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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: October 2018

Chapter 2 - Origin of the Present-Day Criminal Justice System



In the course of the eighteenth century, the criminal justice system – as the main form of combatting crime – became one of the objects of critical discussion regarding the organisation and operation of the nation state. Needless to say, that discussion assumed that the audience addressed would have the necessary prior knowledge of the European political situation regarding these points, or at least the situation in certain European countries. That assumption was probably justified at the time, but it certainly does not apply to readers today.

To ensure a proper understanding of that discussion, this chapter therefore explains some of the main developments that occurred in Europe during the Middle Ages and the early modern period. In particular, an outline is given of how criminal proceedings at the time came to be on an inquisitorial basis and how – in line with that important procedural transformation – a criminal justice system was constructed of which the police force, the judiciary, and the prison system still form the institutional backbone today. Based on one of the best-known Dutch pamphlets from around the year 1600 on tackling the problems of crime – Dirk Volckertszoon Coornhert's Boeventucht [Discipline of Villains] – an explanation is given of the discussion associated with the emergence of the modern criminal justice system.

Discussing this large-scale institutionalisation of inquisitorial criminal procedure also provides an opportunity to give a taste of the debate taking place in historical criminology and in research on the history of criminal law about important issues such as the establishment of today's prison system and the modernisation of the police.


Entirely in line with Carolingian criminal law, the “new” medieval state and city criminal law was initially of a predominantly accusatory nature. In the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fift eenth centuries, however, it acquired throughout Europe – in some places under the influence of canon law – an increasingly inquisitorial character, at least as regards more serious forms of crime. For less serious off ences, accusatory methods for keeping the peace within the community remained current in many places, right up to the French Revolution.

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