Figliulo-Rosswurm on Blanshei, 'Violence and Justice in Bologna: 1250-1700'

Sarah Rubin Blanshei, ed.
Joseph Figliulo-Rosswurm

Sarah Rubin Blanshei, ed. Violence and Justice in Bologna: 1250-1700. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. 300 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4985-4633-1.

Reviewed by Joseph Figliulo-Rosswurm (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Italy (February, 2020) Commissioned by Peter Sposato (Indiana University Kokomo)

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Figliuolo-Rosswurm on Blanshei, ed., Violence and Justice in Bologna, 1250-1700

This volume, edited by the reigning magistra of its theme, combines innovative approaches to key issues in the specialist literature with new sources to produce a noteworthy addition to the flourishing scholarship on institutions of conflict management and peace-making in the medieval Italian cities.[1] Blanshei’s lucid editorship lends a rare unity of tone to the volume, which covers an eventful half-millennium in the relationship between the Bolognese, their rulers, and the institutions and practices they developed to contain violence. Its contributions, the fruit of a diverse range of junior and established scholars, exemplify the value of cross-periodization collaboration, the continuing vitality of research grounded in Italy’s archival riches, and the central role that medieval court records play in understanding state formation's unfolding in real time.[2] This will be essential reading for experts and graduate students for some time to come.

The volume succeeds at its goal of presenting new research and facets of Bolognese justice and contemporary perceptions of violence. The chronological lens reveals institutional development's discontinuous nature: there was no definitive institutional ossification or triumph of state power over private violence, but rather the inventive refashioning of sociopolitical exigencies and the current ruling group's requirements. Considerable flexibility characterized Bolognese justice, explainable in two ways: judicial procedure-practice’s enmeshment with political struggle, and the eagerness of Bolognese citizens to take full tactical advantage, in their pursuit of material and social resources, of whatever space for maneuver prevalent procedural norms presented. Despite a shift during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries from accusation- to inquisition-based procedure, mechanisms often associated with the supposedly “weak” justice of the medieval commune (peace accords, the ban against the contumacious) characterized the sixteenth-century system. Likewise, the success of the later seventeenth-century papacy in corralling private jurisdictions and signorial abuses in the contado corrected a tendency that had emerged, not in the medieval period, but during the period of papally backed signorie in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The book is divided into two five-chapter sections. Section 1 examines the relationship between trial procedures and politics. The second group presents case studies of specific types of violence. Gregory Roberts draws on the work of political scientist Douglass North to challenge “the recent spate of functionalist studies” on conflict in medieval Italy, above all the processual school of interpretation (p. 18). This stresses the episodic nature of a given trial in a broader relationship between the parties that moves in and out of court, to valorize the logic inherent in acts such as vendetta.[3] Challenging this paradigm, particularly the work of the maestro of Florentine medieval studies, Andrea Zorzi, Roberts emphasizes efforts to redefine legitimate violence. Roberts’s source, the Corona ed Armi, is a collection of sumptuary violations and arms-bearing violations. He argues that, rather than an explicitly sanctioned form of dispute resolution, vendetta was seen as a social menace and Bolognese legislators acted to contain the same feuds that these legal professionals’ families engaged in, in an explicit echo of what Carol Lansing found for contemporary Orvietano funeral lament legislation.[4]

Massimo Vallerani uses thirteenth-century trial records to depict the trial as collective social theater, with accusatorial procedure, due to its low access costs during this period, a popular option for citizens pursuing grievances over what Vallerani shows were concrete, material claims—often contractually guaranteed, now in question, relationships and profits. Procedure is, Vallerani underlines, essential to social and cultural history: it dictates how our sources were constructed, and at least in the age of the popular communes, was directly relevant in the contests over goods and rights that made up so much of litigation. Vallerani’s summary discussion of how exclusion of designated groups from the right to trial initiation and privileges granted to the ruling group’s partisans hollowed out the normative mechanisms of justice underlines procedure's social salience.

