Crime is a constant in human civilization, but what constitutes a criminal offense is not. From 1200 to 1500, medieval jurists, judges, kings, theologians, and accused criminals all debated when an offense rose to the level of a crime and the appropriate response it entailed. The Middle Ages is also known as a time of spectacular punishments, from trial by fire to drawing and quartering. As a class, we will explore the nature of crime and its punishments in an attempt to better understand a time often depicted as lawless and cruel.
We will look at the mundane, such as murder and theft, as well as the more extraordinary, as for example putting animals on trial. We will explore crime from the perspective of law, society, religion, and popular representations of criminals like Robin Hood. Apart from cruel and chaotic, the Middle Ages have also been deemed a time of rampant superstition and foolishness: how else to understand putting mice on trial for having eaten grain? This course will deal directly with these preconceptions in exploring how the Middle Ages also gave us the first European articulation of due process for all defendants and the right to a lawyer.
The course is run as weekly discussions that draw upon primary sources and academic literature. Students will learn how to read law codes and court cases as historians as they develop a historian’s skill to analyze primary documents. Students will write periodic primary and secondary source analyses along with standard analytical papers.