The Legacy of Police Power


Review of Police Power in the Italian Communes, 1228-1326, by Gregory Roberts

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019


With current discussions surrounding the role and responsibility of the police, the historical context of law enforcement is needed more than ever. Contrary to the widely held assumption that specialized police forces emerged as a modern phenomenon, recent work on law enforcement in Ptolemaic Egypt and Imperial Rome has revealed the existence of these legal institutions in pre-modern periods. These new approaches have attempted to re-contextualize pre-modern criminal justice and policing as it relates to the expansion of political sovereignty over application of the law, the militarization of law enforcement, and the scope of coercive-legal power. In Police Power in the Italian Communes, 1228-1326, Greg Roberts contributes to this growing field by examining the emergence of urban policing power in medieval Italian cities, and looking at its ramifications on the application of law within pre-modern cosmopolitan centers. 

This well-written and meticulously researched book masterfully reconstructs the criminal law apparatus in action, drawing on archival sources with new focus on its policing power and institutional characteristics, enforcement, and its normative impact on politics and the law. The book examines this legal revolution through the office of the podestà—a foreign noble appointed as the chief criminal magistrate and head of police—and his application of statutes in Bologna during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Roberts convincingly demonstrates that “in the thirteenth century, the Italian communes developed institutions that exhibited…police governance” (26), despite medieval limitations on central authority and tools of governance. 

Furthermore, contrary to the view that medieval societies relied on dispute resolution over discipline and punishment, Roberts shows that the ruling elites of medieval Italian cities and their criminal law enforcers collectively exerted an unprecedented and expansive level of authority over the behavior and actions of the urban populace. At the same time, this growing level of policing power reduced citizens’ personal autonomy. Roberts resituates the historical dimensions of law enforcement into a medieval-urban context, making Police Power in the Italian Communes a particularly important intervention that allows scholars to rethink notions of sovereignty, law, and the policing power of the pre-modern world. Roberts’ careful and thorough approach to this topic establishes a foundational cornerstone for historians looking to move beyond apparent boundaries on what constituted pre-modern and modern governance and law enforcement. 

Chapter 1 (“Police Power in the Italian Communes”) provides a three-dimensional portrait of the exercise of police power in medieval Bologna and its impact on day-to-day realties. It describes the legal-administrative functions of the podestà and his famiglia (retinue)—judges, milites (knights), notaries, berrovarii (policemen), domicile, and scutiferi (attendants). The chapter pieces together their role and authority over the patrols, arrests, detainments, and interrogations of suspects. The most significant and valuable contribution of this chapter comes from Roberts’ methodological approach to archival judicial records. Previously, historians had concluded that medieval courts lacked policing power based on high contumacy rates (the refusal to attend court summons) in trials for crimes. However, Roberts argues that these studies do not cover the cases prosecuted by the podestà and his famiglia because the records were limited to mentioning only their prosecution of minor crimes, such as breaking curfew, bearing arms, and gambling, and this has led legal historians to underestimate their full significance. 

Roberts rectifies this with his comparative analysis of selected data from Bolonga’s judicial registers from the years 1286-1320. Demographic, fining, and conviction rate data from Italian communes such as Siena, Orvieto, and Perugia allow him to measure at a quantitative level the impact and effectiveness of pre-modern policing power. His archives offer him a rare and exciting privilege that other historical fields (classical and Islamic studies) are not granted, given that their available source bases are far more literary. The conclusions are intriguing. High convictions rates and fines, and the low rate of contumacy in the podestàs’ cases, demonstrate that policing powers in Italian Communes held substantial authority over the urban landscape and were extremely effective. At the same time, Roberts is careful to caution that this data cannot collectively represent all of the activities of the podestà. For example, he notes that notaries usually lacked an incentive to record cases where no fines were collected. This case study approach offers the first reconstruction of a medieval law enforcement force in action, and presents exciting possibilities for future studies on this topic, particularly with his nuanced treatment of these sources.