The next three pieces cover developments in procedure and the political logic shaping the criminal trial between the 1320s and 1700. Blanshei’s research reveals that accusatorial procedure declined from the early fourteenth to the sixteenth century, to be replaced by a variety of modulated inquisition procedures. This arose from the hollowing-out effect that privilege and exclusion, thoroughly studied by Blanshei and others including Giuliano Milani, had on the normative functioning of the thirteenth-century system, which had been characterized by its ease of access and the jurists’ concern for safeguarding due process.[5] A definitive subordination of justice to politics characterized the fourteenth and fifteenth-century criminal system. Regime preservation, not due process, was the judicial system’s goal. It remained thus, from the Pepoli signoria of the mid-Trecento to the restored “popular” commune of 1376 through to the fifteenth-century Bentivoglio lordship. A system subordinated more tightly to ruling group requirements, a substantially reduced population to police, and an expanded staff of enforcement personnel combined to reconstitute the apparatuses of criminal justice around inquisition, with scant space for the clamorous crowd of would-be-users that characterized Vallerani's thirteenth-century accusatorial trials. Trevor Dean’s discussion of court notaries' interrogation records (bastardelli) utilizes an understudied source to illuminate the role of torture in interrogation, a crucial but typically poorly documented stage in the criminal process. The more streamlined criminal process granted wide-ranging interrogative powers to judges to interrogate whole villages, a process distinct from that of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The system had, however, ample space for ad hoc innovations, such as petitions to the signore for streamlined procedure or mercy on grounds of poverty, that enabled Bologna’s rulers to maintain power—or not, as Bologna’s later fourteenth-century political history was not especially tranquil.[6]

A transition to inquisitorial procedure did not imply a pacified polity, as Colin Rose and Sarah Cucini’s contributions show. Rose reveals the process whereby, following the papacy’s 1502 reconquest of Bologna, the city’s pontifical overlords clawed jurisdictional power back from a nobility which had carved out private fiefdoms during the Italian Wars. While the criminal court of the Torrone operated as a centralized entity, a more effective justice was a collective endeavor. Rose’s contribution demonstrates the crucial role that information networks linking town and country and official personnel and rural subjects were crucial to making the Torrone function, and compete with feudal enclaves. Growing central control over justice paradoxically contributed, in the short term, to heightened conflict among those this central power sought to pacify. The Torrone’s declining resort to execution and growing use of the ban in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries exacerbated the rural violence it sought to end. Banned nobles turned brigand, particularly on the margins of Bolognese territory, prompting the authorities to equip local peasants with firearms. This predictably exacerbated violence, as well-armed locals proceeded to root out bandits but also settle long-standing grudges. The reader will note the full circle that the Bolognese judicial system has made here, and which is only evident due to the volume’s chronological sweep: disarming the rural population (contadini e rustici) because of their allegedly homicidal behavior was a key feature of the medieval commune’s anti-weapons legislation, and yet to achieve the same goal, violence reduction, the sixteenth-century Torrone saw fit to flood the small hamlets of the Bolognese-Modenese borderlands with harquebuses, prompting an alarmed effort to restrict firearms ownership two years later. 

The last five chapters focus on specific kinds of criminality, while maintaining procedure as a core part of their analysis. Sara Cucini’s contribution, drawing upon her recent, comprehensive dissertation, demonstrates how the process Blanshei identifies—the ruling group’s subordination of the judiciary to ruling-group exigencies—worked with the para-signoria of the Bentivoglio family, which dominated the city from the mid-fifteenth century until Julius II’s conquest. Cucini shows how the Bentivoglio faction effectively merged with the state apparatus, through the organizational medium of the Sedici Riformatori dello stato della libertà, a council that became the Bentivoglio political machine’s lynchpin. The Sedici developed a normative framework capable of resolving infra-ruling class disputes, including challenges from its members to the Bentivoglio ascendency. When oligarchic cooperation within institutional organs broke down, however, the Bentivoglio resorted to extrajudicial actions and judicial exceptions to maintain their power.  

Margaux Buyck’s contribution examines the theme of poisoning and its differential treatment in Roman law, Bolognese statutes, and in the Bolognese tribunals. The thirteenth-century Bolognese statutes broke with the lex Cornelia, which shaped the Roman tradition’s approach to poisoning and the orienting concept of which was dolus, malice aforethought. Buyck identifies a sixteenth-century shift, with an apparent turn in the normative material toward the weight of dolus, but concludes that “great continuity” is traceable in the practical prosecution of (accused) poisoners. She underlines the importance of the discrepancy between the Roman inheritance and the statutory tradition for creating a practical space for maneuver for the magistrates, and social status rather than the crime of poisoning was what counted. Justice was, here as elsewhere, a sociopolitical matter above all.

Carol Lansing’s contribution continues a series of investigations by the same author of sexual assault and its judicial reception.[7] Using the same sources as Vallerani, Lansing identifies two significant features of the rape cases concerned: lower-status women appear to have used the accusation procedure to pursue redress against rapists and would-be rapists, defying consensus opinion in the literature on rape in the medieval past that sexual assault was rarely denounced because of the shame it would bring upon the accuser and her family. For women without a dowry or male guardians, however, it sometimes made more sense to bring an accusatory motion against one’s assailant and pursue some sort of out-of-court settlement. Lansing also identifies a notable drop-off in the number of trial procedures for rape from the fourteenth century onwards. Why? The full weight of procedure becomes evident: the politically motivated changes in Bolognese judicial procedure during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries drastically curtailed the system’s accessibility to non-elite citizens, while creating large groups among the guilds and arms societies—whose members usually already came from the middling and upper ranks of the popolo—that were effectively impervious to the accusation-based system. Thus, the forum for pursuing redress against rapists via the accusatory procedure evaporated, curtailing lower-status women’s ability to pursue redress and our knowledge of the sociopolitical context for sexual assault among the fourteenth and fifteenth-century Bolognese.

