Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany

Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany

Author: Joy Wiltenburg
Publisher: Charlottesville, VA; London: University of Virginia Press, 2012. 280p.
Reviewer: Laura Kounine | November 2015

Joy Wiltenburg opens her book on Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany with a modern case study: a report cited by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that consumption of news reports on television greatly distorted people’s perceptions of crime. While all respondents overestimated the prevalence of crime, those who watched the least television news came closest to the true figures. It was, Wiltenburg notes, representation, not direct experience, that shaped people’s conception of reality. And it is this observation which underpins the central question of Wiltenburg’s illuminating book on printed crime literature in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Germany: what was the role of crime publications not only in reflecting, but also in shaping, societal and cultural values and beliefs about crime?

Where many early modern historians have made use of criminal trial records to attempt to document the experience of crime and the criminal justice system in the early modern period, Wiltenburg argues that we must also take into account how crime was depicted and imagined, for that was (and is) how most people were exposed to crime. A focus on trial records has led historians to overlook how crime was imagined, yet it was the imagination that led to people’s conception of reality. Indeed, Wiltenburg consciously employs the (anachronistic) term ‘sensationalist’ to draw attention to the essential role of emotional appeal in the rhetoric of crime literature. As Wiltenburg states, ‘In asking for empathetic response to crime and punishment, sensationalist literature promoted internalization of its normative values’ [186]. Crime reportage was inherently political and emotionally charged, and reflected wider social and cultural concerns about the state, society, gender, age, the family, and morality.
Just as the early modern state began to take increasing control of violence, and attempted to become the sole purveyor of justice and punishment, the early modern period simultaneously witnessed a revolution in print. No longer were the printing presses utilized solely for the elite; instead, this period witnessed an explosion in cheap print literature, published in the vernacular, with greater circulation than ever witnessed before and – designed for textual, visual and oral ‘reading’ – an unprecedented means of spreading common messages. In the sixteenth century at least, audiences – both ‘common’ and elite – were encouraged to unite in a shared emotional response to crime. Sensational crime literature at this time was produced for, and consumed by, members of all social classes.

Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany is based primarily on a sample of more than two hundred printed crime accounts, usually in the form of broadsheets and pamphlets, which Wiltenburg analyses alongside supporting archival sources, works of fiction and legal texts. She suggests that her sample is broadly representative of the surviving sources, which can only be a small fraction of those originally produced. One of the great skills of the author is her sensitive awareness of the problems inherent in using this source material, which she carefully documents throughout the book, while also rigorously defending her use of these ephemeral publications. It is, Wiltenburg acknowledges, highly difficult to document change over time, given the uneven survival of these sources. The 1570s and 1580s represented a peak in crime publications, which was partly due to a peak in crime more generally, but also an accident of survival: most extant crime publications from this era come from the collections of the Zurich cleric, Johann Jakob Wick, who meticulously collected crime reportage throughout his lifetime. Moreover, while it is possible to document what these sources said, it is far harder to recover how they were read and understood [see 17-18]. Just as the pivotal moment of execution on the scaffold could be vulnerable to subversion, so too could the meanings and messages promulgated in crime literature be transformed in their reception. Nonetheless, through careful readings of the sources, paying particular attention to patterns and motifs as indicators of cultural resonance, Wiltenburg is able to weave together a sensitive analysis of continuity and change of crime and culture in early modern Germany.

The book comprises seven thematic chapters, following a broad chronological sequence. The first chapter sets out some broader questions about how crime publications depicted their social reality: the sources of criminal threat; the kinds of people portrayed as dangerous; the types of crimes depicted; and how these patterns of representation compare with changing social dynamics, particularly in the transition from the late medieval to the early modern period. Wiltenburg finds that, by the sixteenth century, there was a marked decline in emphasis on the noble feud. Instead, there was an increased focus on outsiders and vagrants, and from the 1570s onwards, on the prevalence of murderous robber bands. This was all set against the backdrop of increasing economic hardship, with real wages at a long-term low, and a series of harvest failures in the 1570s and 1580s as a result of the Little Ice Age. Murder was the most frequently reported crime – and increasingly seen as the chief of crimes – perhaps unsurprising given the focus on the most heinous in crime reportage. While murder was indeed a common crime in the early modern period, ‘the kinds of murder recounted in print were hardly typical,’ with a focus in crime literature on multiple murders and familial homicide [36]. These were not the crimes of passion of later centuries, but were rather linked to economic motive and moral depravity.

The second chapter focuses on the key criminal legal code of period, the Constitutio Carolina Criminalis (1532), which ‘encapsulates the modern approach to criminal justice’ that increasingly took hold in the sixteenth century [42]. Wiltenburg argues that, where emotional rhetoric is highly visible, appeals to the rational perspective often go unnoticed; yet this legal code, like crime publications, should also be made sense of in terms of its appeal to the imagination, its approach and assumptions. Indeed, the rational abstraction of the Carolina marked a paradigm shift from earlier emphases on precedence, unaided reason or God’s intervention through the ordeal. The focus in the Carolina on the ‘rational hero,’ Wiltenburg suggests, both reflected and shaped shifting ideals of criminal justice in the early modern period.

