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Kriminalitat in Rom: 1560-1585.

This is a welcome, meticulous, and puzzling study. Some two decades after the heyday of quantitative history and histoire serielle, it reproposes a statistical method for analyzing crime in early modern Europe. Peter Blastenbrei has chosen an extraordinary place for his research: Rome, the capital of Latin Christianity. He has mastered the intricacies of its legal system, and patiently worked through its archives, to accumulate a large database of criminal cases. These, along with some literary records, form the materials with which he has sought to reconstruct the features of Roman criminality and its place in Roman society in the late sixteenth century. The author's ultimate goal, however, goes further: it is to provide "a usable building block for the international comparison of delinquency." (p. 6)

Blastenbrei is aware that such an enterprise requires more justification than it used to. Despite great advances made in the last thirty years, he notes in a brief introduction, the current historiography of criminality suffers from "fatigue" and dissatisfaction brought on by methodological doubts about the use of legal sources for socio-historical purposes. According to him, this impasse calls for more targeted research projects, a more critical treatment of the sources, and a search for documents that come closest to actual crime. The legal archives of early modem Rome, Blastenbrei contends, contain such records. Of the various Roman law courts, whose workings he describes in a lucid and useful chapter, three have left a rich documentation of sixteenth-century practice, especially the court of the Governor of Rome. Their archival organization particularly suits Blastenbrei's purpose: proceedings are arranged not by complete trial but by procedural step. This allows him to study, for instance, the series of denunciations (Investigazioni) in isolation from other trial documents. Blastenbrei has privileged precisely this source (supplementing it with physicians' crime reports and sentences), because, as the earliest step in the court procedure, he considers it the least contaminated by jurists' intervention.

The author first attempts to sketch an overall picture of violent crime by charting monthly figures of reported incidents between 1560 and 1585. Interesting here are both the regular oscillations within each year and considerable fluctuations over the years. Blastenbrei plausibly explains the latter on the basis of the dramatic population shifts that characterized the papal city: crime increased during immigration waves, and dropped during demographic lows. This conclusion loses some of its luster when one realizes, as the author fails to note, that it addresses absolute crime figures, not crime rates. But Blastenbrei's main point is well taken: crime reports are demographically variable, and seem largely unaffected by various papal initiatives to crack down on crime.

Three long chapters, the centerpiece of the book, then take us on an exhaustive (and slightly exhausting) tour of the Roman criminal archives. Thus we visit violent crime, offenses against property, insults, threats, and sexual crimes. These are sorted in an elaborate typology: Blastenbrei's method is to describe forms of crime in abstract terms, arrange them by means of decimal divisions and subdivisions, and often to provide numerical assessments of relative weight. The principle of analysis is here not so much the material effect of each crime as its motivation. Blastenbrei argues that the intentionality of crime, revealed in its prehistory and circumstances, tells us more about its social role and background than conventional categories like manslaughter and injury. Thus he sets out to consider, for each type of crime, factors like spontaneity, premeditation, planning, use of weapons, and the social profile of perpetrators and victims. The resulting sociological catalogue is no doubt rich and suggestive. It will remain a treasure trove for future researchers, whether they are interested in hired assassins, bar debts, cattle theft, or aggression against Jews. They will find each item sensibly analyzed, and contextualized as much as the serial approach allows. How much? Here lie the limitations of this book. Blastenbrei's account, which barely mentions a person by name, proves oddly abstract at a time when microhistorical studies have done much, not least in the field of criminality, to penetrate the complex layers of concrete historical situations.(1) The author remains trapped in his contradictory wish to uncover criminal motivation while shunning the case study as analytical tool.

Finally, for all his methodological awareness and sensitivity to the sources, Blastenbrei's serial reading of criminal registers cannot escape from a fundamental objection raised against older quantitative studies: reported crime cannot be mistaken for actual crime. The risks are slight as long as quantitative data are used as suggestive, not conclusive, evidence. But Blastenbrei's last chapter shows the dangerous seductiveness of his method. In it he amplifies an earlier suggestion that sixteenth-century Rome was an "extraordinarily violent city" (p. 70) by comparing the Roman crime distribution with that of six other European areas. The result is "astonishing" (p. 284): in southern Europe the proportion of violent crime to overall crime was about double that in northern Europe. Upon reflection, this conclusion is mainly astonishing because of the cavalier way in which it is reached. Throwing caution to the wind, Blastenbrei compares cities with countryside, the sixteenth with the seventeenth century, a statistical base of 95 cases (rural Luxembourg) with another of 7,277 (Rome), one judicial system with another, and proceeds to treat patently different categorizations of crime as if they were identical. Much more sensible is the author's attempt, in his final pages, to identify specifically Roman factors (immigration, economic conditions, judicial culture) that may have contributed to the city's particular criminality. He thus recovers from a regrettable error at the end of this valuable though methodologically debatable book.

Wietse de Boer Indiana University, Indianapolis


1. Cf., for Italy, the selections from Quaderni storici published in History from Crime, eds. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero (Baltimore and London, 1994).
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Author:de Boer, Wietse
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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