In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Crime and Punishment

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sources
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Studies at a National Level
  • Regional/Local Studies
  • Church Courts

Renaissance and Reformation Crime and Punishment
Trevor Dean
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0213


The study of crime and criminal justice has been one of the most lively areas of the historiography of late medieval and early modern Europe since the 1980s. One of the reasons for this effervescence is that the study of crime lies on the cusp of two key historiographies: that of state formation and evolution, and that of social groups and classes outside the elite. The contribution of public prosecution and punishment of crime to state formation has been a major theme, though it has tended to be supplanted by a more user-focused approach (use of public machinery as part of private disputes). Similarly, the records of criminal trials seem to provide us with direct access to the words and actions of all kinds of subaltern groups, from laborers and artisans to servants and slaves; yet how far these words and actions have been shaped by the dictates of judicial processing remains uncertain. The historiography therefore tends to fall into one of these two categories: the history of the judicial process (the courts, their jurisdiction, forms and frequency of punishment) and the history of individuals and social groups or practices as viewed through the lens of indictments and witness testimony. As historians have explored the range of judicial sources, so the range of crimes and behaviors they have studied has expanded, but three main themes continue to dominate research in this area. Violence figures above all, but subdivided into its various types or victims (vengeance, women, children, poisoning, for example) and with verbal assault now added to physical assault. Sex crimes, though much less common, have attracted much research and discussion: chiefly, rape, sodomy, and prostitution, but also abduction, clandestine marriage, and adultery. Lastly, theft and robbery, again much less represented in the sources, have been studied either at the level of the individual (“professional”) thief or of social groups. This article surveys all these aspects across Western Europe in the period of the Renaissance and Reformation, which is here taken to be the two centuries from 1350 to 1550.

General Overviews

There are few general overviews of this topic, and even Dean 2001 is selective in its geographical treatment. The reason is obvious: comprehensive overviews require proficiency in many languages and expertise in the historiographies of many countries, regions, and centers. The two works cited here provide two different kinds of entrées into this topic: thematic history (Dean 2001), and links to Internet sites and sources (Legal History on the Web).

  • Dean, Trevor. Crime in Medieval Europe, 1200–1550. London: Pearson, 2001.

    Covers the period 1250–1550 and includes England, Scotland, and Continental Europe. Examines the evolution of the criminal trial, issues of judicial corruption, the trends in criminalization, prosecution and actuality in post-plague society, women and crime, revenge, and punishment.

  • Legal History on the Web.

    Provides links to primary source databases, journals, library guides, and reading lists.

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