Archive for May, 2017

“Much of the renewed interest in the history of crime and punishment over the
past two decades has centered on various aspects of the nineteenth-century
notion of the existence of a criminal class. Although little of this research
has focused on a systematic examination of recidivists, recidivism was widely
regarded as the defining feature of the criminal class by most penal officials.
Consequently, in an effort to increase our understanding of the recidivist
population and its judicial treatment, this analysis investigated differences
between recidivists and first-time committals to jail in relation to a number
of individual and offense-related factors, as well as in terms of the nature and
extent of recidivism-related differences in case outcomes.

Looking first at the question of the effect of various sociodemographic
and offense-related factors on recidivism, the results show that those with
the greatest probability of repeat committals were unskilled or semiskilled
workers, Canadian born, intemperate, and charged with vagrancy. Clearly
then, the probability of being committed to jail more than once in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not equally distributed across
all groups in society. Importantly, however, those most likely to be repeat
committals and to be officially defined as recidivists bore little resemblance to
contemporary stereotypes about the criminal class. In particular, contrary to
nineteenth-century beliefs, neither illiteracy nor Irish immigrant status were
significant predictors of recidivism. Nor did repeat committals conform to
the stereotype of professional criminals since they were less likely than firsttime
committals to be charged with larceny. By and large, recidivists were
petty offenders arrested for drunkenness and vagrancy who represented no
great threat to public safety.

These results differ in some ways from prior research, which suggests
that few factors differentiated recidivists from first-time committals in Ontario
local jails. In the most systematic and comprehensive analysis to date,
Michael Katz, Michael Doucet, and Mark Stern (1982) found that only gender
and offense type differentiated repeat committals from those jailed only
once in Wentworth County Jail, Ontario, for the period from 1850 to 1866.
That is, women were more likely than men to be recidivists, and recidivists
were most often charged with various public order offenses. Other more limited
analyses of Ontario jail registers in the nineteenth century reinforce the
conclusions that recidivists were most often charged with drunkenness or
vagrancy, and while women were not necessarily more likely than men to be
repeat offenders, women recidivists tended to have more extensive records
of repeated committals than male recidivists for public order offenses.

In contrast, the results from this analysis suggest that several other factors
including birthplace and intemperance clearly distinguished recidivists
from first-time committals across the decades spanning the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. In addition, of particular significance is the
finding that those with the greatest probability of repeat committals were
in the lowest occupational groups. Taken together, the social and offense related
traits which distinguished recidivists both reflected and reinforced
their greater social marginality, and they serve to highlight most clearly

the disproportionate criminalization of those at the bottom of the social

It has become axiomatic in recent historical studies to emphasize the
ways in which the criminal justice system and the idea of a criminal class
from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries operated to control the
lower classes and to reinforce the larger structures of inequality in society.
The findings from this study suggest that what differentiated recidivists was
not so much that they constituted a distinct criminal class in the sense promulgated
by authorities, but rather that the characteristics of social and economic
disadvantage which typified jail populations as a whole were simply
more pronounced among repeat committals. As in the United States, in
Canada throughout the period considered, those who were most vulnerable
to repeat committals were the visible populations that already constituted
the focus of most police attention—the poor, the apparently idle or
transient, as well as those who were drunk, disorderly, or rowdy in public
places. The preeminent focus of municipal police forces on these offenders
and offenses contributed to a self-fulfilling prophecy. To the extent that
immorality and idleness were viewed as self-evident causes of criminality,
aggressive enforcement of these offenses was thought to prevent more serious
criminal depredations among these offenders. At the same time, defining a
criminal class through aggressive enforcement of these behaviors strengthened
and justified prevailing stereotypes of crime and criminality. In this
way, the dominant ideology of crime and criminals was operationalized and


The examination of case outcomes revealed both similarities and differences
in the factors associated with the harsher outcome of a prison sentence
for recidivists and first-time committals. As expected, controlling for all other
factors, recidivists were punished more severely than first-time committals,
being more likely to receive a prison sentence. However, that a large proportion
of recidivists (and the majority of first-time committals) was simply discharged
without a prison sentence suggests that judges in Middlesex County
as elsewhere did not regard or treat a significant proportion
of those they dealt with on a daily basis as constituting a dangerous
criminal class representing a serious threat to society. Consequently, despite
the intense concern of prison officials with recidivism and calls for judges to
impose harsher sentences, judges themselves appear to have been less convinced of the need to impose prison sentences on a sizable proportion of
repeat committals who came before the courts.

Beyond this finding, the basic fact of social inequality was an important
independent influence on sentence outcome among first-time committals,
with unskilled workers being significantly more likely than higher occupational
groups to be convicted and sentenced to prison. As well, within both
groups, offenders who were single, or who had more than one arrest charge,
were much more likely to receive the harsher outcome of a prison sentence.
A further similarity noted between recidivists and first-time committals was
that offenders charged with assault were least likely to receive a prison sentence.
In large part, this finding reflects the fact that only cases of the least
serious form of assault were included in this analysis. Throughout the era
considered, most cases of common assault consisted of relatively minor disputes
and quarrels between family members and friends and drunken altercations
associated with tavern life, which the courts did not regard or punish
as particularly serious offenses.

