The new patterns of prosecution as revealed in the post-popolo records of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century reflect not only a greater proportion of foreigners, but also an increasing number of magnates. This heightened visibility of nobles, magnates, and other members of the elite in judicial records stems, as we shall see, from the new political situation of that period and an increased manipulation of the judicial system for political or factional purposes.

The new political situation began to develop in 1292 when certain individuals who had been banished throughout the popolo period were permitted to return to Bologna. In 1300 there was a general reconciliation between the groups in power in Bologna – called the Geremei faction – and those groups that had been in exile since 1274 – the Lambertazzi party. The readmission of the Lambertazzi resulted, however, not in civic harmony but in political realignments that soon caused deep splits within the still dominant Geremei faction, with one group within the Geremei – the “Pars Marchesana” – opposing reconciliation with the Lambertazzi and advocating friendship with the Marchese d’Este, the former bitter enemy of Bologna. In 1306 this intransigent faction gained power, and the criminal courts became an instrument of vendetta employed by the new ruling faction to strengthen its political position and punish its enemies.

Once again the inquisition records contain a high level of assault, riot and sedition cases as the ruling classes’ fear of revolution again became stronger than its fear of marginal groups in society. This change is similar to the one that occurred in 1296, when the concern that enemy agents might incite riots and rebellions in the city led to increased prosecution of foreigners and assault cases, but in 1306 there is a parallel development that is new to that year and marks a major modification in the use of the accusation process. In the 1280s, as we shall see, the elite had appeared frequently in the accusations, and when a feud flared up between aristocratic families, the elite became highly visible in the records as the families resolved their differences in a web of charges and counter-charges. But other more humble social groups had also utilized the accusation process for the same purpose. Increasingly, however, after 1306, members of the elite in power came to dominate the accusation records, and to use the accusation process as a means of protecting themselves from the opposing faction.

The legal instrument which made possible this manipulation of the courts for factional vendetta was judicial “privilege.” Special legal protection, or “privileges” had been accorded all members of the popolo party in the 1280s with additional protection for popolo officials. Legal privileges granted to all members of the popolo (but popolo in this context refers only to members of the popular societies – the guilds and armed companies – and their sons, brothers, and fathers) included heavier monetary penalties against any magnate committing an act of violence against such a privileged person; condemnation of a magnate on the basis of a privileged person’s accusation alone; and secret accusations by such privileged persons. Popolo officials had much more extensive privileges, including immunity from any investigation or punishment for any crime committed in self-defense.

Although the new legal privileges of the ruling faction in the fourteenth century were less sweeping than those granted to the popolo officials in the 1280s, they nevertheless were broader than the general legal protection granted to all members of the popolo societies and did give the ruling faction a powerful legal weapon. The process by which the ruling faction became legally privileged was two-fold: Gradually members of the opposition were erased from popular societies so that to be a “privileged person” came to be synonomous with belonging to one of the factions into which the popolo had subdivided – the faction in power. Second, the nature of legal privilege itself was expanded to include not only protection from magnates but from Lambertazzi and specifically from the former members of popular societies who had been removed from those societies, that is, individuals of the opposing faction. The exclusion of the opposing popolo faction from legal privileges was accomplished in 1303 after the January conspiracy and uprising of that year, by assigning to the opposing popolani and their descendants the status of magnates and by removing their names from the matriculas of the popular societies.

The breakdown of the popolo into clearly defined, legally distinctive factions is apparent by 1303, but the key year in this development is really 1306. Later privilege lists, such as those of 1310 and 1319, refer back to 1306 as the major point of change in early fourteenth century political and legal structures.

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


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