In the rapidly developing historiography of Italian medieval crime and justice, 1 a settled view seems to have developed of the relationship between the criminal law and vendetta. There was not in Italy, it is now said, the rapid forward march of public penal methods of dealing with violent conflict, in which public punishment replaced private revenge or composition, but a lengthy period of coexistence of public and private, in which vendetta was overtly tolerated by the law and composition openly fostered by judges, lawyers, and governments. 2 This view is part of a broader trend that stresses the weakness, not the strength, of late medieval states, that redefines the distinction between public and private, and that presents states as forced to negotiate with a range of social and political bodies. 3 Among these bodies was the family: The vitality of private or semiprivate modes of dispute-settlement was sustained, it is said, by the persistence of a sense of family ownership of injuries. An injury done to one member of a family “belonged” to the entire family, could be avenged by any of them, could be forgiven only with the consent of all, and could be transmitted through inheritance to future generations. 4 The purpose of this article is to challenge this vision of the relationships between families and the state and between vendetta and the law by examining judicial practice in one late medieval city-state, Bologna.
Little need be said by way of introduction about the city of Bologna, one of the major centers of the Papal State with a large university, or about its disturbed and complex political history in the later Middle Ages. 5 The city experienced periods of rule by papal legates and governors, rebellions against the papacy in the name of libertas, and “tyrannies” of both foreign and homegrown origin. Throughout, the subsisting stratum of communal government consisted of a committee of eight Anziani (elders), two advisory colleges, and a legislative council (Council of Four Hundred), though from