Moreover, in an interesting piece of analysis, Wiltenburg highlights the ‘disembodiedness’ of the legal code of the Carolina, in contrast to the visceral bloody horrors detailed in crime reporting. While the legal code’s 219 articles documented in detail the rules concerning torture, the emphasis was on detailed examination of facts and rational abstraction in the quest for truth. Physical punishment was a given, but it certainly was not a central aim; indeed, power was construed ‘as essentially non-physical, based on allegiance to reason’ [64]. In contrast, the primary focus of printed crime literature was the physicality of crimes — detailing not only the minute details of executions of criminals, but also the bloody details of the heinous crimes committed, which often – and as disturbing for the modern reader as the early modern – focused on the killing of young children and infants.

Chapter three, which examines the transformation of crime into text, is especially illuminating. Wiltenburg explores how printed crime accounts drew upon, and departed from, judicial testimony, in particular by utilizing emotive language to develop early forms of sensationalism in order to promote ‘identification with a unified body of right feeling’ [66]. One technique to achieve this, interestingly, was a shift in focus away from criminal intention (as documented in judicial testimony) towards the subjective experience of the victim in printed crime accounts.

The fourth chapter focuses on the vast collection of crime literature compiled by Johann Jakob Wick to explore the connection between crime and Christianity. These reports, in their documentation of the path to crime through the depravity of human nature and the tireless activity of the Devil, were designed to act as ‘living sermons’ [105]. The next chapter explores the theme of intergenerational familial homicide, the most common theme addressed in printed crime literature. The emphasis on family murders, particularly between vertical blood relations, revealed broader cultural anxieties concerning family relationships and parental discipline in the context of not only the enhanced religious significance of the household in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, but also the brutal economic conditions of the late sixteenth century. Chapter six examines the way in which crime literature engaged with readers’ imaginations by employing ‘sensationalist’ techniques to elicit visceral responses. These included the ‘vivid reconstruction of scenes, cultivation of empathy with victims, and underlining of horror’ [137].

In a fascinating final chapter, Wiltenburg traces changes in crime literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, developments which surely deserve to be examined in further depth by future historians. While acknowledging the difficulty in documenting change over time in such ephemeral sources, Wiltenburg hints at a few key developments: during the seventeenth century, crime broadsides and pamphlets tended to be downgraded in the eyes of elite readers; there was a gradually increasing role for the imagined psyche of the criminal; and there was a shift in focus away from intergenerational murders towards horizontal familial tensions, where affective relationships and sexual honour rather than blood ties were at stake. Moreover, where Wick’s collection of printed crime literature a century before revealed a preoccupation with the ‘melancholy times’ in which he lived [107], the great collector of the seventeenth century, Philipp Harsdörffer, was instead concerned with the workings of human morality and moral choice. For Harsdörffer, ‘the cultivation of civility would engage individuals in rational self-discipline by fully recognizing the power of unbridled emotions’ [178]. Given the significance of emotional resonance throughout this book, it would be interesting for the author to explore further the transformations in affective relations – and in particular changes in understandings of honour, jealousy, anger and empathy – in this re-configuring of crime and family relationships, as well as the impact of such transformations on understandings of legal culpability and moral choice.

One of the central arguments of Wiltenburg’s book is that the emotional inflections of crime stories influenced the growth of early modern public discourse — a discourse that has primarily been conceived of as a rational exchange of ideas. Instead, Wiltenburg suggests that the emotionality of the printed crime literature actually served to reinforce governmental authority in prosecuting crime. Where the imperial legal code was premised on rational abstraction, printed crime literature tended to employ highly emotionalized rhetoric to hammer home the horror of the never-seen-before crimes committed. Such emotionally charged crime accounts served as justification, contends Wiltenburg, for the necessary intervention, trial and punishment served by the state authorities. Emotional rhetoric, which was utilized in order to engage the reader’s imagination, justified the use of rational abstraction to serve justice and execute punishment. As Wiltenburg writes: ‘While rational legal reform used a rhetoric of common reason, sensationalism used a rhetoric of common feeling, each to present its picture shared by all’ [8]. This argument works well, and Wiltenburg is right to underline the importance of both the emotional language employed in crime publications as well as the rationality promulgated in the legal code of the Carolina. I did wonder if the analysis of emotional rhetoric could be pushed further at times; in particular, Wiltenburg did little to historicize emotions such as empathy – a key emotion employed in these texts – especially with regards to larger historical arguments about the ‘birth’ of empathy in the modern period (as documented in Ute Frevert, Emotions in History: Lost and Found, Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2011), and more generally, the call by historians of emotions to contextualise and historicize emotions in the past.

This is a highly readable book. Wiltenburg writes in an engaging style and is a deft hand at translating German rhymes, and it is nice to see that the German original for all translations in the book are provided in the footnotes. One minor criticism is that there was no overview of the structure of the book in the introduction, especially given that some of the chapters could work well as stand-alone pieces (and indeed many of the chapters were first published elsewhere as discrete articles and chapters). These minor criticisms aside, this book is sure to be of interest to students and scholars working on not only crime and culture, but also those interested in popular literature, society and morality in early modern Europe more widely, as well as those interested in the burgeoning field of the history of emotions.

Laura Kounine, Post-Doctoral Fellow, History of Emotions Centre, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin

Start typing and press Enter to search