I began working on this blog two weeks before George Floyd was murdered. I think it right that I take a moment and comment on what it is I am trying to do writing about criminal justice, even if medieval, French, and seemingly divorced from modern concerns over policing.
This blog is not meant to glorify policing or law enforcement, in this era or any other.* It is also not meant to celebrate the murders, arson, rapes, and other forms of harmful activity that comprise the grist of this story mill.
This blog is about how people at the time understood their engagement with crime (primarily), and how the ruling authorities reacted (secondarily). That means that when I write about someone who turned to murder, I look at why that was. What circumstances prevailed in their lives that made it an option? How did they understand their role? When they try to tell their story, how do they characterize themselves? What do they have to say about the victim? Should we believe them?
The vast majority of people within these stories are not people with power. They are almost all laborers, commoners — peasants. For many of them, they were living in an occupied territory, just trying to survive. If my sympathies lie anywhere, it’s with these accidental criminals, caught up in a world and a system stacked against them from the start.
It is all too easy to read about crime at a distance and see the pain as a funny. How many cartoons make jokes out of medieval torture? But that pain was real for all too many people. And while this blog is meant to be light in tone, I try not to forget that all of these are true stories. That in the end, whatever the true context, someone in fact died, or was tortured, or had their house with all their earthly possessions burned to the ground by an angry neighbour. These are people we’ll never meet, but that is just as true for so many of the people hurting today whose stories are consumed for entertainment, whether in police reality shows or ripped-from-the-headlines dramas. So no matter our distance (be it temporal as here, spatial, racial, or any of the numerous other ways we separate ourselves from other people), please remember that the day someone encounters the legal system, it’s often the worst day of their life, sometimes the last day, and “deserving it” is the response of the comfortable, the complacent, the un-policed.
* I feel compelled to note that the idea of “police” is anachronistic and unhelpful when it comes to talking about the late Middle Ages. This was very much an un-policed society.