The rise of the popolo or popular party in many thirteenth-century Italian communes, its socioeconomic composition and the significance of its conflicts with older established’ groups in authority – the magnates – have been subjects of polemical scholarly debate since the late nineteenth century. It seems clear that at Bologna the new reforms in criminal law were closely tied to the popolo party’s program of law and order, and its attempt to build a more stable society; all were crucial elements of popolo ideology. The new criminal law reforms first appear in the popolo party’s legislation of 1248, and were renewed in 1282 and 1284. According to the reforms, homicide was to carry a death sentence for all offenders, not just hired assassins. The severity of the law was to apply equally to all, and those who did not appear in court when charged with homicide were to be treated as if convicted and were to be condemned to perpetual banishment. If ever captured, they were to be decapitated within three days. Moreover, the efficacy of the peace agreement to cancel banishments for major crimes were no longer to be recognized, which further depersonalized criminal justice since the fate of the accused no longer depended upon the victim or victim’s family.

Criminal justice in the reform period of the late thirteenth century was also characterized by the expanding role of government in the prosecution of crime. In the first half of the century the reporting and prosecution of crime had depended almost totally upon private accusations from the victim or his or her family: In 1234, for example, 90 percent of those banished were charged by private accusation. The alternative procedure was an investigation or inquisitio initiated by the government on the basis of reports from parish and village officials. Such a procedure emphasized public responsibility for the reporting and prosecution of crime. In inquisition procedure the victim did not have the right to terminate the charge nor the responsibility to provide witnesses and give securities for the veracity of their testimony. The kinds of crimes that could be prosecuted this way were specified by statute, and by the 1280s had become almost all-encompassing. By the 1280s the balance between private accusation and public inquisition procedure had shifted dramatically; 57 percent of banishment decrees had their origins in inquisition procedures, in contrast to only 10 percent in 1234.

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


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