Were the Middle Ages lawless and violent?
One view of the Middle Ages is of grim castles,
brutal barons and ruthless outlaws. It is a picture of lawlessness and
violence which makes our own age seem peaceful by contrast. Is this an
accurate view of the Middle Ages?
The BIG QUESTION in this Strand is about how much
crime has changed over the centuries. One of the problems in answering
this question is finding out just what the real crime situation was in
any period. Court records are the main source of information, but there
are two big problems in using them. First, they only tell you about crime
and criminals. To read court records is to read about crime after crime.
They tell us nothing about those who did not get into trouble with the
Second, how much crime never reached the courts? Historians call this
"the dark figure": the number of unreported crimes. Was "the
dark figure" large or small for the Middle Ages?
Finally, here are some figures about the most common kinds of crime in
the Middle Ages, to help you put the Case-Studies in context. They are
based on the crimes committed in eight counties between 1300 and 1348:
Theft: 73.5% of all offences
Receiving stolen goods: 6.2%
Arson, counterfeiting coins, rape, treason and all others: 2.1%
There are two Case-Studies in this section:
1. Violent crime
2. Non-violent offences
How To Work
1. Work through each of these Case-Studies. Read and analyse the Sources
in each. There are HINTS in each Case-Study to help you get the most out
of the Sources.
2. At the end of your Case-Study, fill in some of the Gallery Worksheet.
3. Move on to the next Case-Study. You will only be able to answer the
Key Question when you have done both the Case-Studies.