Crime, a term that enters Middle English from Old French, derives ultimately from the Latin cernere (to decide, discern, pass judgment). It is hence always bound up with matters of interpretation; such matters always subtend the most basic procedures for tracking down, trying, and punishing those who commit the basic felonies of larceny, burglary, robbery, arson, homicide, rape, and receiving of unknown felons. Medieval societies were continually redefining the actions that constituted these felonies; their legal definitions shifted markedly with variations of place and time. Many people took a role in formulating such definitions: officials administering the law, victims of criminous actions, and the accused all refined arguments for their self-interested positions. Victims demanded satisfaction, the accused sought exculpation, and the officers of social control sought to regulate things in such a way that their idea of good lordship or communal order in the emerging states could be maintained. Crime also encompassed behaviors that fell outside standard framings of felonious acts. Societies define deviance differently, proscribing certain sorts of behavior but tolerating others. In many medieval communities, for instance, levels of violent self-help in solving disputes far exceeded what we would consider desirable norms. And yet, at the same time, medieval society was gradually moving—through the repetitive definition, regulation, and punishment of behaviors considered antisocial — toward broader empowerment of the kind of state apparatus that suggests itself as normative, even indispensable, today.
If medieval communities were generally more accepting of personal vendetta, it is because it was a ready and often justifiable solution to perceived wrongs. Other recourses to justice could be too remote to guarantee satisfaction. Furthermore, the eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth principles could be reconciled with both biblical and Germanic law. Even when written law codes and the establishment of monarchies and feudal states meant that legal responsibility was in the hands of these authorities or of those to whom they delegated them, enforcement was sporadic. Set standards for social control officers varied from place to place, so that processes of arrest, trial, and punishment were as experimental and subject to change as were the very definitions of criminal behavior. Authorities competed. Lay, noble, and royal jurisdictions overlapped; towns had . . .