So infested did the contado become with criminal and political banniti by the late 1280s that the commune began a policy of systematically sending troops into the contado to attempt to capture the ever-increasing number of banished outlaws. The basic obstacle to effective enforcement and capture of the banniti, however, was not merely the limited nature of the police forces, but also the widespread community support available to those banished. The criminal records contain a considerable number of accusations by the victims or their families charging that their offenders were receiving refuge in the contado, that relatives and friends were giving them “auxilium, consulem, et favorem.” Some of the charges were against village officials, the massari, for permitting such activities.

Law enforcement in the thirteenth century depended on the capture of criminals by members of the community, but that support was not forthcoming, except in a very selective way, even when the commune legislated sizeable rewards for those capturing banniti.

The new deterrent, impersonal attitude toward crime and punishment had not triumphed over the older values; rather the reform movement had resulted in two parallel, coexisting systems of prosecution and punishment. Charges against offenders continued to originate by private accusation initiated by the victim or his or her heirs, and in such cases the motivation behind the charge continued to be based upon modified-vendetta concepts of criminal justice. The majority of accusation cases concerned assaults. The goal in most of these cases was to force the offender to compensate the victim, acknowledge his offense, and reconcile with his victim and thereby expiate the crime without recourse to the vendetta and further violence and without damaging the honor of the parties concerned. Cases that were successfully resolved resulted in the accusor renouncing his charges, paying a small fine, and in the absolution or acquittal of the accused – and the overwhelming majority of accusation cases were concluded in this way.

Assault cases usually resulted in acquittal of the accused because assault was viewed as a tolerable crime, particularly if it occurred among members of the urban community. Indeed, the podesta, upholder of public authority in criminal justice, was not permitted to investigate assault cases in the city unless the assault involved a forensis or scolaris, or took place at night in the platea communis, or in the communal palaces. Assault was a private crime, generally processed in the courts by the accusation procedure, and only in certain circumstances did it impinge upon the public sphere and become appropriate for the inquisition process, as in assaults in the contado, where the commune feared the influence of feudators and “foreign” powers, and in the platea communis, which was considered a dangerous place since crimes there had obvious political overtones and could lead to riots that might endanger the government.

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


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