Cries pierce the night air and echo down the narrow streets. Doors and shutters fly open, feet pound the cobblestone, and the pursuit begins. A criminal has struck in a European town, and the residents respond in the only way they know how. They are raising the hue and cry.
Before the advent of professional police, citizens helped catch the crooks. Everyone knew what to do. If you were the witness or victim of a crime, you cried out. Anyone hearing the hue and cry had to dash out onto the streets to chase and catch the culprit. Townsfolk made a citizen’s arrest and waited for a sheriff to arrive and haul away the suspect.
Hue and cry in England
The hue and cry probably had its origins in Germany, where towns continued to use it well into the 17th century. In England, Æthelstan codified it as early as the 10th century. In 1285, the Statute of Winchester required bystanders to respond to the hue or face a fine. The system not only empowered communities to protect themselves, it ensured there would be witnesses. Any witness who didn’t raise the hue became suspect. In 1329, for instance, John Brayn witnessed a homicide in Northhamptonshire but failed to summon help with the hue and cry. He was imprisoned.
Hue and cry in continental Europe
People used the hue and cry throughout England and continental Europe. What the victim cried out depended on the country.
- In Germany, victims initiated the hue by calling out “Zeter und Mordio!”
- In France, a victim hollered “haro,” “harou,” or “harue.”
- Italians yelled “accor’uomo!” and Hungarians “Tolvaj!” (thief) or “Tulai!” (help).
- In England, it was usually “thief,” “fire,” or “wolf,” depending on the situation. Shepherds used the latter, and crying wolf when no wolf is there amounts to nothing more than abuse of the hue and cry.
- Other countries, like Spain, also used the hue and cry too, although I haven’t found exactly what words the Spaniards used.
Role of city walls in the hue and cry
Besides the fleeing thief, pursuing townsfolk, and sheriff, a forth factor played a role in the hue and cry, and it was one that made it uniquely European and especially effective. The city walls trapped the thief so he or she couldn’t get very far. Towns had only a handful of exits at the city gates, and if the citizens raised the hue, the watchmen would slam the gates shut. Trapping the criminal made the chase easier.
The city walls did more to facilitate this medieval law enforcement method than just contain the suspect. Historian Emise Bálint pointed out that because of the medieval city’s layout, the hue and cry worked better. Buildings and walls better carried the ringing echoes of the cry through the streets and alleys. Houses were built bordering the streets, and without trees and shrubbery to absorb the sounds, residents could better hear a cry for help. People also lived closer together and were more likely to hear someone hollering.
Changes in city structure and improved law enforcement mean that the hue and cry is rarely used today. But it still occurs: Stories of victims crying out for help and a modern-day heroes chasing down crooks still grace our newspapers today.
The National Archives in the United Kingdom has an interesting website and game dealing with the hue.
Can you offer a modern example of this old law enforcement technique?
Literature on point
Emise Bálint, Mechanisms of the Hue and Cry in Kolozsvár in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century, in Cultural History of Early Modern European Streets (Ledien, Bosten: Brill 2009) pp. 39-62.
Janka Rodziewicz, “Women and the Hue and Cry in Late Fourteenth-Century Great Yarmouth,” in Women, Agency and the Law, 1300-1700 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013) 15:87-98.
Samantha Sagui, “The hue and cry in medieval English towns,” Historical Research 87(236):179-193 (2014).
“Thief!” “Fire!” “Wolf!”
All three are examples of an ancient form of alarm called the “hue and cry.” A cry for help and assistance in response to crime or danger was an integral part of historical law enforcement. Statutes or regulations in several European countries required citizens to respond to the hue and cry. They had to hunt down the criminal or wolf or help put out the fire.
Just how prevalent was the hue and cry in Europe? A brief peak in the literature suggests it was quite widespread. In England, the Statute of Winchester (1 Edward 14, 1885) charged townsfolk to pursue a criminal if they heard the cry. Germans used the hue and cry by shouting, “Zeter und Mordio!” A 13th c. criminal code called the Sachsenspiegel also required the court proceedings against a murderer to open with the cry. In France, a victim hollered “haro,” “harou,” or “harue.” “Accor’uomo!” was the cry in Italy. Spain also raised their version of the hue and cry in response to a crime (but I can’t find what words the Spaniards used). Hungary, in a part that is now Romania, raised the alarm by shouting out “Tolvaj!” (thief) or “Tulai!” (help).
Settlers transported the hue and cry to colonial America. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia all employed it. In New York, police shook wooden rattles to raise the cry. But for sparsely populated regions such as rural Virginia, the old European custom proved inadequate. All in all, given that crying out for help and assisting in emergencies are such natural, human responses, it is not at all surprising that the custom was widespread and formalized.
The multiplicity of the languages makes it hard to research the prevalence of the hue and cry in Europe. If you have anything to add, please join in on the discussion!
Text © Ann Marie Ackermann, September 2014; Images: morugeFile, shutterstock.com & National Archives. See Impressum.
Some literature on point:
Emise Bálint, Mechanisms of the Hue and Cry in Kolozsvár in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century, in Cultural History of Early Modern European Streets (Riitta Laitinen & Thomas V. Cohen, eds.; (Ledien, Bosten: Brill 2009) p. 40.
