Crime and Justice in Late Medieval Italy.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. x + 226 pp. index. bibl. $99. ISBN: 978-0-521-86448-0.
Investigating crime offers tantalizing opportunities to study underrepresented elements of society, but this allure masks the complex challenges, deficiencies, and biases of the types of sources on which the historian of crime must rely. Trevor Dean attempts to overcome the problems inherent in the sources by examining crime from multiple sources and confronting the flaws of each one explicitly. The work is clearly the result of years of teaching the subject in a comparative context and this comparative element is one of the work's strengths. The numerous local studies of criminal justice in Italy since the early 1990s have mostly avoided applying their findings to a broader narrative of crime, or have assumed the experience of the more-studied cities are representative of larger trends. Those familiar with Dean's previous works will not be surprised that he argues strongly that the Florentine and Venetian experiences were atypical.
Unlike most books with "medieval Italy" in the title, Dean fulfills the promise of dealing with the entire peninsula. He examines chronicles from fourteen cities and statutes from more than twice as many. His section on trial records focuses on Savona, Mantua, Bologna, and Lucca to demonstrate how the use of inquisitorial procedures, the range of offenses prosecuted, and the severity of the punishment varied significantly from one commune to the next, something that could not be deduced from the historical narrative of justice in Florence and Venice. But importantly, he does not eliminate either major power from his study. Florentine and Venetian examples are used alongside those from Sicily, Naples, Rome, Genoa, Perugia, Siena, and many others.
This book is more appropriately titled than his earlier Crime in Medieval Europe, which demonstrated that by virtue of the surviving sources much of the study of crime is the study of criminal justice. The first half of Crime and Justice in Late Medieval Italy treats the variety of sources with which the historian of crime must come to terms: trial records, chronicles, fiction, statute law, and consilia. Each of these sources presents its own challenges and Dean reveals their nuances excellently. He recognizes that the enterprise might offend some legal historians, but only the section on consilia seems too brief. He successfully highlights the possibilities of these sources for social historians, while maintaining that a thorough knowledge of the law and legal procedure are necessary in any study involving crime.
In the second part, "Description and Analysis," he treats both the most common types of crime (insult, violence, and theft) and the more sensational (sex crimes, and potions and poisons), which have received more attention than their frequency would dictate. These sections are primarily concise summaries of the recent secondary literature, supplemented (and often challenged) by Dean's own archival research. The section on theft, though, is specifically an examination of theft cases in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Bologna. In treating violence, he favors the rituals involved (in keeping with recent studies) but curiously concentrates on the types of violence that were tolerated much more than violence considered criminal.
The most profitable chapter in this section is "Insult and Revenge," which combines an interesting and attention-grabbing study of insults with a critique of the assumptions of current vendetta studies. He makes his most convincing case yet that the legal toleration of the vendetta in Italy is a fallacy, created by the dominance of Florentine examples, misinterpretations of texts (such as an opinion of Baldus), and the application of feud studies onto all manner of violence.
This book is useful to historians of medieval Italy and of European crime and criminal justice. It is also a great starting point for any scholar who is looking to access the intimidating world of legal documents, but does not know the cautionary and instructional literature concerning the sources. Despite the densely-packed examples and references, Dean has produced a highly readable volume. He demonstrates how difficult it is to make generalizations about crime and criminal justice, but does not use that as an excuse to avoid drawing conclusions. It is unfortunate, however, that the book is priced out of range for classroom use, since it would be useful in upper-level courses on medieval Italy, crime, law, and violence.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2008|
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