Governments and communities during the middle ages dealt with crime and punishment very differently than we do. Many actions we think of as crimes they did not (e.g., some homicides). Many actions they thought of as crimes we do not (e.g., homosexuality). Many punishments we think of as cruel and barbaric were regarded as normal and beneficial (mutilation). Many actions we seek to deter by the threat of punishment they sought to remedy without any punishments at all (often homicide). And if some medieval societies were notoriously violent (even by their standards), others were surprisingly tranquil and relatively crime-free (even by contemporary American standards). In this class we will try to get at the logic of punishment and redress by closely reading one particular law code (the Saxon Mirror, from 13th- and 14th-century Germany, complete with illustrations). We will build other readings around it covering other aspects of the subject. In particular, we will look at medieval prisons, the use of hanging and corporal mutilation, the widespread acceptance of what is today understood as "jury nullification," and attitudes towards homicide. We will also spend a significant amount of time discussing laws regarding rape and the application of those laws, as well as how married and unmarried women were treated in courts when charging breach of promise or physical abuse. Finally, we will read one provocative account of how medieval Europe came to rationalize institutionalized persecution and one comparative study of crime and punishment in the modern world.
Geoff Koziol is a Professor in the Department of History.