Gesa Dane. “Zeter und Mordio”: Vergewaltigung in Literatur und Recht (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag 2005) pp. 22-23.
A. Esmein. A History of Continental Criminal Procedure with Special Reference to France ( Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1913) p. 61; p. 125 n. 3.
Ronald H. Fritze & William B. Robinson, eds. Historical Dictionary of Late Medieval England 1272-1485 (Wesport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press 2002) p. 139.
Christopher Hare. Dante the Wayfarer (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons 1905) p. 3.
Martin Andrew Sharp Hume. Spain: Its Greatness and Decay (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press 1899) p. 13
Philip Jones. The Italian City-State: From Commune to Signoria (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press 1997) p. 381.
Michael Roth. Crime and Punishment: A History of the Criminal Justice System (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2011) pp. 64, 66.
Craig D. Uchida, History of American Policing, in Jack R. Greene, ed.. Encyclopedia of Police Science, vo1. 1 (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2007) p. 617.Read More
It was so easy to get trapped. The city walls ensnared you and the gates locked you in.
If you wanted to commit a crime in one of Germany’s 19th-century walled cities, you’d probably want to case the place first and plan your escape. A typical town had only a handful of exits via the city gates. Some towns still closed their gates every night and posted the times in the newspaper.
The city of Ludwigsburg, for instance, closed its gates between 6 pm and 6:30 am during the second half of November, 1835. But, as we saw in the last post, if the townsfolk raised the hue and cry, you couldn’t count on an open gate. The watchmen could close the gates just to catch you.
But most towns offered great places to hide. Houses were built fairly close to each other, leaving narrow gaps between them. Those gaps, noted a 19th-century German investigator, could easily accommodate a skinny criminal. They were a perfect place to dismantle and conceal a weapon, rearrange clothing, or take cover until the commotion was over. Such a gap played a role in the case I’m writing about. It offered the assassin a great hiding place. But he managed to escape the walls, flee to the United States, and eventually take up arms at Robert E. Lee’s side.
Intelligenz-Blatt des Neckar-Kreises und Ludwigsburger Wochenblatt. 31 October 1835.
Text & images © Ann Marie Ackermann, September 2014, except for Roman city gate, shutterstock.com
City Gates & the Hue and Cry
It wasn’t easy for a criminal to escape from a walled city. In my last blog post, we looked at how the hue and cry – the victim’s cry for help – brought townsfolk out onto the streets to start chasing the lawbreaker. The city walls and closely spaced houses amplified the noise, making it an effective technique. But the hue and cry did something else. As the shouting spread from mouth to mouth, the cry often reached the city gates before the villain did. As soon it reached the watchmen, they slammed those gates shut.
An Aid in Criminal Investigations
Even if the pursuing citizenry couldn’t catch anyone right away, the ability to ensnare an unknown suspect within the city walls gave the investigator a tremendous leg up. He could require innkeepers and even private households to provide a list of their guests that, together with a register of the citizens, formed a finite list of suspects. The interplay between the hue and cry and medieval city structure thus played a significant role in Germany’s true crime history.
An integral part of any escape plan, then, had to include a hiding place or a way through the walls. Next week I’ll show you one of the places where criminals hid.
Which walled cities have you visited? How easy would it have been to escape?
Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum, Rothenburg o.d.T.. Justiz in alter Zeit, vol. 4, Schriftreihe des mittelalterlichen Kriminalmuseums Rotenburg ob der Tauber) p. 383.
Clemens-Peter Bösken. Das Ende der grossen rheinischen Räuber- und Mörderbande (Erfurt: Sutton Verlag 2011) p. 33.
Text & images © Ann Marie Ackermann except for first image from Notre Dame: shutterstock.com by Ana Menendez
City Walls and Streets
Cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, and looming city walls. Those features of medieval city planning we consider quaint today influenced criminal investigations – and the perpetrator’s ability to escape – right up to the 19th century. One of factors was how the houses were situated on the streets. Take a walk with me through some of Europe’s old towns and I’ll show you what I mean.
Hue and Cry
Consider the hue and cry. If you were the victim of a crime in medieval Europe, you were expected to cry out for help. (Crying wolf is a form of the hue and cry for shepherds in the countryside.) Townsfolk who heard you were in turn required to assist you and help catch the culprit (or wolf). And if they caught somebody, the investigator’s job was half done.
Impact on Historical True Crime
The hue and cry worked much better in town than in the country. People lived closer together and were more likely to hear you. But the city structure played a role too. Houses were built bordering the streets. In a charming article about the hue and cry, Emise Bálint* pointed out that because of their layout, buildings and walls better carried the ringing echoes of the cry down the streets and alleys. Where the sound didn’t get swallowed up by trees and shrubbery in front of the houses, a cry for help worked better.
Can you think of a case where the structure of a town played a role in the success of a criminal investigation?
*Emise Bálint, Mechanisms of the Hue and Cry in Kolozsvár in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century, in Cultural History of Early Modern European Streets (Riitta Laitinen & Thomas V. Cohen, eds.; (Ledien, Bosten: Brill 2009) pp. 39-62.
Text & images © Ann Marie Ackermann, August 2014 except for first image; shutterstock.com