beat, and murder people they don’t know than people they do.  The stats on murder are actually closer to a draw on that, but the principle is sound–we see people we know personally in a different way than we see people who are strangers or mostly stranger.

And there is the issue, as well, of understanding.  In a very small town, the chances are good that the rest of the people in the area already have your number.  They know how you think, they know how you act, and they know how you behave.

That was one of the points in favor of a jury of your peers that has become significantly distorted in recent legal practice.  These days, we worry that people who know you are too likely to be prejudiced either for or against you, and insist that any jury hearing your cases be made up of people who have no personal knowledge of you at all.  If we can manage it, we’ll insist that it be made up of people who have never heard of you.

And there’s a certain amount of logic to that.  Small towns can be claustophobic,, isolated, small-minded and close-minded places, as well as places where everybody knows your name.

But what’s on my mind this morning is the fact that there were cities in England, even in the thirteenth century, large enough to qualify as cities even now.  Oh, there was nothing the size of present-day London, or New Y ork, but there were places with populations of 10,000 and up, and 10,000 is the number usually thought, these days, to make a significant difference to the incidence of crime. 

One of the things I have on my TBR pile that I’ve never quite gotten up the courage to start in on–and it’s been there for years–is a thing called A History of London by Stephen Inwood.  It’s big enough, even in the trade paperback edition, to build a hamster cage out of. 

I like long nonfiction books when I’m writing, because they tend to be unobtrusive in terms of narrative voice and they provide a continuity that means I don’t have to keep shifting mental gears at a time when I do have to keep shifting them when I work.  This particular long piece of nonfiction, though, is so long that it’s absolutely frozen me.

Even so, I do look into the thing from time to time, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that there’s very little in the way of reporting on crime.

I don’t mean I expect this guy to have written little histories of true crime cases, although I can think of a couple of those cases that might have been interesting.  And I have to acknowledge that this book, like most general histories not specifically devoted to the Middle Ages, is rather weak on all periods before the eighteenth century. 

But still.

This was an era in which it was possible to receive as a sentence for committing murder…a fine.  And those fines were not restricted to aristocratic killers.  Execution for simple, nonpolitical, individual murder was actually fairly rare in the Middle Ages in England.  So were long prison sentences. 

And yet this was not an anarchic mess.   Government functioned.  So did business.  Families were formed and raised and perpetuated.

In a city of the same size now–say, for instance, Waterbury, CT–this particular approach to crime would probably result in just that anarchy that we’re all afraid of.

I’ve also got no doubt that there was a fair amount of simple, individual murder that went undetected, and often even unsuspected.  It was an era in which people died young of mysterious diseases and ailments for which there was no satisfactory scientific explanation.  A knowledge of some of the more uncommon poisons would have gone a long way to ridding you of a spouse while the neighborhood just assumed he’d succumbed to the latest form of wasting disease.

Of course, there was always the danger of being accused, tried an executed for witchcraft, but such trials, and such executions, were surpriingly rare.  The old  Women’s Studies canard about the “great burning” of women as witches is just that, a canard.  Trials for witchcraft happened, and executions for witchcraft happened, but less often than you’d think, at least at this period.

The great period for witchburings was the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.  And the witches were almost as likely to be male as female. 

I still wonder, though, if there hasn’t been some significant sea change in human personalities in the years since the rise of the Enlightenment. 

Ack.  It’s dificult to date this stuff. 

It does seem to me that there has been a break, and that the break coincids with a change in the kinds and frequencies of crimes, as well as the ways in which we investigate them.

But maybe it’s just Monday morning, and I’m just blithering.

Written by janeh

December 14th, 2009 at 11:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Crime–Which, After All, Is Partially The Point'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Crime–Which, After All, Is Partially The Point'.

  1. Well, Jane, you know much more about the Middle Ages than I do, as a mere amateur, so maybe you can answer the first question that pops into my head, which is about the sources of control.

    The church, during the Middle Ages, had a rather peculiar relationship with ‘secular’ power structures and law and order. On the one hand, church and state were practically incestuous, to my post-modern eyes, and could certainly attempt to control a lot of anti-social violence with anything from the threats of hellfire to actual expulsion from a community (although not, generally speaking, execution).

    On the other hand, some of the greatest rulers of the period (at least in England; I know lamentably little about medieval Europe) were people like Henry I & II who were famous partly as law-givers, for establishing a legal system outside the church and reining in the feudal lords who could inflict violent harm on people in a local community in spite of local customary law (and, of course, they could inflict violent harm on the king, which is probably part of the reason so many medieval kings spent so much time and money manipulating and eventually subjugating the great lords).

