On a world without police

In the midst of the global Black Lives Matter discussion, many are now learning for the first time about calls for the defunding and abolition of police. Although there is a rich political and philosophical discourse for such calls, still many react to these calls with confusion and the reason why is understandable. As Alex S. Vitale has argued eloquently in his The End of Policing, (a free ebook of which you can find here!) the austere conditions of government over the past decades have effectively made police a one-stop shop for any societal issue. A neighbor experiencing mental distress? Police wellness check. Trouble in schools? Assign police officers. Opioid overdose? Call the police. Broken windows? The police fine for that. Meanwhile, a proliferation of budgeting for police departments has seen ever expanding and hyper militarized police forces exert ever more forceful control over the communities that they are meant to protect.

In a world where the police are an omnipresent and oppressive fact of life, a society without them can seem a dangerous prospect. This is a condition which we in the business refer to as “capitalist realism“, or the inability to imagine a world other than the capitalist one that we live in as viable. The good news is that this is absolute nonsense, because historically in the global north an established police force, let alone one with such expansive responsibilities is an extremely new development.

In medieval Europe, for example, the concept of a standing professional police force was virtually unknown. Instead, communities were organized so that they were all responsible for keeping the peace. Communities, for example could be required in case of a crime to “raise a hue and cry”, or shouting a lot and pursuing someone seen committing a crime so that they could be brought to justice. Elsewhere, adult men were organized into groups of ten called “tithings” where each man in the group was tasked with bringing the others to justice if they committed a crime. In order to help with this, many cities and towns also had watchmen (and sometimes women) who would keep a look out for criminal activity and raise an alarm.

A Watchman, from the House Books of the Nuremberg Twelve Brothers Foundation, Nuremberg 1388. 

In England, there were individuals – Sheriffs – who were called in if a community was unable to catch a criminal. They were authorised to raise a posse comitatus in which all mean over the age of 15 could be forced to participate and search for the man who had absconded. After 1250 villages would often appoint a Constable who was responsible for raising the hue and cry, a position that rotated yearly and was unpaid to ensure against both corruption and over work. Meanwhile from 1190 there had been coroners who were responsible for looking into violent and suspicious deaths.

Clearly, then, there is a historical precedent for a world without policing that still pursues criminals. The medieval period was many things, but a chaotic and violent criminal society is not one of them. Instead, communities prioritized peace and social cohesion and therefore worked to ensure them.

The historical context of policing has not been lost on police abolition and defunding advocates, if the emphasis is more modern. Many argue that while it is clear that the police have ceased to be an effective means by which communities are protected, it is doubtful if they ever were. Critics in America such as Marilynn S. Johnson in her Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City points to the first major investigation against the New York police in 1894. It turns out the cops were just, you know, bludgeoning people with clubs randomly, to the surprise of absolutely no one. Point to a modern police department, and there you will find accusations of excessive force and brutality. As such, abolitionists argue that the city budgets spent (often disproportionally) on policing be redistributed to community programs. Individuals with broken windows should be offered financial help to make repairs from a community fund; schools ought to be funded adequately with enough resources for student and staff welfare; mental health and drug issues should be treated as public health issues, much as they have been with great success in Portugal.

Outside of these measures to reframe our relationship between policing and the community, there has been a call for a greater emphasis on restorative justice for violent criminal activity. Again, observation of medieval practices can help give some guidance for those looking toward community-oriented justice measures.

Queen Reason presiding over a court case, British Library MS Harley 4431 fol 218v

For medieval people, many acts which we would consider as crimes were addressed not through carceral measures, but as disputes which required resolution between the offender and the victims. Offenders would negotiate settlements with community members and their victims or victim representatives, a practice known in medieval Germanic languages as wergild. Usually, such settlements would involve some sort of financial repayment, but also public repentance and often penance as well. For example, in 669 when the Kentish princes Aethelred and Aethelbert were killed either by their cousin Egbert, or by one of his retainers, Thunor in order to secure his succession to the throne. (Side note – bring back early medieval English names NOW, because we love to see it), their murderers were required to pay their family in land and also to endow a monastery. Both of these acts carried a huge financial cost, but also reinforced the perpetrators of the crime as a part of the community that they had wronged and must make amends to in order to reintegrate into it. (The dead princes were later named as saints, so they had that going for them.)

This right here is exactly what we are not trying to see. Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes by Giovanni Boccaccio, Bibliothèque de Genève Ms. fr. 190/1: fol. 118v.

I do not mean to argue that medieval justice is not a perfect guide for a society looking to expand past policing. Although some punishments could be restorative, still others were violent, especially in cases when the powerless and unconnected were found guilty of crimes committed against the powerful. There was rather a lot of dragging the bodies of the captured through town, for example, if their crimes were seen as having injured the king, and I am extremely not here for that. Nor am I a huge fan of seeing the severed heads of the king’s enemies displayed on London Bridge. The tourists are bad enough already! Amiright? We do have a good time.

However, with a critical lens, and the benefit of historical insight it is possible to reimagine our world as a more just and connected place. Not only is this possible, it has happened in the past. It can happen again, but better. Let’s get to it.


If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!


For more on policing in the medieval period, see:
Medieval policing and race reading lists

For more on politics, see:
On martyrdom and nationalism
Medieval policing and race reading lists
Religious iconography has always been a prop
On Odious debt
On the King’s two bodies and modern myth making
Emergency Post: That is not what the “good” in Good Friday means
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
On Q Anon and systems of knowledge
On the medieval separation of Church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
On chronicles versus journalism and ruling versus governing
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
The medieval case for remain, or, fuck Brexit

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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