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