Criminal justice in the Italian city-states of the thirteenth century was still deeply enmeshed in the traditional premises and practices of early medieval criminal law. The prosecution of crime was dependent upon private accusation by the victim or the victim’s heirs, and punishment was based upon a very personalized definition of crime. Only a limited number of crimes, such as arson, counterfeiting, false testimony, and sodomy were considered to be offenses against the morality, interests, and safety of the community. Most major violent crimes, such as murder, theft, rape, kidnapping, and assault, were viewed not as public but as essentially personal offenses, as injuries against particular individuals rather than as injuries against the community. In these cases the primary role of government was to reconcile criminal and victim rather than to punish the offender. Consequently, the penalties for all crimes of personal violence took the form of composition – that is, payment of a fine which served to compose the differences between offender and victim. Fines were made proportionate to the nature of the offense, the status of both the victim and the criminal, and the setting of the crime. If the accused could not pay, but could prove poverty, the penalty might be adjusted in proportion to the accused’s ability to pay. If the accused were contumacious, he or she was banished and could not return until the fine was paid and the offender had made a pax or concordia, that is, a formal peace agreement, with the victim or the victim’s heirs.

The goal of criminal justice was to control the explosive potential of the vendetta, to arrange for the payment of fines and formation of peace agreements that would expiate the crime and serve as substitutes for the vendetta, while retaining the premises of the vendetta. The primary function of criminal court prosecution was to satisfy the honor of the victim or his family and to compensate for damages. […]

In the course of the thirteenth century this personalized, modified-vendetta system of criminal justice underwent significant transformations, and became much harsher and more depersonalized, with a deterrent and public or community-oriented conception of crime and punishment. The degree of change, however, varied among the city-states: In Bologna, criminal law reform was particularly intensive. Since Bologna in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was a major center for the revival of Roman and canon law, it is not surprising that criminal justice in that city was more precocious and sophisticated than in most other Italian cities. But it must be emphasized that socioeconomic, religious, and political pressures, such as the growth of a popular party called the popolo, combined in the second half of the thirteenth century to shape an environment that made Bologna’s legal system receptive to the new concepts and procedures of Roman and canon law.

Sarah Rubin Blanshei, “Crime and Law Enforcement in Medieval Bologna” (1982)


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