Crime and Justice

Crime and Justice

Written by Alfonso Elizondo

In light of the serious global conflicts in the world today, I will attempt to give a brief historical summary of the relationship that has existed between these two elements of human society since the first models of the modern Western state emerged in the Late Middle Ages. In the known history of the Western world it is still not possible to determine whether revenge has been the main element of justice because it has always been a natural part of the human condition or because the higher social classes have manipulated the concept of justice from time immemorial.


It was not until Alfonso X was installed as king of Castile in the thirteenth century that a homogeneous procedural code was created for the first time in Western history in the face of the dissolution of the laws of the Visigoths, the variety of jurisdictions and the existence of a system of private justice that was enforced through revenge. His legislative agenda was expressed in laws such as the Setenario [Septenary], Espéculo [Mirror], Fuero Real [Royal Law] or Siete Partidas [Seven-Part Code]. That was where the crimes that were being committed, the attitude towards victims and the forms of punishment became known for the first time.


In the context of that society, the type of offender and his punishments varied widely, which did not prevent identical crimes from being committed at all levels. However, the difference lay in the way in which justice controlled and punished those crimes depending on who committed them and who the victim was. There was a very clear difference between infractions committed by the dominant feudal class and those that occurred in the lower social strata.


The powerful had feudal rights and could exercise force legally, so they committed robbery, arson, rape and murder very often. These crimes were directed not only towards the lower levels of society, where they enjoyed complete impunity, but also towards members of their own class due to the fact that the coexistence of multiple powers and jurisdictions created a special effect when they collided with each other. Aggressions were part of an attack strategy whose aim was both the weakness of the adversary and personal power. So these problems had political roots, a convergence of feudal relations and power struggles for control of territory and vassals.


Many of the relationships within the hierarchy of the nobility were based on honor, and consequently the defense of honor and lineage was strongly rooted in the system of revenge as a means of redressing harm, as well as in practices protected by law to regulate reprisals.


Those who were inferior to the most powerful were also perpetrators of acts that were punishable due to their connection to vassals, the struggles between oligarchs or everyday causes. All these crimes were punished, but their persecution and punishment differed greatly depending on the social strata from which the individual came. But that did not mean that punishments were meted out to a lesser extent, only that on many occasions the charge was not even made because publicly bringing a lawsuit against someone of superior lineage and for that person to be penalized could be turned into punishment for the victim. Only in very few cases was financial compensation given privately to the injured party.


Crimes among feudal lords were fewer than those committed against ordinary members of the society who were the ones most affected by violence. There were also criminals who, for various reasons, went against the law, and wrongdoers whose crimes were their way of life, but it is evident that there was a clear link between poverty and marginalization explaining the existence of the criminal underworld.


With respect to members of the religious hierarchy, there are very few studies of their criminal actions since they were all unlikely to be accused because there was no access to legislative sources for filing a lawsuit and they had more forms of protection than the common people. In addition, the other hand, the Law during the reign of Alfonso X consisted of laws made and applied by men who saw the woman as an inferior creature and treated her very differently from the man, especially when she was the victim.


Another of the great difficulties presenting itself in the study of crime in the thirteenth century was that the legal reality depended on the moral parameters of the crime, by whom it had been committed and against whom it was directed. It was not possible to study a husband’s murder of his adulterous wife without taking into consideration the religious implications and the mortal sin that female adultery represented, and so revenge and the perception of the woman were used as the two main elements of justice in medieval society.

In fact, in Alfonso X’s legislation there were only three areas of crime: crimes regarded as moral and religious in nature, crimes against an actual person and crimes that damaged private property.


Addendum: Viewed from a philosophical, historical and ethical perspective, there is not much difference between thirteenth-century law and justice and the current approach to these concepts in Western countries.