Confession and Criminal Justice in Late Medieval Italy. Siena, ca. 1260-1330

By Lidia L. Z. Domingues

Today’s post comes from previous LSMS chair Dr Lidia L. Zanetti Domingues, who discusses her monograph below.

In our society, crime and criminal justice exert a particular fascination on people of all ages and classes, as is demonstrated not only by the success of detective novels, TV shows, podcasts, but also by the ongoing societal debates on criminal justice reforms. A similar interest is also noticeable in the late medieval Italian communes. This is not surprising, since the cities of northern and central Italy were characterised by high levels of conflict and factionalism. Minutes of civic assemblies, court cases, legislative collections passed to enforce a variety of reforms, chronicles, and didactic treatises discussing how to preserve the ‘peaceful state’ of the commune all bear traces of the centrality that criminal matters had for 13th– and 14th-century Italians.

However, the way medieval people reacted to violent or criminal acts can sometimes seem to us astonishing or hard to understand. For instance, in contrast with our distaste for revenge, vendetta was a widespread form of ‘private justice’. Many miracle stories, moreover, tell us about holy men and women intervening to help criminals escape their punishment despite their obvious guilt (Figure 1): how could abetting jailbreak and obstructing the course of justice be considered saintly behaviours? To better understand such reactions, I decided to analyse the entire variety of discourses, or models, of criminal justice that coexisted in the Italian communes in my doctoral thesis, which was the basis for this book.

Until recently, researchers had focused on two main aspects in the development of criminal justice in late medieval Italy. Firstly, that vendetta was still popular among members of all social classes, and that we can even speak of a ‘culture of revenge’ according to which honourable men had the right and duty to avenge the affronts they had suffered. Secondly, that crime was increasingly perceived as a public matter that needed to be dealt with by the government, and not by private citizens. However, these two aspects seem quite contradictory, and the extent to which these models reflect the reality of communal justice is still open to debate. I tried to shed new light on this question through the contribution of religious sources, that had been previously mostly neglected when studying theories and practices of criminal justice in the Italian communes. In defining this approach, I was inspired by the very recent works that had highlighted the need to associate the study of political and judicial practices of conflict to that of religious elaborations on the same theme (e.g., the works of Glenn Kumhera and Katherine Jansen).

Figure 1. Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (1245-1305) Saving a Hanged Man, Zanobi di Jacopo Machiavelli (attributed to), c. 1470. Image by Rijksmuseum (copyright: public domain).

I chose Siena as a case study exactly because the city archives and libraries preserve a variety of 13th– and 14th -century manuscript sources of lay and religious origin. Late medieval Siena was a relatively florid community of about 50,000 inhabitants (Figure 2). In the period I considered for my research, it saw a flourishing of new religious devotions, with a total of nineteen new unofficial saints venerated by the population: a number that seems unparalleled by any other Western European city of that time! Hagiographies and sermons therefore played an important part in my analysis alongside more traditional judicial documents: I analysed them together, organising my chapters thematically rather than by type of source.

This approach has allowed me to conclude that religious actors (by which I mean in particular friars, the clergy, and the members of local religious confraternities that allowed laypeople to live a more spiritual lifestyle) were an effective ‘pressure group’ with regards to the topics of violence, crime, and its remedies. This group actively contributed to the shaping of an ideology that allowed for a greater space for mercy in the system of criminal justice of the Italian city-states (e.g., through the implementation of regular amnesties of poor prisoners or the creation of exceptions in favour of poor and/or ignorant criminals). The discussions of the city councillors of Siena shed light on the encounters and clashes between the different exigencies expressed by different social and political actors: religious appeals to forgiveness blended with stances originating from the rules of the ‘culture of revenge’, the necessity of preserving public order in the city, the ideological motivations of the local government, and feelings of ‘righteous indignation’, common to an extent to both Christian and secular logic when addressing a breach of the socially accepted norms.

This has led me to propose that the dichotomy between theories and practices of ‘private justice’ (e.g. revenge) and of ‘public justice’ (trials) should be substituted by a framework in which three models, or discourses, of approaching criminal justice are recognised as being present in the Italian communes: in addition to the ‘culture of revenge’ and to the ideology of public order, a specific penitential approach to criminal justice should also be recognised as an influence on the policies of the commune of Siena, as well as on other Italian communes and European political bodies. I talk of a penitential approach or model because the main paradigm through which religious actors reflected on violence and justice seems to have been the sacrament of penance. Because the latter had been shaped through judicial metaphors (i.e., confession was seen as an ‘internal’ judicial forum of the Church), religious actors saw it as the most apt instrument to influence society with regards to the themes of violence and criminal justice, and to propose solutions to the problem of interpersonal conflict. Secular justice was therefore seen as having the duty to mirror the merciful attitude of God towards the penitent who had duly confessed their sins. Ultimately, however, the case of Siena seems to suggest that, although these three models were competing, they also influenced each other; and none of them managed, in this period, to eliminate the others, but they kept coexisting.

Figure 2. The city centre of Siena, seen from the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi. Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 & GFDL.

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