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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: March 2020

9 - Crime and Law in Europe

from Part II - The Violence of Governments and Rulers


This chapter explores the relationship between law, crime and violence. It begins by setting out a fairly standard historiographical narrative that, as polities coalesced and became more powerful over the course of the Middle Ages, so the law and legal mechanisms which underpinned political structures of power became more efficient. The rediscovery of Justinian’s Digest of Roman law in late eleventh-century Italy and a subsequent emphasis on Roman law in medieval Europe, is presented as pivotal. This paradigm is, however, then complicated in a number of ways. The legal prosecution of violence continued to be dependent upon the cooperation and involvement of communities. The courts’ growing interest in equity and the examination of fact as well as just law, further problematizes the picture. Roman law co-existed alongside customary law and canon law; this kind of pluralism is set beside the diffusion of justice across fragmented political units. Vengeance continued to be a powerful motivator both in episodes of interpersonal violence, and in the logic underpinning the law itself. Far from contributing to a state monopoly of violence, law most often aimed to channel and circumscribe violence rather than entirely to prohibit it. The essay ends by examining the methodological implications of these considerations.