Homicide in North Italy: Bologna, 1600–1700
Colin Rose, History, University of Toronto
Dissertation Fellowship, 2015
The Papal State of Bologna, in North Italy, suffered high and at times increasing rates of interpersonal homicide throughout eleven sampled years of the seventeenth century. The powerful criminal court of Bologna, the Tribunale del Torrone, prosecuted homicides as capital crimes through the deployment of inquisitorial process and a public image of impartial justice, but it remained unable to overcome deep impulses to revenge and vendetta among the various populations of the city and hinterland. In sentencing homicides, judges erred on the side of exile over execution, and when judges attempted to condemn participants in vendetta to death, they found themselves made party to revenge violence. The inability of the court to effectively police interpersonal violence is indicative of a developing state whose institutions and social structures are failing.
The massive wave of mid-century violence is placed into a long history of Bologna’s failure to establish a meaningful civil society.
Socioeconomic crises of the early seventeenth century contributed to this deteriorating situation. In particular, the great plague of 1630 overturned social norms and, in the “world upside down” that followed, ordinary Bolognesi of the contado committed more homicides in pursuit of gain or in protection of fragile resources. The stresses of endemic rural poverty bore heavily on rural violence. From rural bases, republican and oligarchic factions of urban nobility launched a renewed assault on papal authority in the mid-sixteenth century. A civil war broke out in the city’s streets and homicide rates peaked at levels exceeding any thus far documented in early modern Europe. Officers of government bodies and of the criminal court were targeted for killing on multiple occasions.
This dissertation contextualizes these trends through interdisciplinary approaches to the history of violence and homicide in the west, and by deep qualitative analysis of patterns emerging from quantitative data collection. By combining these two approaches, the massive wave of mid-century violence is placed into a long history of Bologna’s failure to establish a meaningful civil society.