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Criminology: Intellectual History

The Middle Ages

The acceptance of Christianity in Europe turned the thinking about crime and punishment in a spiritual direction, away from the naturalistic thinking found in Roman law. The influence of the devil was the most common explanation for crime, and punishments were primitive and cruel. Crime was identified with sin, and the state claimed that it was acting in the place of God when it inflicted these horrible punishments.

In the Middle Ages, this spiritual and religious basis for punishment was joined to the political and social organization of feudalism to produce the beginnings of the criminal justice system. In an attempt to further limit the blood feuds, the feudal lords instituted official methods by which God could indicate who was innocent and who was guilty. One such method was "trial by ordeal," in which the accused was subjected to difficult and painful tests. The belief was that an innocent person (protected by God) would emerge unharmed while a guilty person would die a painful death. For example, a common method of determining whether a woman was a witch was to tie her up and throw her into the water. If she floated she was considered innocent, but if she sank she was guilty. Other forms of ordeal included running the gauntlet and walking on fire. Trial by ordeal was condemned by the pope in 1215 and was replaced by compurgation, in which the accused gathered together a group of twelve reputable people who would swear that he or she was innocent. The idea was that no one would lie under oath for fear of being punished by God. Compurgation ultimately evolved into testimony under oath and trial by jury.

Shortly after the pope condemned trial by ordeal, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) began writing his theology, which included an important spiritual explanation of crime and punishment. Aquinas argued that there was a God-given "natural law" that was revealed by observing, through the eyes of faith, people's natural tendency to do good. People's tendency to commit evil, in contrast, was a manifestation of original sin and the Fall from grace, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The criminal law was based on and reflected the "natural law," so that people who commit crime (i.e., violate the criminal law) also commit sin (i.e., violate the natural law). Aquinas argued that crime not only harmed victims, but it also harmed criminals because it harmed their essential "humanness"—their natural tendency to do good. He also regarded human misery as a cause of crime and he offered an impassioned defense of those who steal because of extreme misery.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCriminology: Intellectual History - Early Thinking About Crime And Punishment, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance, Classical Criminology, Positivist Criminology