Other Free Encyclopedias » Law Library - American Law and Legal Information » Crime and Criminal Law » Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society - Problems Of Measurement, Criminality In The Premodern Era, Estimates Of Crime In The Modern Era

Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society - Criminality In The Premodern Era

crime century violent homicide

Since criminal justice agencies did not issue regular reports before the modern era, knowledge of premodern criminality is limited. It is based for the most part on studies of early court records, church documents, or coroners' rolls and requires a painstaking effort to collect and infer useful data from handwritten documents. Studies of medieval European towns generally report very high levels of violent personal crime but lower levels of property crime. Naeshagen discovered that the homicide rate in Bergen, Norway, dropped from 80 per 100,000 in 1550 to 1 per 100,000 in 1800, and a study of coroners' rolls in fourteenth-century London revealed an annual homicide rate of about 44 per 100,000, or 110 times the modern rate of 0.4 per 100,000 in London (Hanawalt, p. 98). Very few infanticide cases were reported in Hanawalt's early study, and only about 2 percent involved intrafamilial violence, suggesting that such homicides were seriously underreported. At the same time, contemporary documents report a heightened alarm among citizens regarding the level of violence. Medieval communities from the Baltic to the Mediterranean were dangerous places. Given estimates, for example, that "every person in England in the thirteenth century, if he did not personally witness a murder, knew or knew of someone who had been killed" (p. 40).

By the end of the sixteenth century judges and others in England regularly lamented the rising tide of lawlessness, although the best evidence indicates that violent crime had not increased significantly since the fourteenth century. In rural areas crime was more typical of yeomen than peasants, though the gentry regularly defied the courts and were rarely punished. Justice was certainly swift in sixteenth-century England, but it was by no means sure (Baker). Those convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to die were, in the absence of reprieve, marched out of the courtroom and promptly hanged. But there were many legal detours on the way to the gallows. Pardons, both special and general, were one way of cheating the hangman; insanity, pregnancy, and childhood were others. The most common loophole was benefit of clergy, which by the sixteenth century had been extended to all who could read but was limited to cases of minor theft.

With the growth of commerce in seventeenth-century England, violent crime seems to have receded. A study of seventeenth-century Surrey and Sussex Counties indicates that the annual rate of homicide indictments for 1663–1694 was about 5.7 per 100,000, but by 1780–1802 this figure had dropped to 2.3 per 100,000. Property crime, however, increased slightly, with 53 indictments in the 1690s to 65 per 100,000 by the 1760s (Beattie, 1974). Indictments for both violent and property crimes were more common in urban areas (see Beattie, 1986, chaps. 3 and 4).

Colonial America experienced an even higher level of recorded criminality. The rate of violent crime in Boston in the early decades of the eighteenth century was about equal to that found for Surrey and Sussex, that is, 37 indictments per 100,000 between 1703 and 1732, but property crime in Boston was roughly twice as common at 123 indictments per 100,000 (Ferdinand, 1980a). This contrast is particularly striking in that Puritan New England had a reputation among the American colonies for sober conventionality and low crime.

Overall, one can place some confidence in these early studies of criminality, particularly those of homicide, since violent death was treated seriously by legal institutions. But medieval definitions of homicide embraced a much broader range of violent deaths than is the case today. They included, for example, many forms of accidental death that would not have found their way into a modern criminal court. While today's deadly weapons can kill from afar without warning (see Lane, 1979, p. 80), three hundred years ago fists, feet, spears, swords, and daggers required a determined effort that involved dangerous confrontations. Very high rates of homicide reported in the medieval period reflect these differences. On the other hand, infanticide was relatively common though prosecuted only haphazardly in earlier times (see Beattie, 1986, pp. 117–124; Lane, 1979, pp. 96–100, 110–111). Today it is systematically prosecuted as homicide. All in all, however, the level of violence was substantially higher in premodern Europe.

The figures for lesser crime are difficult to evaluate since legal institutions generally played a limited role in adjudicating minor offenses in deference to the church or other informal methods for punishing minor misbehavior. A large number of minor property crimes was settled privately by the victim and offender, and any estimate of premodern property crime probably underestimates its actual incidence. Many victims were reluctant to take their complaints to the courts, which had a reputation for uneven justice. Moreover, even short-term prison sentences often meant death, since living conditions in prison were abominable (Beattie, 1986, pp. 302–303). Many offenders went free, and many victims preferred to settle matters themselves. Unless there was a powerful reason for reporting a criminal offense to the court, many victims simply suffered in silence or settled matters individually.

Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society - Estimates Of Crime In The Modern Era [next] [back] Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society - Problems Of Measurement

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or