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22.02.04 Roberts, Police Power in the Italian Communes, 1228-1326

22.02.04 Roberts, Police Power in the Italian Communes, 1228-1326

Gregory Roberts’s excellent Police Power in the Italian Communes, 1228-1326 is a carefully researched and immensely informative study of the institutional development, implementation, and consequences of police power in several medieval Italian communes. Over the course of six dense but well-written chapters, Roberts draws upon extensive archival records and employs an illuminating interdisciplinary methodological and theoretical framework to paint a compelling picture of third-party policing as impersonal, aggressive, and proactive in its enforcement of the law. He argues quite convincingly that this type of policing normalized government coercion and marked a clear step in the direction of hegemonic justice, reshaping social norms and forcing individuals to adjust their behavioral calculus. While Roberts’s book is certainly approachable for non-specialists interested in the historical development of police power and criminal justice, the intense focus on the minutiae of the medieval Italian communal context makes it better suited to a specialist audience, who will find in these pages a seminal study offering significant new insights.

In chapter one, Roberts analyzes “the nature and extent of police power in the communes” (39), which he finds to be significant and invasive, and succeeds in painting a more “balanced portrait of justice” (85) as both hegemonic and negotiated. Roberts accomplishes the former by examining the third-party police functions performed by the podestà and members of his armed retinue, especially the berrovarii or “policemen” (42), in Bologna, Siena, and Orvieto. These officials were not policemen in the modern sense, but rather “foreign” patrol officers who offered communes third-party policing. Given the limited size of the police force vis-à-vis the population of each of the cities in question, Roberts argues that the most important factor in establishing a “threat of enforcement” was actually “the regularity of patrols” (48-49) and the ability of the officials to compel suspects to answer charges in court. Following a useful discussion of the legal process, Roberts convincingly demonstrates police effectiveness by turning to the records of criminal trials and other judicial proceedings under the jurisdiction of the podestà, especially thoseconcerning common non-violent offenses--including curfew and gambling violations--in the cities. After presenting the evidence, the author argues that the impact of communal policing should not be judged by the total number of citizens charged and convicted each year, but rather by the total number of people arrested (86). Roberts concludes based on this approach that the data show a “consistent and credible threat of arrest” and “punishment once in court” in these cities (70, 78), confirming the “coercive capacity” of third-party policing. Roberts contends not only that this coercive capacity was central to public justice in medieval Italian communes, but also that third-party policing was “an important part of the shift from negotiated to hegemonic justice” (85). While these assertions will certainly engender debate among scholars, Roberts’s observation that “hegemonic and negotiated forms of justice complemented each other, and each played important roles in maintaining the social order” makes a great deal of sense and will surely encourage further research along these lines in other medieval communes.

Having established the coercive power of third-party policing, in chapter two Roberts addresses how patrol officers (berrovarii) exercised their considerable authority and enforced the law while on patrol. More specifically, Roberts is interested in how much discretion they used in interpreting and enforcing the law and how the sociopolitical status and identity of suspects impacted their behavior while on patrol. The realities of the sociopolitical terrain of medieval Italian communes forced patrol officers to address complicated issues of “identification and interpretation” (94), as the social status of an alleged violator often determined whether a particular behavior was licit and political considerations necessarily shaped enforcement. Roberts argues that patrol officers addressed these issues by strictly interpreting the law and exercising significant discretion, leading to the aggressive enforcement of statutes and impartial treatment of alleged lawbreakers to the point of ignoring the social identity and political status of the individuals they policed, as well as any legal privileges and statutory exceptions they may have enjoyed. In fact, he writes “the berrovarii were empowered to arrest individuals at the slightest hint of a legal the point of even denouncing acts that statutes explicitly allowed” (95, 128). While the obvious lack of checks on this power led, on occasion, to overzealous enforcement, Roberts found little evidence that patrol officers “habitually abused [their] power, harassing and arresting people in arbitrary fashion” (95-6). Roberts concludes that the surprisingly aggressive and impartial nature of third-party policing, predicated upon the even more surprising degree of discretion exercised by patrol officers and often resembling “the “personal” domination of feudal lordship more than the “impersonal” enforcement of a rational-bureaucratic government” (123), significantly infringed upon the personal autonomy of both elite and non-elite citizens. This type of policing made “government coercion a routine feature of urban life and effectively diminished the personal autonomy of the communes’ citizens, including elites. Paradoxically, it made self-governing citizens more like subjects” (129).

In chapter three, Roberts explores this paradox, examining how the expansion of political access led to the growth of police power in medieval Italian communes. This chapter is framed by a simple question: “why did citizen-legislators in cities like Bologna impose this kind of law enforcement upon themselves?” (133). Roberts, quite understandably, assumes that elites would seek to increase rather than restrain their personal autonomy. How then, he asks, do we explain the “shift toward impersonal rules and hegemonic justice” (134)? The answer resides in the logic behind third-party policing, which Roberts presents as three-fold: first, “to bring more criminals into official custody”; second, “to proactively uncover crime and prevent future crime”; and third, “to make law enforcement more impersonal” (133). Roberts tackles each in turn, articulating clearly and persuasively for the first two points the benefits third-party policing provided to communal governments generally and to the political elite specifically. The third point provides the most immediate answer to Roberts’s question, however, because while impersonal third-party law enforcement helped “mitigate the role of personal relations in law enforcement” and “make public justice less subject to local prejudices” (135), it could also be exploited by both elite factions and popular elements of the citizen body (the popolo) to further their interests. For communal elites, impersonal policing offered “advantages in the context of intra-elite a limited access order” (135-6), while also “preventing [internal and external] threats from manifesting”. Roberts sees this “preventative mentality in criminal justice” (163) as a new development, one closely tied to the “basic insecurity” felt by most urban elites about the legitimacy of their sovereignty and the need to maintain “national existence” (164). For the popolo, third-party policing helped “to regulate and prevent the use of violence and maintain cohesion within their coalition” and contributed to the slow movement from “a social order dependent upon personality to one reliant on written law” (136). In other words, impersonal third-party policing theoretically made every citizen equal in the eyes of the law. Roberts makes a convincing case that both groups thought the advantages gained from consciously choosing to impose third-party policing upon themselves (e.g., public order) were sufficiently valuable to offset the loss of autonomy.