    To my mind – and I may be incorrect – there were three forces that kept down crimes in medieval times – the church, customary law, and the steadily increasing efforts of a king to form a central government and control the people with armies. Now we have one, the secular government, with a minority of people being controlled by religious (or other ethical) teachings. Customary practices have vanished. Does that account for some of the differences? I doubt it’s the level of punishment – that’s varied over the centuries, becoming less violent, yes, but also options such as imprisonment were really only practical when societies became rich enough to build and staff massive prisons.

    I’ve recently discovered that some of what is now Germany had prince-bishops who handily combined in one person two of my three categories of sources of social order. But I don’t know much about them.


    14 Dec 09 at 12:06 pm

  2. I certainly don’t have extensive knowledge about the middle ages but what about punishment of criminals intiated by the monarchy? Did the term “medieval torture” refer to something else? As I understand it there were people appointed by the monarch at the time to deal with crime and criminals although they were quite different than modern police. Perhaps since mass journalism did’t really begin (did it?) until the 17th century less was known about crime than after that time.


    14 Dec 09 at 3:00 pm

  3. I can’t help but think that in part at least, in order to have much property crime, there must be property worth stealing. Further, you must either have a specific need for the specific item – or a way to turn some item into cash. And before refrigeration and canning there wouldn’t even have been all that much food around to steal. No such thing as regular paydays would have also meant there was no predictable day when there would be walking around with an amount of cash worth stealing. Everybody, to a reasonable approximation, walked. Everybody, to a reasonable approximation, bought food day to day. Few had any luxery items. By modern standards, even the wealthy had few luxeries.

    So it seems to me that, again to a reasonable approximation, one of the triad necessary for crime was missing – actual opportunity.


    14 Dec 09 at 3:30 pm

  4. Definitions of crime and opportunities for crime have changed substantially since the MA.

    Property crimes…not so many people had property back then, and those that had it tended to have their own security. You’re not going to break & enter a manor house or a castle with guards, and the peasants have nothing to steal.

    Other than graft & corruption in government & church, white collar crimes were almost non-existent, banks, corporations and other such targets being also non-existent. The middle class was vanishingly small, and the law of predator and prey says that their predators must also have been small in numbers too.

    Crimes against persons? Things we now perceive as crimes and prosecute just didn’t rise to that level. People getting in fistfights? Not a crime. Lords whacking a few peasants? Not a crime. Rape of spouse or woman of lower social class? Generally not a crime. Certainly not reported to any authority nor prosecuted. Selling snake oil or bad food? Not a crime.

    Muggings have always been around, called by other names. Murder, of course, is always the biggie, though if you were the lord of the place, I suspect you might get away with it, since you were also the law or were closely associated with same.

    Crimes that did happen and were considered crimes, were often not traced back to the source. Due to lack of forensic knowledge, they couldn’t determine when a fire was arson, nor who might have set it. Who killed someone, with knife or club or garrotte, or who robbed the rich man and ran off in the night. No law enforcement agency likes to own up to their unsolved statistics, so those might have been omitted from reports.

    Entire categories of crime didn’t exist back then. Think about all the municipal regulations one can violate now, building codes, health codes, zoning violations, etc. Just didn’t happen. On the other hand, categories of crime have gone extinct as well. Public indecency (for far less than nudity, think PDAs). Blasphemy. I suspect many actual crimes were handled very informally, with a whipping or behanding or a bit of time in the stocks. Would those make the crime reports? Would any town historian spend a lot of time telling other people about their dregs and miscreants?

    Among all the other things that weren’t invented yesterday, spin is right up there. With few sources from back in the MA, it doesn’t seem impossible that the ones that persist are incomplete in the matter of crime reporting. Of all the things to report about present day towns, that’s pretty far down on the list. Unless it’s Detroit. ;)


