Why are cities plagued with crime?

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The city in the late Middle Ages

Law and judgment within the city walls

"City air makes you free." With this much-quoted sentence, the legal status within the urban walls is succinctly reproduced - in contrast to the feudal dependence prevailing in the country. It is often overlooked that by moving to the city, the medieval city dweller not only acquired urban freedom, but also entered into binding obligations towards the city and its legal system. The origins of this own order lie in the market privileges of individual merchants and the market rights shelf assigned by the feudal lord, which ensured the city a certain degree of independence.

With the expansion of city law to a comprehensive legal system with its own jurisdiction, the city became an autonomous legal area, headed by the city council with the mayor. The council was not determined by election, but was recruited from a circle of advisable families. The council, which was mainly made up of guild masters and wealthy merchants, was responsible for expanding city law through appropriate ordinances as well as monitoring compliance with laws, with the council itself being the highest court. The city law was based on the guiding principle of city peace, which guaranteed non-violence to every resident.

In order to maintain the peace of the city, the judicial system primarily relied on the means of deterrence. In many cities, corporal and death sentences were carried out on the market square for all passers-by to see. The pillory on which delinquents in chains had to pay for in public has remained a symbol of social humiliation to this day.

In urban law, a distinction must be made between offenses against the moral order, such as adultery or blasphemy, and criminal offenses, such as theft, as well as offenses against the economic or market order (e.g. the use of wrong dimensions). In each case, the ruling was preceded by legal proceedings by the competent councilors and lay judges. The punishment after the trial was in the form of fines, imprisonment or corporal punishment. In particularly serious cases, either death sentences such as cycling, heads, hanging or stakes were carried out, or exile was pronounced.

The cruel death penalties of the Middle Ages and their public execution made a significant contribution to the fact that people later spoke of the "dark Middle Ages". It should not be overlooked, however, that the massive use of corporal punishment and the death penalty only reached its peak in the early modern period - especially during the witch hunt.