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Crimes in Milan over the XIV century

Violence is the leading cause of death and morbidity among young people in most of the world. More people die for effects and consequences of violence than for infections such as tuberculosis and HIV. Violence is classified in direct violence, as the behavior intentionally aimed at hurting or killing someone, and indirect violence (more subtle and common), that is, the unfair or injurious treatment of people that prevents them from meet their own needs and which in turn results in deprivation and inequality of access to resources and care, poverty, sickness and other forms of discrimination against certain demographic groups. Knowing the trajectory of this phenomenon and adequately reconstruct its perception and trend is extremely functional to the health of our current society, because it can help us to create tools to better understand, regulate and control it.

In order to achieve these objectives, the FAITH (Fighting Against Injustice Through Humanities) project aims at providing a methodology for the collection, digitization and integration of sources that can allow scientists to address crucial social issues through a real interdisciplinary research. In particular, the project focuses on the extrapolation and digitization of archaeological, anthropological, medical, genetic, environmental, geological, historical, documentary, literary and legal data, across different periods (Roman, Middle Ages, modern and contemporary), in a diachronic perspective, in the area of Milan, looking for signs of violence, abuse and discrimination.

There are in fact a lot of interesting data that cannot be accessed, and therefore analyzed and exploited, because they are not digitized; others cannot be compared and put together to obtain comprehensive and aggregated information, because they are modeled and stored using many different formats, and cannot be used to infer new data. Thus, in the FAITH project, we want to digitize, integrate and analyze various forms of our cultural heritage in an explicitly interdisciplinary perspective. It is indeed extremely rare to see full potential of digitization exploited through networks that plan to combine and compare information from paintings or literature with CT scans or DNA sequences of human remains from the same period, since, in many cases, the production of archives and collections has remained thematic. Furthermore, regardless of advances in digital data management and analysis, this capability has never been applied to social problems and challenges such as violence, poverty, disease, climate or migration.

In order to store, manage and analyze such kind of different data, we developed a data model designed to be as generic and flexible as possible, and therefore that can be adapted to the widest possible number of situations that can be described. So, our data model schema has very few entities and very few static attributes. The generic entity can be specialized on the base of the described reality, and generic relations can be specialized too, created ad hoc, and then reused. The general purpose is in fact to encourage researchers who populate the database to reuse the terminology and relations already created previously, independently from the context, through a system of assisted compilation of the fields.

We are currently populating such database both automatically, using script processing pre-existing digital files, and manually, in order to insert data that have never been digitalized. In this moment, we have about 23.000 instances of events inserted automatically, and about 1.400 instances of events registered manually. Most of the events in this latter category are taken from the critical edition of Liber sententiarum potestatis Mediolani [1]. This manuscript was written in 1385 [2], and contains the criminal sentences pronounced by the chief magistrate of Milan, Carlo Zen, during his mandate. This book is the first of a series of seven other registers that collect similar material from the periods 1386-1387, 1390-1392, 1397-1398, 1398-1399, 1400-1401, 1427 and 1428-1429 [3]. Preserved from the time of their compilation in the archive of the municipality of Milan, the eight codices have been kept, since the beginning of the last century, at the “Archivio Storico Civico e Biblioteca Trivulziana”, in Milan. The manuscript from which the judgments are taken (i.e., Liber sententiarum potestatis Mediolani) has been materially drafted, as far as the main body of the text, by the notaries of the chief magistrate Carlo Zen on the occasion of the pronouncement of the sentences issued by the criminal court of Milan, at the lodge of the Osii. Each sentence presents the procedure judicial and the more or less extensive narrative of the circumstances that have it determined; the registration is then enriched, by other officials of the municipality, by notes that recall the events immediately following it, such as graces obtained or payments of fines: all the information that are necessary to check the work of the offices and the flow of money that eventually ensued. In each sentence, written according to precise legal formulas, the name of the accused and of the victim appear, the narration of the events, the motivation leading to the sentence and, finally, the conviction/acquittal of the accused (with possible fine/penalty).

Studying and analyzing such rich documentation is extremely useful, first of all, in order to discover many details of the administration of justice: the work of legal practitioners engaged in the management of the various stages of the process and the related documents produced within of the hearings in presence and in absentia for the issuance of the notices, the pronouncement of sentences to pecuniary and physical penalties or acquittals, the receipt and the screening of petitions to be refused or accepted, the drafting of documents of total grace or partial, compensation and reports of more or less serious crimes (e.g., verbal and physical violence, heresies, killings, thefts, infidelities, poisonings) many times reported in details.