    14 Dec 09 at 3:35 pm

  5. Naturally, my copy is in Indiana, but the title is something like “Crime in Medieval England,” and it’s a good 20 years old or more.
    Overall, the system isn’t the mess you’d think. There isn’t a uniformed police force–That was bitterly resented when it finally came in, as the sort of thing the French might do–but The shire reeves (hence sheriffs) were responsible for investigations, and the barons took up a lot of the slack. In fact, if a body was found there HAD to be an investigation, and because the initial post-Conquest policy was of mass punishment if anything happened to a Norman, into the 20th Century the coroner had to first prove the body was English. (No, I don’t know what happened if the murder victim was some Scots merchant.)
    Borough officials were responsible for keeping order in “their” towns and generally had a watch of some sort, if only to enforce curfew and keep the place from burning down.
    Overall, though, punishment was either death, a fine or some sort of corporal punishment–from branding to whips and the stocks. You only kept a man imprisoned until you figured out what to do with him. The idea of imprisoning someone as punishment seems to be a 19th Century thing, and went with a real belief in remaking the prisoner–hence the “penitentiary” in which the prisoner–cut off from criminal companions and exposed only to Bibles and other improving works–was to become penitent. It’s much more akin to brainwashing than to modern prison techniques, which seem to combine the worst of both models–considerable expense to the state and little chance of reformation.
    But we’re so much more enlightened now the system not working is almost secondary.


    14 Dec 09 at 4:53 pm

  6. I think that although people had fewer material goods, that doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be theft. It just means that the theft would be of things we wouldn’t consider of much value. Clothing was of value, as were household utensils. Rights were of value – I think in some places there were quarrels over who had the rights to plant or harvest certain places or plants, and people accused their neighbours of moving boundary stones. There’s an amusing an very un-medieval short story set in Newfoundland in which the local layabout was charged with stealing a hole in the ice – he’d done some ice-fishing in an areas someone else had a right to, and through the other person’s fishing hole.

    There were a lot of rules about commercial violations – there are illustrations showing the punishment of bakers who sold short weight and it was a very bad idea to try to sell anything at a fair without paying the proper fee to the monastery or city (in later years) running it. Breaking the peace – causing a fight or a riot – was definitely illegal. As cities grew, so did the regulations about putting lights outside your door and where you could dump your waste.

    I think there was a lot of law and law enforcement in the Middle Ages, but they often didn’t follow the patterns we recognize. It wasn’t professional, except for the king’s judges and the local baron (when he wasn’t occupied doing other things). It didn’t claim to protect everyone or get every wrongdoing. It could be corrupted, but the peasants had rights too. Different rights (to land tenancy & inheritance, to the right to leave the land) in different places, according to customary law in early days, but there were rules, as harsh and strange as some of them are to us.


    15 Dec 09 at 8:17 am

  7. “I still wonder, though, if there hasn’t been some significant sea change in human personalities in the years since the rise of the Enlightenment.” I think, yes. That sense of individual rights – the individual as more important than the state or the church – became a strong force during enlightenment. Certainly most people probably felt they had rights, but it wasn’t until the Reformation that the general populace felt they could assert those rights.

    I think it’s a very subtle change. If I have personal rights that take precedence over state rights, then my wants and desires must be important. I’m thinking here of Social Contract theories. Instead of the state being by necessity more important, it becomes important only because I allow it to be. Now that my wants and desires have value, I must consider how to fulfill those desires. Theft, especially theft from a stranger, might be a valid means to fulfill my desires.

    The more I think about this, the more complicated it is. I think of Socrates being tried for corrupting the youth yet refusing to go into exile because the state of Athens (and its justice) superseded his own desires for freedom. Yet I cannot think of such similar trials or arguments after the Greeks.

    As for the poor in medieval Europe – I think they did have things to steal – if only a loaf of bread. It is artificial to think that because they didn’t have big screen TVs , they didn’t have things worth stealing. Food, house wares, personal items like small pieces of jewelry, even perhaps small instruments were all commodities worthy of theft. The question becomes – did they steal and how was that action prosecuted? Ellis Peters – where are you when we need you?


    15 Dec 09 at 11:21 am

  8. I think personality is too basic to change much, but the way we learn to express various bits of our personalities change according to our culture and our family. Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference, though.

    You need to say what you mean by ‘right’. Medieval people had rights, but many of the ‘rights’ we have today weren’t among them. A medieval peasant wouldn’t have had the right to vote, and certainly not the right to have a same-sex marriage, but he could claim various other rights, depending on when and where he lived, like the right to inherit from his father, or the right to be free of all legal obligations to his landlord if he managed to reach a city and live within in for a certain period of time, or the right to build a house on a certain spot. Duties were probably more important than they are now – he would also have a duty to provide specified amounts of produce or labour to his lord.

    They definitely stole, and were prosecuted. distinctions between minor and major thefts seem to got back to the Anglo-Saxons. This author gives an outline:



    15 Dec 09 at 12:36 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 217 access attempts in the last 7 days.