Chapter 2 (“Police Discretion and Personal Autonomy”) reveals the nature and rationale behind the discretionary-legal methodology of these police forces. By avoiding the trap of viewing the berrovarii (policemen’s) ad hoc interpretation of statutes as abuses of power, Roberts delves more deeply into the logic underpinning their tendency to arrest at any pretext or take advantage of legal ambiguities. He shows that the substantial coercive power that the communes bestowed upon the podestà’s men gave them ample opportunity to shape the application of law as they saw fit, not unlike modern policing today. He further argues that this “hegemonic justice” that the berrovarii exhibited resulted in an impersonal slant to their law enforcement to the extent that they even arrested and detained members of the very elite who served as their employers. This chapter rethinks the results of medieval policing power by examining its subversion of social privileges in favor of extending the control of the polity over its populace. This state of affairs closely parallels the apparatuses of an impersonal modern state, which challenges the scholarly consensus on governance and law in medieval society as being driven by passions and biases.

Chapter 3 (“The Logic of Third Party Policing”) illustrates the reasoning behind the Italian Communes’ establishment of a third-party police, given that they already had other legal institutions in place. In classical Rome, Byzantine-era Constantinople, medieval Caliphal societies, and even early modern Paris, these law enforcement forces were extensions of the expansive legal sovereignty of their rulers. However, Roberts adds a new dimension to this phenomenon by revealing that policing power can also emerge as an arm of a republican government, as it did in Bologna. 

Roberts argues that Italian Communes like Bologna, that were governed by a popolo (a ruling elite made up of wealthy merchants and businessmen), needed an impersonal third-party police force to level the field against the oppositional nobility, whose influence and privilege allowed them to dominate society and to circumvent laws. As foreigners, the podestà and his men were not ingrained in the factional politics of these communes and would pursue any lawbreakers, including nobles. Roberts convincingly shows that this was to the advantage of the popolo, as this impersonal mode of law enforcement put every citizen on equal footing regardless of their distinct backgrounds. Furthermore, Roberts contends that third-party policing was a far more effective means of maintaining public order than the use of existing legal bodies, including law enforcement forces like the night watch. Personal relations between citizens still held sway over the legal process, as evidenced by officials who avoided the prosecution of the notables. Though Roberts lists urbanization, greater bureaucratization, and growing legal complexities as essential factors for the use of this foreign policing power, this chapter’s major contribution is to show that pre-modern policing powers could materialize outside of expansive sovereign empires or absolutist monarchies. 

In Chapter 4 (“External Threats: Policing Out-Groups and Criminality”), Roberts puts into context the increasing monopolization of judicial violence by this expanding policing power, as reflected in the normative discourses surrounding punishment as deterrence. In contrast with the majority of scholarship that has emphasized medieval justice as restorative rather than retributive, Roberts argues that although torture and other forms of judicial violence did not pervade the whole judicial process, such legal procedures still made up a considerable part of the criminal justice system. Throughout this section, he demonstrates time and again that the podestà and his forces would employ executions and coercive interrogations, even implementing torture for petty crimes as a measure to secure convictions (in direct violation of the city’s statutes). 

He rightly contends that this inquisitorial justice was rooted in the sweeping powers of the podestà as well as in the circulation of normative discourses that emphasized severe penalties for minor offenses as a means of discouraging major crimes. A fascinating intervention in this chapter is Roberts’ reexamination of R.I. Moore’s thesis about the emergence of a persecuting society in medieval Europe, rooted in the initiatives of the clerical elite who sought to expand their control and to suppress marginalized groups like heretics, lepers, and Jews. In the context of the policing power of Bologna, Roberts argues that this persecuting dynamic emerged not from the exclusion of religiously marginalized groups, but as a defense against any perceived threats to the political order. His conclusion correlates with other instances of policing powers in different eras and locations throughout the pre-modern world. 

The next section of the book builds on the theme of the monopolization of violence via the communes’ attempts to reduce factional violence through new statutes and the podestà’s forces. Chapter 5 (“Internal Threats: Policing Violence and Enmity”) provides a new perspective on the legitimacy of vendettas in medieval Italian societies. When compared to scholars like Andrea Zorzi, who sees these feuds as an acceptable part of the social and cultural fabric of the communes, Roberts argues that one of the purposes behind the implementation of third-party policing was to prevent such quarrels, often among noble families, from blossoming into wide-scale violence. 

