Brutality, Due Process, and Peace Accords: Criminal Justice in Medieval and Renaissance Italy

AHA Session 89
Society for Italian Historical Studies 4
Friday, January 8, 2016: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Grand Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Thomas J. Kuehn, Clemson University
Gruesome Penalties and Merciful Pardons: Bologna, 1250–1454
Sarah Rubin Blanshei, Agnes Scott College
Fama, Notoriety, and Due Process in Late Medieval Reggio Emilia
Joanna J. Carraway Vitiello, Rockhurst University
Power through Peace: Peacemaking and Jurisdiction in Trecento Siena’s Contado
Glenn Kumhera, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College
Thomas J. Kuehn, Clemson University

Session Abstract

Brutality, Due Process and Peace Accords: Criminal Justice in Medieval and Renaissance Italy

The subfield of criminal justice history has undergone significant revisions in recent years as historians have challenged the traditional interpretation of the Middle Ages as alterity, as the atavistic foil to the emergence of modernization. Historians such as Chris Wickham and Massimo Vallerani, strongly influenced by the anthropological studies of Sally Falk Moore and Simon Roberts, have developed a 'processual' or "instrumentalist' approach to legal history that emphasizes reconciliation and conflict resolution, not punishment and repression, as the primary goals of criminal justice. Inquisition procedure is not seen as an advancement of 'public' justice over 'private' accusation procedure nor is the government of communes and territorial states portrayed as weak entities because of their reliance on arbitration and privately-negotiated peace accords between victim and offender. Kenneth Pennington's scholarship underscores the development of due process as a major achievement of medieval jurisprudence. The portrayal of pre-modern justice as a period in which 'sadistic torment' was regularly and arbitarily inflicted upon the accused in the law courts has been labeled a 'dominant mythology' by Larissa Tracey in her studies of torture and brutality in medieval literature.

        But to what extent does this new orthodoxy have validity and to what degree should it be illuminated with greater nuance? The three papers in this panel propose to respond to that issue by focusing on three major and controversial aspects of criminal justice in late medieval and Renaissance Italy: the use of torture and cruel punishments, the extent of and limitations on due process, and the relationship between private peace accords and the expansion of the communes into city-states and territorial entities. Sarah Rubin Blanshei investigates the extent to which 'gruesome' and capital penalties were employed in the Bolognese courts, the crimes for which they were invoked, and the seemingly paradoxical simultaneous growth of merciful acts--of amnesties, pardons, peace accords, and mitigation of penalties beause of the imputed's poverty. Joanna Carraway Vitiello's paper on due process reveals the limitations on the functioning of due process on two levels: first, the relationship between fama (an individual's reputation) and how the court conducted trials against persons of mala fama. Ssecondly she analyzes tje dissonance between the jurists' theoretical views of the grounds that permitted a suspension of due process and the actual instances in which the criminal court of Reggio Emilia implemented that practice. Glenn Kumhera finds that far from declining as the 'state' became more powerful, peace accords comprised a significant and increasingly utilized policy instrument of the Sienese communal government as it expanded its jurisdiction over its surrounding countryside (contado) and independent magnate families.

         Each of the three papers has an independent focus, but the papers also have points of overlap and contact with each other. Moreover, set as they are in the experiences of three different cities, they offer the panel chair and commentator, Thomas Kuehn, the opportunity to discuss these issues within a comparative framework.

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