Ab absurdo, ad libertatem
Previous   |   Next       

Crime and Conflict in English Communities, 1300-1348

Book Analysis

Jan 04, 2010

The driving impulse behind Barbara Hanawalt's epic undertaking Crime and Conflict in English Communities, 1300-1348, is to describe, analyze, and uncover the major factors that influenced crime in medieval England. Criminal history offers much room for debate, with popular causal explanations ranging from pauperism and psychological aberration to industrialization and capitalism. However rather than analyzing crime causally, Hanawalt endeavours to reconstruct a picture of medieval society from the substantial primary source materials available in medieval gaol delivery rolls, and thus analyze communities and criminality through the prism of crime itself.

To refine the picture painted by the delivery rolls indictment information is combined with contemporaneous literary references to crime, as well as medieval and modern perspectives on crime. The resulting picture is then viewed through the lens of conflict theory, and Hanawalt develops the thesis that the primary factors influencing crime were social, economic, and political. Criminality was not specific to any group, activity, or location, and there was no anti-social criminal mentality or criminal class per se. Competition took place between and within social strata, as people vied for goods, property, and power, using any means available. Any and all members of society could, and did, use "criminal" and "legal" acts for dispute resolution, personal advancement, and monetary gain; everyone knew it, and partook of it.

In order to defend her thesis, Hanawalt's task is twofold: i) establish the viability of the delivery rolls as a data source, and ii) develop a convincing body of argumentation to support her theories, as based on information gleaned from the rolls.

First, to solidify the ground on which her ideas are constructed, Hanawalt must demonstrate the reliability of the rolls as a data source. To this end, Hanawalt provides evidence that data fluctuations were the result of changes in criminal activity, and were not the result of information loss, transitory legal practices, or variations in the efficacy of law enforcement. Second, having shown the information in the rolls as being correlated primarily to criminal activity, Hanawalt creates a mathematical foundation for her analysis by examining the total number of "basic" felony indictments -- 15,952 -- statistically. Her statistics are then cross-examined with literary references, studied alongside details from specific indictments, and scrutinized using modern day sociological conflict theory.

The major argument resulting from Hanawalt's analyses runs as follows. Rural, late-medieval English society was stratified. Subsistence necessitated cooperation, however disputes frequently arose over shared duties, public power, and private ownership. People sought status, and competition for resources took place between individuals and groups. Conflicts were primarily local in nature, and were resolved by criminal acts and manipulation of the legal system. Neighbours and officials violated each other's rights and property for reasons of survival, revenge, profit, and status. In the matter of conflict resolution "[t]he emphasis was on self-help," and self-help was manifest as crime. For Hanawalt, these observations are made intelligible by way of conflict theory, and this is the model within which she situates her analysis.

In analyzing Hanawalt's use of primary sources -- criminal court data, and literary references -- we must consider their relevance to her thesis. Is each source relevant to the study and analysis of i) social, ii) economic, and iii) political factors?

Literary references are certainly relevant to examinations of all three factors, however literature may not be germane to examinations of political and economic factors beyond a local level. We cannot be sure that writers always fully appreciated the interplay of factors influencing life beyond the borders of their own locale. This fact is not fully conceded by Hanawalt, however when making speculative interpretations Hanawalt acknowledges she is doing so, and she does not overstep her sources in this regard. Criminal court data pertains directly to all three factors, as it surveys a broad set of individuals from different localities and status groups, and thus surveys a broad set of social, economic, and political elements and situations. In addition, although there was no comprehensive standard for generating delivery rolls, the rolls permit some interpretation of the impact of social, economic, and political factors on people's lives.

Prudently, because the rolls form the bedrock of this study, Hanawalt reflects on the suitability of the rolls as evidence throughout the entire book. For our purposes, we must examine the strengths and weaknesses of Hanawalt's reflections, and of the rolls themselves. As discussed by Hanawalt, the nature of the rolls suggested specific constraints on the framework of study: rural residents, in eight counties, from 1300 to 1348. Rural residents, because they comprised ninety percent of the population. Eight counties, to provide experiences representative of all England. 1300 to 1348, because the rolls are "complete" only for the five-decade span starting in 1300, and because 1348 found the Black Death in England, bringing with it dramatic changes to criminality.

