Crime and Punishment
Big Question Crime before 1450 Main page
     

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 law.
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
Murder: 18.2%
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.

Case Studies
 
   
Source 1 Source 2 Source 4 Source 3 End to Prevention before 1450 End to Crime 1450 - 1750 Case Studies Case Study 2 Non-violent cases Case Study 1 Violent Crime Game Worksheet