In chapter four, Roberts examines the criminology predominant in medieval Italian communes during this period and how it helped spur the growth of police power. Roberts argues that communal governments associated certain relatively benign behaviors and activities--such as “going under the cover of darkness, carrying knives, playing games of chance”--with “men of ill repute,” who were also believed to commonly commit more serious offenses, like “burglaries, assaults, and homicides” (175). In other words, contemporary criminology assumed that “minor forms of delinquency could indicate more serious criminality” (177). Thus, the criminalization of these and other non-violent offenses allowed police patrols to function like a “dragnet” (176), picking up men for minor violations who might later be investigated for more serious criminality, especially those who were perceived as posing an external threat to the governing regime. Roberts persuasively connects this effort to protect the political order to R. I. Moore’s concept of a persecuting society. He goes on to discuss how the men caught by the patrols for minor offenses were regularly subjected to various forms of judicial violence, including torture, maiming, and execution. According to Roberts this judicial violence was quite common, as “the commune publicly executed or maimed individuals every week or two...instill[ing] the fear of punishment in would-be criminals” (176-7). In this way, the “punitive mentality” (177) central to contemporary criminology helped to address the concerns about security and legitimacy raised in the previous chapter.

In chapter five, Roberts shifts focus to the role third-party policing played in the regulation and suppression of interpersonal violence, especially feuding and vendetta which communal authorities saw as both bad for business and capable of “spawn[ing] more serious conflicts with political implications” (223). In particular, he is interested in how third-party policing enforced arms-bearing laws and the “arms permit system” to “target feuding men and to intervene in volatile situations before enemies came to blows.” In other words, communal regimes utilized third-party police patrols in a form of “preventative policing” akin to the dragnets discussed in the previous chapter to discipline a broad swath of the male population that was likely to engage in feud, as well as to “prevent enmity itself” by regulating behaviors that might create new enmities (224). All of this represents, in Roberts’s view, the growing importance of hegemonic justice in the medieval Italian communes, although he is careful to push back against the idea that medieval Italian communal governments possessed the same monopoly on violence exercised by modern states. The arguments presented in this chapter are clear and persuasive, contributing to multiple scholarly debates. For example, Roberts’s understanding of vendetta as playing a fundamentally negative (i.e., destructive) role in society and thus as a challenge to be addressed through third-party policing differs from the functionalist approach of Andrea Zorzi and others who argue that communal governments legitimized vendetta as a means of limiting violence to proportional responses and easing societal tensions. In contrast, Roberts’s view of the nature of elite violence is very much in accord with that of historians of chivalry who have published studies over the past two decades emphasizing the transgressive and destructive nature of chivalric violence and the threat it posed to public order. In short, scholars interested in topics ranging from elite violence, vendetta, and feuding to the nature of public justice will find new insights in this chapter which are sure to encourage further debate and research.

In the final chapter, Roberts considers how third-party policing shaped “the norms that governed communal society,” arguing that by “proactively enforcing the laws, police patrols made communal society more of a rules-based order and promoted a culture of legalism” (267). Put another way, the police patrols “affected the behavioral calculus of locals” and “normalize[d] government coercion” (267) through their impersonal, aggressive, and preventative enforcement of the law. Roberts is quick to note, however, that third-party policing was not entirely successful, as it ultimately failed to “prevent violent self-help, enmity, and public corruption from undermining the stability and legitimacy of communal regimes” (267). In order to explain these failures, Roberts points to both popular disdain and distrust of the men who supervised and comprised the third-party police force (e.g., the podestà and the berrovarii) and the means by which communal elites “managed to shield themselves from the hegemonic justice system they created” (270). Concerning the latter, Roberts argues that they accomplished this through passage of new laws which helped reshape third-party policing from an institution involving “some degree of self-repression into a tool for repressing “others,” mainly non-elites and political opponents” (270). This shift from self-repression to the repression of “others”--which Roberts conceptualizes as a failure of limited access orders to overcome their own internal logical “based on custom, honor, and identity rules” in order “to transition to open access or even to adopt impersonal rules on a societal scale” (307-8)--was ultimately problematic for the governing elite because it led to political upheaval and factionalism, “effectively render[ing] government policing a tool of factional interests rather than the public welfare” (308). Despite these shortcomings, Roberts concludes that impersonal “government policing proved enduring as an institution” (308).

In summary, Police Power in the Italian Communes surely deserves to be recognized as one of the foundational studies of police power in the late medieval Italian communes, especially Bologna. Roberts’s book is dense and complex but will repay significant dividends for readers interested in violence, justice, and related issues in the medieval Italian urban context and beyond. Indeed, the author deserves great credit for his interdisciplinary approach to the topic, his well-organized and persuasive arguments, and his skillful marshalling of rich veins of archival evidence. It is certainly, to borrow from Francis Bacon’s famous taxonomy, a book “to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention,” but one well worth the time and effort. [1]



1. Francis Bacon, “Of Studies,” in The Essays, ed. John Pitcher (Penguin Books, 1985), 209.