This framework is strong and original in both scope and analysis. The rolls have been examined by others, however Hanawalt studies a larger data set and includes new statistical analyses. As regards methodology, many criminologists wholly reject rolls and court records as overly fragmentary. Hanawalt however feels that without examining the rolls she could make only "... impressionistic statements ... full of value judgments." To her credit, she argues effectively that to exclude the massive amount of primary source information recorded in the rolls would undermine the entire project of fourteenth century criminology. Hanawalt's approach is fair-minded; however, she meets a profound limitation at this early stage: there are no definite population figures.

The lack of population figures impacts the number of counties chosen, as well as the statistical devices that may be applied. Hanawalt compensates for this by illustrating that the counties examined were heterogeneous in social, economic, and political influences and experiences, and by comparing her statistics with modern equivalents.

Hanawalt's statistics are based on the number of felony indictments, and she counts indictments by person rather than by crime. This definition has limitations, as some indictments may have been false or inexact. However, this does not undermine her study, for, as she notes, indictments had at least to be conceivable to make it into the rolls. The criminal act itself is at least preserved, if not the criminal.

In order for Hanawalt's theory to explain fluctuations in the number of indictments, she must disconfirm other explanations. Here we find many potential sources of influence that might exert invisible pressures on her study: missing rolls; the trying of cases by different powers; prejudices of those recording the rolls; changes to the definition of felony; changes in the practices of policing; unrecorded directives; and unreported crimes. Any of these might easily augment the number of indictments. Overall however, the data show no consistent pattern related to these problems, and accordingly, Hanawalt claims their impact on the volume of cases is negligible. In order to confirm this claim, and to prove the consistency of the rolls, Hanawalt examines a subset of the data mathematically and extrapolates these results to the whole. This yields a graph of crimes versus years, and indeed, the trajectory of Hanawalt's mathematical transformations follows closely, and often exactly, the trajectory of the data line for the raw number of crimes. This strongly suggests that her approach is sound.

Hanawalt offers the reader a plethora of statistics: acquittals versus convictions; acquittals versus convictions by type of crime; percentage breakdown of crimes by type and location; and percentage breakdown of stolen goods by type and value. Unfortunately, Hanawalt's many tables suffer from many problems. A brief examination of the first four tables reveals multiple mistakes. The percentage of convictions in the second row of table 1 is incorrect, and should read 13.3%. The total number of convictions for table 2 is stated as 3,632 while the numbers given sum to 4,132 -- a miscalculation of nearly 14%. Percentages given in the second row of table 2 are incorrect, and should read 61.6% and 38.4% for acquittals and convictions respectively. The total for the first column of table 4 is given as 3,524 but is actually 3,744. Although the bulk of information in these four tables is correct, these basic errors make one dubious not only about the accuracy of the final summations presented in the book, but of all numbers compiled and manipulated behind the scenes.

These problems notwithstanding, Hanawalt is on the whole able to adeptly ply sociological and mathematical devices in her examinations. She ventures however beyond history, sociology, and mathematics into biology when discussing the participants of crime, and here she quickly falls into an illogical impasse. Hanawalt conjectures that "... the stability of the sex ratio over so many centuries could ... be taken as evidence for a biological difference between men and women that makes women less aggressive and more submissive to the law." This suggestion far outstrips any such conclusion that might be drawn from the sources. In order to make the problem clear, consider the following claim: history shows a greater number of wealthy males than females, and this could be taken as evidence that women are less motivated than men. The claim is nonsensical. Both claims are bound to complex hierarchical relationships of domination, and neither claim is supported by Hanawalt's historical analysis.

Broadly speaking, Hanawalt employs her data and arguments intelligently if not always cautiously in constructing and supporting her thesis. She is at her best when examining wide themes and her conclusions are viable, even if specific analyses may not be. Crime is approached as a commentary on the relations between individuals, groups, and society, and Hanawalt traces the shadowy form cast by indictments to reconstruct a unique picture of medieval rural life. From Hanawalt's picture we learn that criminality was not anti-social in any modern understanding of the concept, but was instead a normalized aspect of daily life that pervaded all relationships and institutions. Considering the sweeping scope of the undertaking and the inherent limitations of her sources, Hanawalt's analysis renders an important and persuasive connection between social, political, and economic factors and the number of criminal indictments. As such, Crime and Conflict in English Communities: 1300-1348 is valuable not only for the reader focusing their studies on medieval England, but also for those seeking to develop an understanding of the interplay between social customs and institutional norms, and thus for the general student of the social sciences.

Part of the series: UWO