Crime and Punishment c.1250 to present


Crime and Punishment

Urbanisation, poverty, technology, beliefs & attitudes, and the government are all factors and reasons explaining changes and continuities in crime, as well as attitudes to crime. Consider these factors when writing your answers in the exam.

This is split into four time periods: Medieval (1250-1500), Early Modern (1500-1750), Industrial (1750-1900), and the Modern period (1900 - now).

Medieval Period: Crime

In the 13th century,

  • There were crimes of different kinds - crimes against property (theft, burglary, arson, robbery) and against a person (homicide, treason).
  • Serious crimes were known as felonies and ranged from murder to stealing more than 12 pennies of goods (as a result of a law passed in 1275).
  • Petty crimes involved limited harm to a person or property, and included stealing less than 12 pennies worth of goods.
  • There were a high number of homicides during the medieval period. Suicide, homicide in self-defence, murder, and accidental homicide were all classed under homicide.

In the 14th century,

  • Over half of medieval homicides stemmed from simple arguments, records suggest.
  • Crimes were also caused by hunger; theft was worst at harvest times when there were full fields.
  • Suicide was a crime because the Church thought that only God could decide when someone died, possibly explaining the high homicide rates (since suicide was classed under homicide).
  • Scolding involved the use of offensive and abusive language in public. 
  • Vagrancy became a problem after the Black Death in the 1340s, because the shortage of workers caused men to leave their manors and become vagrants to wander the country for better pay somewhere else.

In the 15th century:

  • Outlaw gangs that were caught could be pardoned by the king if they promised to serve in his army overseas. 
  • Bad behaviour included sinful behaviour like playing football and dice and gambling, or shaving on Sundays.
  • In the 1351 Act of Parliament, treason was defined. Treason crimes included counterfeiting coins or women disobeying husbands.
  • There were many crimes against authority. In the last years of the 15th century, many lords built up private armies against rival lords to take their land.

Considering the factors that explain continuities and changes in crime and punishment:

  • High rate of homicides in the Medieval Period because of government (the Church considered suicide a crime).
  • Poverty - in the 14th century, many crimes were caused by hunger.


Medieval Period: Policing

The king was in charge of keeping the 'King's Peace'. In 1285, King Edward I passed the Statute of Winchester, which shaped law enforcement for centuries. The Statue of Winchester reformed the system of watchmen (organised groups of men to deter criminal activity and provide law enforcement) of the Ordinance of 1252, and revived the jurisdiction of local courts. It also raised the requirement for hue and cry. A full-time police force would've been too expensive.

The Sheriff was the king's agent in each county and would be a powerful lord working without pay, giving him great status. Some fines that were paid would come the Sheriff's


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