Medieval Crime and Social Control

By Barbara A. Hanawalt; David Wallace | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Fear of Crime in
Late Medieval France

Claude Gauvard

The fear of crime permeated French society in the late Middle Ages. The protracted disorder resulting from the Hundred Years' War, the civil war between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs, and the increased mobility of the population as a result of war, plague, and widening economic networks induced a perception that heinous crimes were on the increase. The population believed that crimes such as murder, arson, rape, highway robbery, incest, and sodomy struck at the very heart of society and threatened to tear apart the social fabric. The clergy saw these stereotypical crimes as God's punishment for the sins of his people, but blamed the king for not doing more to protect his subjects. Humanists joined in the discussion of crime and urged judicial reform on the king. The fear of crime, therefore, played a major role in the emergence of the French state at the end of the Middle Ages. Pursuit and punishment of criminals became a mandate for the French monarch and, in turn, strengthened the control of the monarchy over the countryside.

In late medieval judicial practice, solving a crime required the truth, not so much for the sake of making a case that morally and intellectually satisfied the judges and the opposing party, but rather for finding a guilty party whose arrest could atone for the offense committed against society. The more heinous the crime, the more essential it was to find the criminal and punish him. The nature of the crime, therefore, began to determine the ordinary or extraordinary judicial procedures used. At the end of the fourteenth century, Jean Bouteiller clarified the principles for allowing the seriousness of the crime to determine treatment of the offender: “Thus, you can and must know that there are several cases that are not to receive forgiveness, such as murderers, arsonists, rapists, highway robbers (whom the clerics call plunderers of the people [depraedatores populorum]), traitors, heretics, sodomites. Such ones as these are not to receive pardon legally.” Aleaume Cachemarée's itemization of cases at Châtelet during the same period points to the same conclusion.1 Justice, however, limited itself to experimentation, and it was not before the ordinance of 1498 that two distinct procedures were defined.2 In practice, however, a hierarchy among the crimes was sketched out that irreversibly dictated the type of proceedings by which the suspect was tried, sentenced, and punished. Fear aroused by these stereotypical

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