The complexity of Liber sententiarum potestatis Mediolani also makes it possible to shed light on the application of the criminal law at the end of the XIV century and on the practice of criminal proceedings in a period of strong consolidation of public authority and the imposition of the inquisitorial rite on the accusatory one: that is, the gradual transition from a type of criminal justice “Private law” and initiated by the offended, typical of the accusation, to one based on the initiative ex officio of the magistrate, constituting that inquisition which has now become the common modality to prosecute public and private crimes.

Finally, interesting samples of daily life in Milan emerge from this book, certainly not always edifying, but for this very reason most surprising and above all a valid investigation tool to deepen history of costume, the history of genre, the history of the language and the most diverse aspects of life in society.

Despite these and many other reasons of undoubted importance, the Liber sententiarum potestatis Mediolani has so far received little, if any, attention: Ettore Verga is in fact the only one historian to have dedicated to this manuscript and to the others containing the podestarial sentences a concise investigation [4].

The aim is to start an evaluation of a source that is as organic as possible and which presents the product of institutions undergoing pragmatic evolution of the criminal justice, that has considered, at all times, as one of the most influential and incisive aspects of the life of the community subordinate to it.

Even if we are just beginning to populate the database, we can already find interesting information and make some statistics on the registered data. In Figure 1, it is shown an overview of the kinds of crime occurring in Milan in the XIV century, as reported in Liber sententiarum potestatis Mediolani (1385), over a sample of 148 sentences analyzed.

Figure 1. Examples of crimes and sentences taken from Liber sententiarum potestatis Mediolani (1385)

Beside some usual types of crime, such as insults, aggressions and thefts, there are some kinds of particular crimes, typical of that period. For example, “descapuzatio” is a particular type of theft, which consists in stealing a wool hat. At that time, this offense had this particular name. Another particular crime that we found is the so called “decapilatio”: this crime occurs when two women pull each other’s hair. The fine for this crime must then be paid to the municipality, and not to the offended party.

All these kinds of crime, together with their respective number of occurrences, are summarized in Table 1.

Type of crimeNumber of events
Illegal possession of weapons11
Aid to commit a crime4

Table 1. Types of crime

The kind of condemnation or, in some cases, the total acquittal, that the previous crimes received is shown in Table 2.

Type of condemnation / absolutionNumber of events
Monetary penalty123
Total acquittal10
Death penalty by beheading3
Corporal punishment1

Table 2. Types of condemnation / absolution

Between some more usual condemnation, like monetary penalty or imprisonment, we find some other typical punishments of the time, like ridiculing, flogging and corporal punishment.

It is also very interesting to analyze the cases where a sentence of death penalty by beheading was given. In particular, we registered, till now, three sentences of this kind: two of these are the consequence of a murder; the remaining one is the consequence of an adultery made by a woman (Valencia de Giringellis) towards his husband (Marchollus Gullasicha), in the marital home. We also note that the woman is absent at the time of the sentence, probably because of the shame, and so she received her condemnation in contumacy. This is the original sentence:

“The chief magistrate Carlo Zen and the judge Erminio de Palma, after a trial instructed by their respective predecessors Andrea Pepoli and Domenico de Ottobellis on accusation inserted by Marchollus Gullasicha, judge the latter’s wife, Valencia de Giringellis, guilty of the crime of adultery, committed in the marital home with Beltraminus de Merono seu de Herba, and issues the sentence, in absentia of the woman, to the death penalty by beheading”.

[1] Liber Sententiarum Potestatis Mediolani (1385), 2: Edizione critica a cura di Pier Francesco Pizzi; Genova, Società Ligure di Storia Patria, 2021.

[2] Milan, Archivio Storico Civico e Biblioteca Trivulziana, Cimeli, 146.

[3] Milan, Archivio Storico Civico e Biblioteca Trivulziana, Cimeli, 146-152 e 175.

[4] E. Verga, Le sentenze criminali dei podestà milanesi (1385-1429). Appunti per la storia della giustizia punitiva in Milano, 1901.

  • Gaia Varese

    Ph.D. in 2011 with the thesis “Semantic Data Clouding over the Webs”. She is currently a research fellow involved in the FAITH project, aiming at the study and the realization of methods and techniques for storing and integrating different kind of historical information and for analyzing them in a comprehensive and structured way.

  • Ambra Stefanello

    She has finished a master 2nd level in digital humanities in 2022. She collaborated with the group of researchers in historical studies within FAITH project untill march 2023 and now she’s attending the Vatican School of paleografy, archiving and diplomacy.