Melissa Vise invites us to read in tandem source sets that tend to be read separately. To understand the nature of blasphemy and how Bolognese society policed it, she pairs procedural records from the court of the podestà and surviving registers from the mendicant-staffed ecclesiastical inquisition of the 1390s. Vise demonstrates that, for both jurists and those doing the denouncing, blasphemy was a crimen mixti fori, a crime within secular and ecclesiastical jurisdictions that the author contends was a form of verbal violence. Denunciations were made in both tribunals. Historians who have studied the ecclesiastical inquisition elsewhere will be surprised at the finding that the accused and witnesses consistently cooperated with the inquisitor, and that the ecclesiastical court may have been preferred due to its sentences, more clement relative to those of the podestà. Vise makes a refreshing methodological intervention, combining different jurisdictions’ contemporary records to reveal aspects of a broader political-theological culture. Such an approach promises interesting results for other cities whose surviving documentation would enable it.

Christopher Carlsmith reviews student violence in Bologna across the volume’s period. A major shift he identifies is in the organizational basis for collective action among the student body, due to civic and ecclesiastical authorities’ desire to restrict student autonomy and impose a closer control on this rather fractious group, still reveling in the autonomies that Emperor Frederick II’s authentica habita (1158) granted. Student secessions, whereby all or part of the student body decamped to a nearby town, such as Arezzo (125) or Imola (1321), still happened in the sixteenth century, but by century's end, the papacy was facing down such challenges. The abolition of the office of student rector reduced the students’ ability to mobilize effectively, while the student body’s reorganization into national colleges refocused violent outbursts along better-supervised lines.

This reviewer was reduced to a minor quibble by way of criticism. Even in the era of apps, in-text maps are regrettable with their absence: one of Bologna and its contado, and the Patrimony of St. Peter/the Papal States would aid readers in understanding the basic political geography in which the trials and tribulations narrated herein played out. A map of the medieval city center would aid nonspecialists in comprehending references to urban quarters and localities. This is a small concern, however. The exceptionally cogent and comprehensive overview, in the introduction, of historiography on justice and violence in the medieval Italian communes, the variety of topics and approaches on offer, and the affordable price, make Violence and Justice in Bologna appropriate for graduate seminars, in addition to being highly recommended for scholars interested in the relationship between institutions, norms, and social responses to these over time.


[1]. See, among others, Gregory Roberts, Police Power in the Italian Communes, 1228-1326 (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2019); Katherine Ludwig Jansen, Peace and Penance in Late Medieval Italy(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018); Glenn Kumhera, The Benefits of Peace: Private Peacemaking in Late Medieval Italy (Leiden: Brill, 2017); Joanna Carraway Vitiello, Public Justice and the Criminal Trial in Late Medieval Italy. Reggio Emilia in the Visconti Age (Leiden: Brill, 2016); Massimo Vallerani, Medieval Public Justice, trans. Sarah Rubin Blanshei (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012); and Sarah Rubin Blanshei, Politics and Justice in Late Medieval Bologna London: Brill, 2010).

[2]. Ian Forrest, “Afterword: Court Records and the Growth of States 1100-1800,” Open Library of Humanities 5, no. 1 (2019): 66,

[3]. Chris Wickham, Courts and Conflict in Twelfth-Century Tuscany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 8-9.

[4]. Carol Lansing, Passion and Order: Restraint of Grief in the Medieval Italian Communes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 12-13.

[5]. Blanshei, Politics and Justice in Late Medieval Bologna (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 256; Giuliano Milani, L’esclusione dal comune: Conflitti e bandi politici a Bologna e in altre città italiane tra XII e XIV secolo (Rome: Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medioevo, 2003), 452.

[6]. Patrick Lantschner, The Logic of Political Conflict in Medieval Cities: Italy and the Southern Low Countries, 1370-1440 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 95-121.

[7]. Carol Lansing, “Humiliation and the Exercise of Power in the Florentine Contado in the mid-Fourteenth Century,” in Emotions, Passions, and Power in Renaissance Italy, ed. Fabrizio Ricciardelli and Andrea Zorzi (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), 1-10.

Citation: Joseph Figliulo-Rosswurm. Review of Blanshei, Sarah Rubin, ed., Violence and Justice in Bologna: 1250-1700. H-Italy, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL:

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