By Ken Mondschein
The current hue and cry to “defund the police” draws some of its justification not only from recent militarization and expansion of law enforcement into areas in which it was never intended to be competent, but from the relative novelty of police forces themselves. Medievalists of Color, for instance, have said in their recent statement that “As medievalists we know that a world without police is not only possible but the norm for most of human history.” Indeed, the Metropolitan Police Service, generally held to be the first modern police force, was only created in London in 1829. So what were the structures in place for keeping order before that? The question is well worth asking.
In this article, I am mainly going to concentrate on English history here, since England was one of the first (if not the first) to develop a unified law-enforcement apparatus, and also because while “Anglo-American law” can be used as a racist dog-whistle, the United States’ legal system does indeed derive from the English, and U.S. policing was likewise inspired that of by our former colonizer.
To begin with, if medieval English law-enforcement was far more community-based than it is today, this was partially due to a weak central government. One aspect of the tripartite division of medieval society—those who pray, those who fight, and those who work—was that the nobility as a whole had the right to administer justice. However, private justice worked against the centralization of power, and one of the chief means by which power solidified was through the law. As royal authority became more able to impose its will on the people and, especially, on the feudal nobility, society became safer and law arguably less arbitrary. Furthermore, law came to be seen as a legitimate means of arbitrating disputes and resolving conflicts for ordinary people. Indeed, if we want to look at the history of policing in England, it is that of increasing royal—that is, state—power, and decreased emphasis on local autonomy and community-based solutions.
To understand the origins of modern English law enforcement, you need to understand the concept of “tithing groups”—not tithing as in church taxes, but a “ten-thing,” an assembly of the men of ten hides of land (a hide was about 120 acres, or enough to support a household). The tithing group originated in Anglo-Saxon England as a system of collective responsibility for all the free men in the area. After the Norman Conquest, it served a similar purpose, but became a subdivision of a manor owned by a member of the Anglo-Norman elite. Members of tithing-groups were required to attend manor courts and could be collectively fined if one of them misbehaved. Additionally, members of tithing-groups had to report those who misbehaved. The one in charge of the group was the chief pledge, who was elected by the hundred and was usually the wealthiest man—and therefore had the most to lose in a system of collective punishment.
How did this system of collective responsibility—which we must not forget was a means of ensuring conformity to the feudal order—turn into modern top-down policing? While the history of English law is complex and outside our purpose, one development stands out so far as the history of policing goes: In 1252, Henry III appointed constables (from the Latin comes stabuli, “count of the stable”) to oversee the hundreds and ensure that malefactors didn’t slip between the cracks. (They were also responsible for keeping the king’s peace, summoning the militia, and giving criminals over to the sheriff.) Edward I significantly reformed the system with the Statute of Westminster of 1285 and also re-emphasized that the whole Hundred should be held accountable for any crimes committed by its members.
However, by the end of the next century, the newly individualistic and mobile post-Black Death economy had weakened the institution of the Hundreds, the king’s law took increasing precedence over local justice, and the chief pledges gradually transformed into “petty constables” or “parish constables” who worked for the king’s magistrates. Besides keeping public order, they were expected to perform such tasks as whipping and driving out beggars and vagrants and prostitutes and punishing drunks and those who did not go to church. However, though still elected, they were not paid, and it was still expected that individuals make arrests on their own. Justice was thus still somewhat community-based, but it always served the interests of the powerful and “respectable.”
The sheriff was another important royal officer. This office bears some special discussion. As I have written on The Public Medievalist, sheriffs originated in the Anglo-Saxon period as an agent of the king. The name literally means “shire-reeve,” where a “reeve” is a sort of manager. However, by the thirteenth century, though they represented the king’s justice, the sheriffs were selected from the notables of the shire. In other words, they represented the local power structure as a sort of balance against centralized royal control. This made sense since, in addition to their law-enforcement duties, they were enabled to summon the posse comitatus—the armed men of the county—which would be led by landowners able to afford horses, armor, and weapons. Nonetheless, the sheriffs lost ground to the royal magistrates, and their duties soon became those we associate with modern policing—conducting investigations and detaining suspects, though they could also try lesser crimes and were also charged with executing criminals. By the end of the fifteenth century, though, the office was largely ceremonial.
This was not the end of sheriffs, though: The office was passed on to the United States, where it became an elected office accountable to voters. Because of this, sheriffs’ actions tend to reflect the will of the electors. To cite the most infamous recent example, Joe Arpaio won no less than six elections in the largely white Maricopa County. (Lest we accuse Arizona of gerrymandering, the state has had its electoral districts drawn by a nonpartisan committee since 2000 and is generally considered one of the least biased in the country.) The infamous “Bull” Connor of Birmingham, Alabama was not a sheriff, but he was likewise an elected official; conversely, Sheriff Jim Clark, who infamously attacked the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, was originally an appointee in 1955, but he lost his office in 1966 after voter-registration drives enabled African-Americans to vote him out. (More recently, some sheriffs departments have said they will not enforce COVID-19 lockdown laws.)
Sheriffs’ offices throughout the United States have kept a certain attachment to these structures of accountability. For instance, this 2006 Department of Justice report, citing 2002 statistics, shows that sheriffs departments tend to have fewer use-of-force complaints made against them. They also do not universally have collective bargaining agreements—and research has found that union protection tends to shield police against repercussions for the excessive use of force. While sheriffs are not necessarily “clean,” the data I was able to find indicates that having a law-enforcement agency be directly accountable to the community’s voters can improve outcomes.
The last element of premodern policing in England that I want to discuss is the Watch. Systems of collective responsibility did not work in large towns such as London. Rather, householders were expected to take turns ensuring public safety at night by ensuring doors were locked, fires did not break out, and robbers and other criminals did not victimize the innocent. To this end, anyone traveling at night was considered suspicious and liable to be questioned and detained—quite different from our modern expectations of reasonable searches!
The problem with the Watch system was that few men wanted to stay up all night and patrol the city in all seasons, so they instead paid substitutes. While this was in effect a professional paid police force under the command of the constabulary, it was still organized by city ward. Pay was also irregular and the types of men the job attracted tended not to be high quality—Shakespeare’s polite but ineffective Dogberry being a relatively benign model for the type. We have records of the watch extorting money or letting prisoners escape for a price; many writers complained they were perpetually drunk, asleep, or retired early; and there was a perpetual need for strong, able-bodied men to join the police force. In 1829, Sir Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Act in Parliament, which established the first modern, professional police force. The “bobbies” or “peelers” became a model for police the world over.
Without a doubt, American policing needs fundamental reform. Policing and the criminal justice system are two of many institutional structures that have been used to oppress the disenfranchised and continue the corrosive legacy of slavery. Police are not trained in de-escalation, social work, or addiction counseling. Rather, they do what they were intended to do by kings and well-heeled parliamentarians—to embody the state’s coercive power, and to apply that blunt instrument to every situation and particularly to the poor. However, it is very difficult to look to the Middle Ages for a viable alternative, as medieval justice was often itself characterized by state power and because the system of collective responsibility was tied to the manorial system. However, medieval tradition also gives us some remedies that are rooted in the Anglo-American tradition and which are responsible to the people—one of which, ironically enough, might be the office of sheriff.
Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Boston University, as well as a fencing master and jouster. .