17.01.16, Vitiello, Public Justice and the Criminal Trial in Late Medieval Italy

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David Napolitano

The Medieval Review 17.01.16

Vitiello, Joanna Carraway. Public Justice and the Criminal Trial in Late Medieval Italy: Reggio Emilia in the Visconti Age . Medieval Law and Its Practice, 20. Leiden: Brill, 2016. pp. xii, 219. ISBN: 978-90-04-30745-2 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
David Napolitano
University of Cambridge

This study by Joanna Carraway Vitiello (Associate Professor at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri) on criminal justice in medieval Italy is the outcome of a carefully designed research project which began life as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto (2007). It constitutes the twentieth volume in Brill's series on Medieval Law and Its Practice.

Over the past few decades, the evolutionary and binary paradigm of a transition from an accusatorial process driven by private interests to a public interest-oriented inquisitorial procedure has been fundamentally revised, resulting in a more complex and nuanced understanding of both criminal procedures and their interplay.

This critical re-examination has strongly benefitted from a series of excellent case studies into major Italian cities, like Siena, Perugia, Bologna, and Mantua, conducted by scholars such as Peter Pazzaglini, Massimo Vallerani, Sarah Rubin Blanshei, Trevor Dean, and David Chambers. More recently, it has also inspired research into lesser-known, minor urban centres, such as Tamara Graziotti's work on the Tuscan city of San Gimignano.

Carraway Vitiello's work fits into this latest trend by looking into the city of Reggio Emilia, a contested borderland situated north of Bologna, bordering Parma to the west and Modena to the east. Her study concentrates on the end of the fourteenth century, a period when Reggio Emilia went through a difficult recovery under its new Visconti rulers. A rare combination of sources has, in fact, survived for this particular period, allowing us a unique look into the day-to-day administration of justice in the periphery of the Visconti territories.

Through its consistent focus on a specific venue within the multi-layered conflict resolution system, typical of any medieval city--in casu the podestà court--and on one of the tools available to the criminal judge--that is, the inquisition procedure--this study aims to present us with a "holistic picture of justice in operation" (9). It covers the different stages of the criminal proceeding, from the first time that the crime is reported up to the very moment that the verdict is rendered.

Carraway Vitiello opens her work with a brief outline of the wider political context of Reggio Emilia in the Visconti Age (including its reflection in successive redactions of the municipal statutes) and she provides us with a general overview of the primary officers of the podestà court. The first chapter also briefly discusses the issue of jurisdiction and provides us with an understanding of the institutions responsible for the reporting and investigation of crime and the apprehension of malefactors—i.e., the "front lines" in the struggle against medieval crime (51). The second chapter moves onto the initiation of criminal trials in Reggio Emilia at the end of the fourteenth century. It points out that the accusatorial procedure was by far the more rare, while inquisition was overwhelmingly the dominant trial procedure (54) and it considers the degree of involvement of private parties in these inquisitorial proceedings. Chapter 3 examines the central role played by the concept of fama in the criminal process, while the fourth chapter explores issues of proof (including the problem of torture) and the right to a defense. In the final and fifth chapter the mechanisms of reaching a verdict and sentencing (including the possibilities for mitigation and pardon) are treated.

The work of Carraway Vitiello highlights--in line with earlier scholarship--the specific position of a podestà (and his judges) within the overarching framework of a signoria (such as the rule of the Visconti), situating it "somewhere between signorial authority and municipal reality" (202). Indeed, the podestà label has covered different institutional realities over time and one always has to be careful to clearly define what is being understood by this term in a particular institutional context. The early-thirteenth-century and late-fourteenth-century podestà did not hold the same office.

She has also avoided the trap of a static or overly idealized portrait of the operation of the criminal system based upon normative texts only. On the contrary, her in-depth familiarity with the archival evidence of Reggio Emilia has allowed her to give us an insight into the quotidian reality of the criminal court in its inquisitorial role, enlivened with a wealth of day-to-day examples. To this end, she has consulted a wide array of archival documents in a systematic manner, namely trial records covering a period of 35 years (1373-1408--with lacunae) and, for a period of a little more than ten years, condemnation records (1385-1396 and 1401-1403, again with lacunae). In addition, she has put other, less frequently surviving sources, such as testimonials, denunciations, etc., to excellent use as anecdotal evidence.

Throughout her study Carraway Vitiello demonstrates an admirable sensitivity to the limitations of her sources and the inevitably resulting gaps in our understanding. In addition to the mentioned incompleteness of the records, she warns us, for instance, about the fact that these records shed no light on the all-important pre-trial phase or she reminds us that the formulaic character of the narrative of the crime--written by the notaries of the court--should always be kept in mind. Despite these limitations inherent to the available material she has succeeded in making the most out of even the smallest archival traces. Using a single fragment of a denunciation, she is, for instance, able to open a small window on the otherwise undocumented domain of notorious crimes (111-112) while the marginal annotations and interlinear notes in the records are rightly read as telling signs of signorial intervention (197 sq.).

She is equally careful to formulate her conclusions on the functioning of this specific sphere of the criminal court as much as possible on the basis of sample-based, quantitative analyses of the available archival evidence. In addition to the extracts of the trial and condemnation records copiously included in the footnote apparatus, it would greatly benefit future research into this area if the database(s) supporting the quantitative testing would also be made publicly available (for instance, via an accompanying website).

Although this work is primarily a case study and although it repeatedly stresses the degree of temporal and local variation that characterizes this domain of the law, Carraway Vitiello has systematically endeavoured to put her findings into a useful perspective by comparing them to the outcome of earlier scholarship into other cities (listed above), even if these studies covered other cities in vastly different political contexts and spanned an interval of almost 150 years. This comparison across cities and periods has permitted her to highlight certain peculiarities of the situation in Reggio during the Visconti Age, such as the high overall conviction rate (even if corrected for convictions in absentia) (147), or the relatively limited impact of a peace agreement on an inquisition trial (179).

In short, this well-structured study by Carraway Vitiello on the inquisitorial trial in Reggio Emilia in the late-fourteenth century--a proceeding in which the judge functioned "less as a prosecuting magistrate than as a chair of a fact-finding tribunal" (146)--constitutes a worthy addition to the already existing scholarship on this topic and it provides us with another, important piece of the jigsaw puzzle known as the history of criminal justice in medieval Italy.

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