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Medieval Public Justice by Massimo Vallerani (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 99, Number 4, October 2013
pp. 773-774 | 10.1353/cat.2013.0212

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Medieval Public Justice is a very valuable and stimulating book, deserving of a wide readership. It is a collection of closely related essays. Six of these, four republished and two new, appeared as a book in Italian in 2005, and to these has been added a further article, “The Petition to the Signore and the Power of Mercy,” originally published in Quaderni storici in 2009. The pieces work well gathered as a book, although the essay on petitions treats a rather different sort of case from those that predominate in other chapters. It would have been good to have an authorial conclusion to the volume, although the translator’s foreword is some substitute for this.

Various arguments are developed. Firmly rejected is the idea that there was a simple development from accusatory to inquisitorial procedures, as also, therefore, are connections between changes in procedure and the emergence of a “completed state structure.” Rather, the relationship between the two coexisting forms of procedure is repeatedly examined. Furthermore, trial procedure cannot be analyzed in isolation; rather the trial needs to be seen as one element in the process of the dispute. Cases and disputes must be treated in social and political context, seeing how procedures work in practice rather than according to manuals of procedure; it is here that the relevance of chapter 7, on petitions, is very clear. Phenomena such as peace accords must be seen as part of the process (see esp. pp. 191–92), not as “a sign of backwardness and weakness in judicial systems” (p. 6). Such accords were not a mere private phenomenon, separate from public justice, and significantly they spread to inquisitorial trials. In addition, such practices and other modifications of procedure tempered the difference in notions of truth underlying accusatory and inquisitorial trials; many forces worked against the inquisitorial trial finding an objective reality external to the trial, as opposed to the possible truth emerging from the confrontational accusatory trial.

The book is characterized by its breadth of approach and by the wide range of sources. Juristic works, most notably the Tractatus de maleficiis of Alberto Gandino, are prominent. Legislative texts and consilia provide further views of law as it should be; some relevant material is helpfully printed as appendices to chapters. In addition, the book is filled with case material, set in the context of local political and social relations. Such cases are sometimes treated individually, sometimes quantitatively.

The result is a book that succeeds admirably in combining technical legal history with the history of disputes and of local politics. Such virtues make the book required reading for legal historians with interests outside Italy. Particularly stimulating are the discussion of law and fact (esp. pp. 73–75) and the analysis of how legal arguments were put forward in court; in an accusatory process, the well-advised party did not set out a broad, generic statement that the opponent could deny because in one aspect it was incorrect (for example, a grievous wound really had been inflicted, but to a different part of the body), but rather a series of brief facts, ensuring a succession of positive answers or forcing the opponent into self-contradiction (pp. 91–92).

Vallerani’s approach is comparative between Italian cities, but further comparisons will become apparent to readers depending on their background; for example, the coexistence of accusatory and inquisitorial methods might be compared with Daniel Klerman’s work on the continuing use of appeal (that is, accusatory process) after the introduction of the jury of presentment in England.

The translation retains an ornateness of prose that may be alien to the Anglophone historian such as, for example:

The lawsuits nevertheless involve in an irregular and interlaced manner the lesser territorial divisions, causing the emergence of a demand for procedural mediation that is extensive and capillary at the same time, which in the majority of city cases concerns persons who are not residents of the same parish.

(p. 138)

However, Sarah Rubin Blanshei is to be heartily congratulated in bringing this fine book to a wider readership.

Copyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press
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John Hudson. "Medieval Public Justice by...



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