A Global History of Crime and Punishment
Mitchel P. Roth
Reaktion 342pp £20
This accessible and well-written synthesis offers grim details of punishments prescribed for various 'crimes' across the globe over more than 2,000 years. What did the laws of the ancient world have in common with those of today? Rather a lot, it seems, for selected activities have always been legally defined as criminal acts punishable by sanction, including execution, mutilation, banishment, fines and imprisonment.
The book's nine chapters are divided into numerous subsections and follow a chronological structure. Three key themes are stressed: the relative status of victim and perpetrator typically determines the outcomes of cases and the punishments imposed; as societies develop, physical punishments tend to be discarded in favour of financial compensation and incarceration; where execution is used, the search for more humane methods has been constant.
Many of the remarkable similarities identified result from common legal traditions, especially Roman civil law, English common law and Islamic or sharia law, blended with customary practices. Crimes evolved or were abandoned as societies changed. As the nation state emerged, rebellion and treason attracted ever more severe penalties, while penal servitude grew in importance: someone had to row the galleys and provide the labour that sustained growing empires. In an unintended consequence of state centralisation, regional gangs used expanding road networks to rob and pillage. The aims and motives of criminals have not changed, only the opportunities open to them. Today globalisation defines the criminal frontier, but prohibition laws and financial cunning continue to spawn new forms of crime.
Exceptionally, one chapter is devoted to a single offence, serial murder. Some well-known stories (Gilles de Rais, Elizabeth Báthory) are recounted, together with a reflection on the usefulness of werewolf and vampire tales as a means to investigate its past incidence. The author is on firmer ground in the final two chapters, which bring the study up to the present day. The impact of colonialism, modern execution protocols, burgeoning prison populations, women's rights and the re-emergence of crimes and punishments once thought consigned to history (witchcraft, shaming) are among the topics handled with sensitivity. Swaziland's 1998 search for a new 'hangperson' elicits a flash of (gallows) humour, but generally this is sobering stuff.
If criticism is warranted, it is that Roth focuses too much on the grisly mechanisms of punishment at the expense of deeper consideration of some important issues. The distinction between torture and punishment is not sufficiently explained, nor the competing purposes of punishment: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, restitution, rehabilitation. Legal processes remain opaque. It is perhaps unsurprising that in a work of such wide chronological and geographical scope, a few inaccuracies, some abrupt transitions and a considerable amount of repetition have crept in. However, there is much to learn from this book, which rightly concludes that the global history of crime and punishment remains a work in progress.
Katherine D Watson is Senior Lecturer in the History of Medicine at Oxford Brookes, and author of Forensic Medicine in Western Society: A History (Routledge, 2011).