While vendettas were socially acceptable, Roberts makes clear that it was in the best interest of communes to suppress such incidents or situations. Discouraging these rivalries could further strengthen the popolo elites’ control and prevent any opportunities for the nobility to gain the upper hand through these waves of violence. He conveys this point by citing legislation that restricted arms bearing to a select group and even the prohibition of female mourners from funeral processions. Heavy penalties were inflicted, which included imprisonment for participating in feuds. The fact that at one point, the podestà’s forces prosecuted magnates for having snowball fights, serves as a testament to Roberts’ argument that communes sought to prevent any provocations, however small, that could lead to outbreaks of factional violence. 

Roberts is careful to not fall into the trap of portraying this expanding government authority as reminiscent of the modern state’s powers to determine legitimate violence, but he unequivocally shows that scholarship needs to reevaluate functionalist approaches which see vendettas as an institution that brought resolution to disputes, and acted as a safety valve to ease tensions in society. As this chapter proves, communes viewed vendettas as a problem and not a solution. Roberts shows that a pre-modern monopolization of violence emerged organically in these particular social and political circumstances. 

Chapter 6 (“The Social Impact of Third Party Policing”) deepens the author’s findings on the development of policing power by emphasizing its limitations and how it was still tethered to social and cultural norms. Roberts discusses how privileges and interpersonal connections shaped the nature of statutes and judicial process. He highlights the fact that the ambitions of the communes’ elites for a more detached application of the law with far reaching policing powers made a significant impression, but could not fundamentally change the social order. His examination of the podestà's role as a tool of the popolo elites to curtail their enemies among the nobilities shows that law enforcement was deeply personal. Furthermore, the disdain of the populace towards the podestà’s retinue (along with its corruption) carries further his point that obstacles existed to the implementation of a truly dispassionate policing power. 

Roberts masterfully navigates the dichotomies of the personal and impersonal in medieval society with his multifaceted depiction of a legal development still beholden to the social and political structures that it sought to shape. This chapter nuances the scholarly consensus that medieval violence was rooted in interpersonal dynamics. By arguing that the arrival of a third-party policing power added a new approach to conflict but did not supplant other forms of justice, Roberts shows that medieval societies were far more versatile than previously thought. 

Police Power in the Italian Communes is a major contribution to the field. Its thorough and inventive approach to the topic of policing power in the pre-modern world is underpinned by a robust theoretical and methodological framework and a mastery of the archival material. The book challenges long-held assumptions of what constituted law, the modes of violence, and the nature of governance in the medieval world. Roberts deserves praise for his ability to not overstate the scope of the podestà’s policing powers. He carefully situates this momentous change within the broader social, political, and legal drivers that formed the nexus of expanding communal authority and interpersonal dynamics. Roberts’ most significant intervention is to historicize and contextualize the emergence of third-party policing as a development that does not upend the scholarly consensus on medieval society, but adds a deeper dimension to its complexities. 

Despite his meticulous and comprehensive work, this reviewer would have been particularly interested in learning more about the institutional origins of the podestà. The first chapter delves into the structure and legal authority of the podestà without any discussion of how this law enforcement position came into being as a result of the Holy Roman Empire and its continuity with the policing forces of the classical and late Roman antiquity periods. As a result, the first mention of the podestà comes across as abrupt and obscure. In the introduction, Roberts writes that “as a mode of governance, then, policing is arguably as old as civilization” (24), but his overall analysis of this topic is limited to medieval and early modern European societies. He does not venture outside a western historical context on this topic, even with the available literature, which would have strengthened his broader conclusions about policing power. A comparative approach to the subject within other eras and locations, such as in Imperial Rome, Byzantium, and medieval Islamic Societies, would have underscored the fundamental drivers for this phenomenon, in tandem with the unique characteristics of the medieval communes. As a result, the book’s conclusions and contributions are tempered by this lack of exploration of the policing power’s global ramifications. 

These are minor critiques of an otherwise excellent and crucial work, which will provoke numerous conversations among scholars of history, law, and medieval studies. Policing Power is an important piece of scholarship that is thoroughly researched and well-written. It is a pivotal work for historians interested in the pre-modern formation of law enforcement and adds a much-needed perspective on questions about the fluid role of the policing power and how society navigates them.



Posted on 18 November 2020

MOHAMMED ALLEHBI is a George J. Graham Jr. Fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. He is a Ph.D. History Candidate at Vanderbilt University