History from old lists by Trevor Dean

Bologna in 1640 in Italy. Illustration by Johannes Blaeu

My forthcoming article in Social History 44, 2,  ‘Police forces in medieval Italy: Bologna 1340-1480,’ came about from the happy conjunction of my interests in policing and migration with the unexpected discovery of a new set of documents in the state archive in Bologna.  I’ve been working on crime and criminal justice in medieval Bologna for decades, this journal having published one of my earlier articles,[1] and you might think that I must have seen all the relevant documents by now.  But one of the things I’ve learned rather late in the day is to explore the outer reaches of the archive catalogues: that means the pages at the back containing files titled ‘Miscellanies’ or ‘Undated fragments’. 

So, I was in the archive having finished work for a previous article – it might have been one of my pieces on homicide[2] – and I decided to order up one of those ‘peripheral’ files, listed at the back of the catalogue for the trial registers.  What arrived was not anything to do with criminal prosecutions, though it did relate to the office of the chief judge (the podestà).  The file consisted of lists of the staff of the podestà, not covering every year of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but covering a good range, and giving the names of staff in the form of ‘Fritz, son of Fritz, from Germany’ (that’s a real example, from 1396). Sometimes the record goes into even more detail with mother’s name, nickname, distinguishing physical features.  This opened up a new way to combine migration studies with research on the criminal justice system.

Medieval outsourcing

Key info at this stage: most Italian cities (not Venice, and decreasingly Florence) contracted out their entire judicial and policing functions to ‘foreign’ contractors on short terms – the podestà was required to hire and bring with him all the judges, notaries, court servants and gendarmes – a total staff of between 50 and 100 depending on the size of the city.  ‘Foreign’ in this context meant not native to the city.  A possible rationale for this system was to ensure social distance between judges and police on the one hand, and the judged and policed on the other (though that is debated, as the podestà was often a friend from a friendly city).  This system seems to be unique in the Middle Ages (if anyone knows of any similar system, do please let me know). The only historical parallel I could think of was the Scythian archers in classical Athens.

At this point (I’m reconstructing, possibly slightly inaccurately), I remembered two things: that I had come across such lists before in other archives, for example, Spoleto, which I visited in 2010-11 and Orvieto (later); and that, as Guy Geltner (of Amsterdam University) had once observed, at a seminar in London, no-one has ever tracked these peripatetic policing platoons (though he didn’t use that phrase, and that’s not to belittle the work of the few scholars who have noticed the international recruitment of Italian police units).[3]

So, I made notes on the file, and photographed many of the lists (inevitably, I had to go back later to check some names in the odd fuzzy photo).

Finding the plot

Once I started processing the information in the lists, it became obvious that migration was a big part of the story that the lists were telling.  For the police hired by the podestà did not come, as one might expect, from his home town or territory, but from many distant places and countries, and increasingly so – even to a point in the fifteenth century when none of the gendarmes were Italian at all.  In this way the lists present a story of migration, with a beginning (groups from Germany and France), a middle (growing numbers from the eastern Mediterranean, especially Greece and the Balkans) and an apparent end (a fall-off in foreign staff: this might be illusory owing to the ending of the documentation).

I also became sensitive, because of the ‘archival turn’ in historical studies, to the material and memorial aspects to these lists: why were they created in the form they were, some on paper, some on parchment, some with signs of being ‘spiked’ (i.e. finished with, job done), others sown together for preservation?  When were they put together in a single file?  How does the recording of these names relate to the history of personal identity, which has grown very recently (as the issue of proving and faking identity have become a contemporary concern)?   I tried to address these questions in the article.

Finding the spot

Identifying the many placenames that policemen came from (or claimed to come from) proved to be a difficult task.  I realised that I had to work not with the spelling as written, but with the sound as spelled: what was recorded was an Italian notary’s rendering of a placename uttered by a German or a Bosnian.   And some of the places that the police came from seemed really unusual and unlikely: the most unusual – and I didn’t include this in the article in Social History – was John the son of Henry from ‘Baldachi’ in 1420.  Now, according to authoritative sources, Baldacho is identified as Baghdad!  I found it impossible to believe that a man from Baghdad, presumably adopting a Christian name, could have found his way into a police platoon in fifteenth century Bologna. Hence the exclusion: his identity did not seem soundly established.  Nevertheless, I’m now reconsidering this as a possibility because of other info that I’ve come across on ‘unlikely migrations’: Serena Ferente, at an IHR seminar on the Storia mondiale d’Italia, mentioned the tomb in Yangzhou, China, of a Genoese woman, dated 1342 (discovered as long ago as 1951).  If a Genoese woman could die and be buried in Yangzhou, could a man from Baghdad work in Bologna?  Also, I’ve now had the chance to look at podestà staff lists in other Italian cities, and in Perugia, for example, there were policemen from Ethiopia, Syria and ‘India’ (a vague label for somewhere Asiatic). So the migration story of police platoons in fifteenth century Italy becomes even richer!  For now, though, my new Social History article provides a full discussion of the Bolognese lists in relation to the scholarship on the themes of migration and policing systems, and examines the issues of personal identity, possible fraud, and the international market in labour, and has things to say about uniforms, musicians and public executioners.


Trevor Dean is professor of History at the University of Roehampton, t.dean@roehampton.ac.uk.  His latest book is Murder in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge, 2017), edited with Professor Kate Lowe.  He has published articles in recent years on plague and crime (Continuity and Change, 30, 2015), sodomy (Renaissance Studies, 31, 2017), suicide (Historical Research, 90, 2017) and Jews (Jewish History, 31, 2018).


[1]  ‘Gender and insult in an Italian city: Bologna in the later Middle Ages’, Social History, 29 (2004), 217-31.

[2] ‘Eight varieties of homicide: Bologna in the 1340s and 1440s’, in T. Dean and K.J.P. Lowe (eds), Murder in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge, 2017), 83-105.

[3]  Due acknowledgement to H. Manikowska, ‘Il controllo sulle città: le istituzioni dell’ordine pubblico nelle città italiane dei secoli XIV e XV’, in Città e servizi sociali nell’Italia dei secoli XII-XV (Pistoia, 1990), 481-511, which uses similar lists briefly to describe police recruitment in fourteenth-century Florence.