Crime In Early Europe Term Paper

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Bradley Jon Stromsodt

Western Civilization since 1500


March 19,2001

Richard van Dulman, Rituals of Execution in Early Modern Germany

Keith Wrightson, Infanticide in European History

Stephen P. Frank, Popular Justice, Community, and Culture Among the Russian Peasantry, 1870-1900

Dealing with crime and criminals is something that everyone has had and will have to deal with. Even if a person has not been the victim of a crime, they still have been affected in some way. The difference that forms between one person’s experience with crime and another’s is the way that the government or community of a given time period deals with the crimes and the criminals involved. Different communities may choose to punish criminals differently, and some may not even have punishments for crimes that are considered major offenses in others. This is a major difference in the articles that I will discuss.

For example, the articles discuss the diverse punishment of certain crimes. One community might compare horse theft to murder, while another might think that is ludicrous. This notion is very relevant to modern world cultures and politics. For example, the punishment for stealing in Singapore is a good caning; in the United States, this would be considered cruel and unusual punishment. This goes to show that the culture and social constructs of a given country greatly affect that nation’s method of punishment and the frequency with which they use that method to deter crime.

Severity of punishments also differed a great deal. For instance, in Dulmen’s article about Germany, “Being buried alive was deemed a particularly horrific and severe punishment for a variety of offences such as adultery.” In contrast, Frank’s article about Russia describes adulterers who were punished with non-fatal charivaris, which is described as “a raucous demonstration intended to shame people who transgress community customs.” In this punishment, the accused would be striped naked and paraded around the town for everyone to see while community members banged on their over doors and hollered things at the criminal as he or she walked the street. They believed that this form of punishment would shame a person into never committing a crime again.

The difference in those two punishments is amazing. I don’t know what would be worse: being executed, or being paraded all over town in order to be exposed as an adulterer! Each punishment has horrible consequences for the person involved (especially being buried alive; I’m sure somewhere along the way someone was wrongly accused), and each must have affected the community relations in that given society. I know that I would never be tempted to cheat on my wife if I knew the punishment could be a premature burial.

However according to Frank, the small communities in remote Russia often believed that their government’s punishments of certain crimes were not harsh enough, so the townspeople took it onto themselves to persecute the criminal as they saw fit. The warranted penalties the government used didn’t prevent the criminals from breaking the law. These consequences differ greatly from the punishments of the German government in the early modern period. “Governments ordered corporal punishments-such as mutilation, branding, and flogging-and the pillory that meant public disgrace.”

The above mentioned punishments are just more examples of how different cultures in different time periods used methods of punishment that would be thought of as unnecessary and cruel in modern United States. Although some of these methods might be good deterrents for crime in modern times (I certainly don’t want to be buried alive or shamed in front of my entire town), there are certain human rights standards in this country and in much of the modern world that would never stand for such atrocities and embarrassments to be used as punishments.

Another article discussed that lynching or beheading was the punishment for murder in Germany in the sixteenth century, which compares to the penalty of horse theft in Russia around 1900. Though the deadly consequences of horse theft in Russia were a little extreme and out of the ordinary; the crimes that seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum equate the same consequence. I find this a little disturbing. However, to the peasants in Russia a horse was their livelihood. Certain crimes take on a need for more severe fines when the offense threatens another’s way of life.

The three articles I am discussing in The Social Dimension are all about things that seem very taboo to a person in modern society. For example, in the United States even criminals have human rights; therefore some of the things that happened in the past could never happen today. Being burned at the stake for witchcraft, buried alive for adultery, or being beheaded for any number of other crimes seem outrageous to me, but in the past they were common punishments. Today in the United States, some prisoners have many comforts that a person who has not committed a crime do not have. This certainly differs from some of the horrendous criminal treatment of eras before.

Killing a child for being deformed or sickly seems horrific for the average mother or father to even think about. However, infanticide was a widespread way of dealing with defective children in European history. “Wrightson points out that only a small minority of single women murdered their children.” To me even a small minority seems mad. For some reason the thought of infanticide seems more appalling to me than the modern day abortion. However as mentioned before, this is just another way that different cultures viewed different things; something that is taboo today was common practice many years ago.

The sentence given to criminals was not only a way to get retribution for the criminal, but to make an example of the treatment of wrongdoers. “Punishments were designed to create horror of the crime as well as to provide examples of the penalties for a crime.” The punishment was inflicted both living and dead criminals. “Obviously the aim was not only to kill the delinquent, but to exercise on him or her a punishment that corresponded to the offence, but bore no direct relation to the individual criminal.” This is a very ritualistic way of punishing criminals. They made examples of the lawbreakers so that similar crimes would not be committed. This resembles the samosud of Russia. “Other distinguished features of samosud included community participation in the punishment, a real or perceived threat to local norms or to the communities well-being, and an attempt to prevent repetition of a crime through ritualized public humiliation of the offender or, in more serious cases, by ridding the community of the criminal altogether.” In all cases public humiliation was used as a form of punishment, until the severity of a crime warranted execution.

Many criminal historians base their research on government commissioned reports and police reports, so anyone that wasn’t caught went uncounted. Some social historians base their research on personal diaries, newspapers and magazines, and oral histories. These sources are from one person’s point of view and are bias in one way or another. Both Keith Wrightson and Richard van Dulmen used court records to tell their certain story. Stephen Frank used newspaper accounts, legal journals, government commission reports, and materials gathered by an amateur ethnographer. In the future, historians will have an easier time recounting the past because of the technology and good record keeping.

The stories and accounts told in this anthology are very important. They tell the not-so-popular history. “Social historians do not attempt to celebrate the heroes and heroines of a nation’s history, although that is precisely the type of “feel good” history that many in the public wish to read and to see taught in school systems.” . It seems that the textbooks history students are used to reading tell only of the kings and the wars they were in. Books like The Social Dimension tell the truth about the conditions of the average person.

I believe that the history of our ancestors in very important. “In any case, well-researched and well-written social history should convey excitement, for it makes us vividly aware of the daily lives, habits, and beliefs of our ancestors.” You can learn from the mistakes and good fortunes of the past generations. What happened in the past has had a direct effect on the world today.

Richard van Dulmen, “Rituals of Execution in Early Modern Germany,” The Social Dimension (Boston: 1999)

Richard M. Golden The Social Dimension (Boston: 1999)

Stephen P. Frank, “Popular Justice, Community, and Culture Among the Russian Peasantry, 1870-1900,” The Social Dimension (Boston: 1999)

Keith Wrightson, “Infanticide in European History,” The Social Dimension (Boston: 1999)

Word Count: 1446

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