©Rijksarchief Leuven, schepengriffies arr. Brussel, nr. 5947
18TH CENTURY CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Tradition, locality and authority are keywords to describe the functioning of the criminal courts in eighteenth century Flanders and Brabant. Every city, district and seigneury had its own court that could act in criminal matters, although the level of authority and judgment could differ (high, middle and low justice). The judges were part of the aldermen and belonged to the higher social groups. To join this select group of aldermen, status was more important than a university degree in law. Local officials, often belonging to middle social groups, played a role outside the court room. They tracked down criminals, interviewed witnesses, and punished the convicts.
Although laws and penalties were locally interpreted, the criminal procedure (Styl Crimineel, 1570) was more or less uniform within the Southern Low Countries. The procedure consisted of five phases. The most important, and often the only phase executed, was a preliminary investigation, referred to as informatie preparatoir (1). In this preliminary phase, the crime was identified, the narratives of witness(es) (and victim(s)) were documented and suspects were caught and arrested. The next step (2) included the interrogations of the suspect(s), who often resided in prison, followed by (3) a – if necessary – a more elaborate and profound research into the crime. Legal officials could make use of torture (4) to investigate the role of the suspect(s). However, during the eighteenth century the use of torture was already heavily debated. Finally, a sentence concluded the procedure (5). Imprisonment, corporal punishment or exile could follow. A death sentence was only pronounced in case of felony, such as murder. Appeal against sentences was not possible.
The functioning of criminal courts differed from region to region. This diversity is reflected in the different series and documents that are preserved. In the state archives of Bruges, for example, the preliminary investigations are bound in books, while in other archives, such as the Felix archive of Antwerp, these documents are preserved as separate documents or files.
To be supplemented