January 10, 2009

Law Enforcement

Johann Van Banchem was one of the people involved in the lynching of the prominent Dutch statesmen Cornelius and Jan de Witt in 1672, Van Banchem was awarded for his part in the murder with an appointment as Bailiff in the Hague. Eventually though he fell foul of the authorities there for the way that he exerted his authority in the Hague and was himself imprisoned in 1576, eventually dying in prison, after numerous appeals (which had not finished at his death) twenty years later. The story is simple and you might say is a morality tale of a kind- but it is more interesting than that, because the later bit of it, the charges against Van Banchem as a magistrate, illustrate the way that bailiffs had to operate in 17th Century Holland and the way that they had to get close to the criminals that they were supposed to control.

Pieter Wagenaar and Otto Van Meij wrote a fascinating paper on Van Banchem than analyses his methods in exerting his authority in the Hague and the way that he used it. Part of his job involved the supression of what we might loosely term 'sexual morality': he was supposed to stop prostitution, adultery and fornication amongst the population of the Hague. The Republic (in common with other seventeenth century regimes- England in the 1650s is a good example) had made such activities illegal and expected their magistrates to make an effort to suppress them- we should understand that in the context of the Dutch effort to create a civic sober society. Van Banchem was later accused of consorting with prostitutes, allowing brothels (including within his own house) and letting men off with payments of large fines.

For a moment it is worth considering how he got into this situation- and what Wagenaar and Van Meij show is that he got into this position in the course of his normal legal duties. The problem in the seventeenth century was that adultery left no incriminating traces- a man might always deny his offence unless you caught him in the actual act. Without a large investigatory police force or modern forensic techniques, in order to prosecute, Van Banchem and his fellow magistrates had to rely on informers- normally amongst the city population of prostitutes. Van Banchem often sought to put up these prostitutes in houses that he knew- where he could conceal himself and his officers. Sometimes this meant concealing them in his own house and trapping the offenders there. Setting up brothels and consorting with prostitutes was a consequence of lacking the power to investigate crimes. Likewise when Van Banchem took bribes to stop a case proceeding to court- what he was doing was not uncommon in Holland- he was protecting the social structure at the price of the moral law, two sets of values came into conflict and Van Banchem like most magistrates knew that over zealotry was not what was required in cases involving significant gentlemen.

There are aspects of the Van Banchem case which to a Dutch 17th Century eye would look suspicious- he did for instance (after his wife's death) invite a former prostitute into his house as his maid and let her sleep in the room next to his. Other 'offences' we can clearly see were related to the internal politics of the Hague: Van Banchem was accused of imprisoning offenders in his own house- he did that because of a jurisdictional conflict between the Supreme Court of the Hague and the aldermen of the town about where prisoners should be kept. Van Banchem's prosecution also has to be related to his political situation- eventually he upset important factions within the town. The issue is that most of what he did, he had to do in the normal course of his duties- it was impossible to attack the problems that he was expected to attack without using informers, possibly framing suspects, in the context of the Hague using his own house as a prison and a brothel: furthermore his position exposed him to the danger of intimacy with prostitutes and therefore to the temptation to his maid-mistress. What I think is interesting about this is how easy it was to prosecute a magistrate for performing what many others were doing- if Wagenaar and Van Meij are right, what we have here is a fascinating situation which reveals a lot about early modern law enforcement- particularly in the area of sexual morality.

What it reveals is that in order to enforce sexual laws, the magistrate had to find informers from inside the class of those who broke the sexual law. To stop adultery he had to locate and use the women with which men most usually committed adultery- prostitutes. To maintain the social structure, he had to bend the law occasionally. To play the political game aright, he had to be sensitive to competing claims and avoid offense- sometimes this would involve ignoring potential problems and dealing with issues sine jure. We can see all this in the Van Banchem case because we have the records of the court: but I (like Wagenaar and Van Meijj) would suggest this happened a great deal more than it might appear.

When Lear says 'Hark in thy ear, change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief', he may have meant more than our modern glosses might have it. To be a judge in the early modern period meant getting very close to the criminal as you sought to find him, prove his offence and punish him.


James Higham said...

they had to get close to the criminals that they were supposed to control

Old style policing.

Gracchi said...

Yes old style policing- but don't forget that means not having the resources and powers to do what we do today.

Crushed said...

One could say it shows the same problems such laws always hold, their rank hypocrisy.
Modern Police forces still use bait operations, don't they, using officers dressedc as hookers to catch curb crawlers, or officers in cars to stop soliciting.

Such laws were ludicrous then- and are ludicrous now. And the proof of that is in the way such laws had to be/have to be enforced.

Gracchi said...

Crushed, possibly you have a point. I'm not sure whether all these laws are so bad- laws on prostitution deserve another post and I'm not willing to go into what I think about that without thinking more about it. As for the ways that the police prosecute such offences you might have a point- but I still think that the capacity of the police to do things today in all crimes is significantly higher than it was in the 17th Century in the Netherlands. Van Banchem for instance did not have CCTV or forensic evidence- he had to have a witness or an informer or witness a crime himself in order to know that one had taken place. Policing has changed a great deal and in order to understand what happened in the past we have to understand that.