By Peter Konieczny
In the year 1404, the records of the Italian city of Bologna noted that one of its police officers was “Pierus Johannis de Schocia” – meaning that he was from Scotland. This might seem strange on its own, but when we look further into these records we find that many of his fellow policemen were from Germany, the Low Countries, England, even Africa and Greece. In fact, the records from the fifteenth century show that most, and sometimes nearly all of the men working as policemen in Bologna were not even Italians. How can this be, and what does it say about both medieval policing and the movement of people in the Middle Ages?
The story of John of Scotland and these others is told by Trevor Dean in a new article, “Police forces in late medieval Italy: Bologna, 1340–1480.” Dean, a professor at the University of Roehampton and historian of crime in the Late Middle Ages, examined Bologna’s archives for details about their podestà – the city’s chief magistrate, who was responsible for dealing with crime and legal matters. This was a particularly important position, and it came with a lot of staff: judges, notaries, servants, and berrovieri. This last group, who are individually known as birri, were responsible, according to Dean, for “guarding the city and suburbs, performing expeditions, distraints and arrests, and capturing bandits and condemned criminals – in other words, all the functions of policing, both preventative (guarding, patrolling) and executive (sequestering, pursuing and apprehending).” Therefore, while they might not have had the name of police officers, that is essentially what they did.
The records from the thirteenth century show that the number of berrovieri
in Bologna was 20 in 1288, but then that doubled seven years later, which was explained to be “in order that the podestà can better pursue malefactors in the city and suburbs, and more diligently inquire into arms-carrying.” In 1335, their numbers were increased again to 60, but in the period after the Black Death the force was reduced so that they had 50 men by the beginning of the fifteenth century. The berrovieri also had eight “boys” to assist them. Some of these men had specific roles, including two who were constables – probably a rank higher than an ordinary birri – as well as an executioner and a bandit- catcher (bargello).
The berrovieri, along with the other officials hired by the podestà, were also housed together, and the records show that a number of servants were also employed, including cooks and stable keepers. The details of all of these people were recorded by the Bolognese government, and Dean notes that they were very meticulous in describing them. For instance, the notaries not only identified the fathers of the men that were hired but also their mothers, a very unusual practice in the medieval world. Dean also explains that they recorded any interesting physical traits of these people:
The recording notary for podestà Rogerio da Perugia, count of Antignalle, in 1406 started to make notes on the physique of the birri, getting as far as noting that Parigino da Perugia, the son of Magio and Bartola, was “of common build, elderly, with joined eyebrows”, and that Giovanni da Volterra, the son of Matteo and Lapa, was “a small man with a scar on his forehead”. Much more focused was the recording of features in the later lists of podestà Carlo de’ Muti from Rome in July 1459 and Angelo Vitelloni from Corneto in July 1460. In 1459 the notary was exclusively focused on the faces and hands of the birri: this one was “marked” under the right eye, that one “between the eyebrows”, a third “on the thumb of his right hand”, and so on. He was evidently careful to find marks on different parts of the body for each birri, noting marks above, on or under the eyes, eyebrows, cheeks, nose, chin, lip and forehead, as well as on the hands.
Another detail recorded about these men was their origins. Between the years 1345 and 1478, the documents note 3,772 birri and their constables. Dean was able to identify the place-names of 3,149 (84%) of these men, with the rest being either unclear (10%) or listed without place-name (6%). The first fact to emerge is that the men who served as berrovieri were not from Bologna itself. The city did not want to have law enforcement officers who were locals, as they feared they would be biased or liable to influence. Instead, the men being hired as birri were usually from other parts of Italy, such as Florence and Milan.
What is even more interesting is that we have hundreds of men working as berrovieri that came from outside of Italy, and during the fifteenth century this number was increasing. While in the previous century there were typically one or two men from outside of Italy serving in the berrovieri, in 1422 there were 22 foreigners serving in the ranks. During the first half of the fifteenth century there was roughly an equal number of Italians and foreigners among the berrovieri, but in some years the foreigners were a much larger majority – in 1447, for example, 42 out of 50 were from outside of Italy.
Where were these men coming from? According to Dean’s calculations, 536 came from Germany, another 114 from the Low Countries, 113 from Hungary, and another 90 from the Croatian city of Zagreb. Large numbers of people also came from other Balkan towns as well as France, and we can find men who were from Greece, Spain, England, Scotland, Corsica, Cyprus, Tunisia, and even the Black Sea region. Even though the Bolognese officials went to a lot of effort in tracking the identities of the various birri, it seems that in some cases the men or their employers were not being forthcoming on who they really were. Dean notes, for example, that John, the son of John and of Johanna, from “Blagaria,” seems very much to be a false identity.
A number of questions can be asked, beginning with how all these foreigners came to be in Bologna. We know from other records that people from across Europe could be found in the city, beginning with university students and their servants. There were also merchants and various skilled and unskilled workers. Some may have arrived in Italy looking for work with the mercenary companies, and some could have just been vagabonds that arrived in Bologna. It seems that a sizable population of foreigners could be found in the city, and many of them needed work.
If they had arrived in the Italian city looking for work, why did they take up this job? Dean explains:
Policing as a form of labour did provide wages, lodgings, food, clothing and comradeship: a lifestyle and mentality that perhaps suited men at certain stages in their life cycle. If the foreign birri were young men, which is likely given the historical connections between young adulthood and life-cycle migration/mobility, service in police forces may have provided them with a structure that allowed “good migration” to occur, enabling the successful adaptation to new surroundings and the incorporation of new experiences.
Finally, why would the city want these men to work there? There would be some serious disadvantages to hiring foreigners who did not know the local language or even the local area. Perhaps it was mainly a desire to have berrovieri who had little or no connections with the residents of the city, and who needed to be the “muscle” for the judiciary in dealing with a sometimes violent citizenry. While locals might be better at “police work,” these foreigners could be more trusted to act on behalf of the city government.
Peter Konieczny is the Editor of Medievalists.net
Dean, Trevor. “Police Forces in Late Medieval Italy: Bologna, 1340–1480.” Social History, 44:2 (2019), 151-172.
Dean, Trevor, Crime and Justice in Late Medieval Italy (Cambridge University Press, 2010)