Notwithstanding these similarities, some important recidivism-related
differences in the determinants of case outcomes emerged, most notably the
differential effect of gender, moral habits, offense type, and time period. First,
the harsh treatment of women offenders was reserved for recidivists as gender
was not a significant determinant of case outcomes for first-time committals.
Although women represented a small proportion of recidivists, even after
controlling for all other variables, they were punished more severely than
male recidivists.These results reinforce the conclusions from prior historical
research with respect to the ways in which gender stereotypes, and women’s
social status, were translated into the harsher treatment of women offenders
deemed to be immoral or hopelessly incorrigible by prevailing standards. Throughout this era, most women were arrested for various public
order offenses and especially vagrancy, which included prostitution. Moreover,
as noted previously, the available evidence suggests that women tended
to accumulate more extensive arrest records for these offenses than men. The greater loss of respectability experienced by women who came before the
courts, and the unforgiving condemnation of women who repeatedly violated
expected standards of feminine conduct, are exemplified in the disproportionately
harsh dispositions meted out to female recidivists.


Second, despite the importance attached to alcohol as a cause of crime
during this period—a belief given official recognition in the recording of prisoners’
drinking habits in the jail registers—intemperance was a significant
determinant of a prison sentence only among first-time committals. It would
appear that, in sentencing first-time committals, judges took particular note
of their drinking habits and were harsher with those deemed intemperate. In
contrast, among recidivists of whom intemperance was probably assumed to
be a given, this failing obviously had little influence on judges’ sentencing

Third, the results highlight the important and dissimilar effect of offense
type on sentencing decisions for recidivists and first-time committals. Among
recidivists, there were no significant differences in the likelihood of receiving
a prison sentence for larceny, drunkenness, or vagrancy—all were treated
by the courts as more or less interchangeable in a manner consistent with
the dominant ideology of the criminal class. In contrast, among first-time
committals, clear distinctions in case outcomes by offense type were evident.
Those treated most harshly were charged with larceny, while drunkenness
and vagrancy were treated considerably more leniently. To this extent,
the influence of offense type on case outcomes points to judges having substantially
different assessments of the seriousness of various offenses and
using different criteria in their sentencing decisions with respect to these two

Finally, the findings with respect to differences between recidivists and
first-time committals in case outcomes highlight the enduring concern of
correctional authorities with the large number of recidivists, and especially
vagrancy committals, in Ontario jails throughout this era. And, in the context
of these concerns, recidivism served as an important means of separating
the deserving from the undeserving poor. Consequently, recidivists
charged with vagrancy were significantly more likely than first-time committals
charged with vagrancy to be sentenced to prison. Equally important, it is
clear that attempts to reduce the number of repeat committals through harsh
punishment were not limited to the nineteenth century and that the various
criminal justice reforms implemented by the early part of the twentieth century
emphasizing rehabilitation had little impact in changing traditional sentencing
patterns in this regard. In fact, the probability that a recidivist would
be sentenced to prison was actually greater in the early twentieth century
than in the late nineteenth century. So, while Ontario officials may not have

resorted to the repressive nineteenth-century solutions of American tramp
legislation or British habitual criminal legislation, they nonetheless shared the social anxieties and fiscal concerns
that prompted these punitive responses well into the twentieth century.
Consequently, as prison officials continued to call for harsher penal measures
against recidivists, and both local authorities and the provincial government
continued to resist the implementation of noncarceral solutions to the problems
of homelessness, unemployment, and personal tragedy which contributed
to the problem of repeat committals in local jails, the harsh treatment of
recidivists became even more pronounced in the early decades of the twentieth

–  Helen Boritch, “The Criminal Class Revisited: Recidivism and Punishment in Ontario, 1871–1920.” Social Science History 29:1 (spring 2005), pp. 160-165.

Read Full Post »


May 27, 2017: a new episode of The Anatomy Lesson at 11pm EST on CFRC 101.9 FM. My contribution to Drone Day 2017 – intersections with power electronics, rhythmic noise, spoken word and industrial. Featuring Branks, Mahjoop, Chino Amobi, Skin, Anji Cheung, Âmes Sanglantes, Pharmakon, Rita Revell + more. Check out the whole setlist below, tune in at 101.9 on your FM dial, stream at http://audio.cfrc.ca:8000/listen.pls or download the finished show at cfrc.ca or on mixcloud (https://www.mixcloud.com/cameronwillis1232/the-anatomy-lesson-may-27-2017/) after the show.

Tropical Body – “Eleven Rules for Absolution” Our Love Was Real (2013)
Mahjoop – “Mavericks” Ravel (2017)
Skin – “Bloom” Calluna Vulgaris (2017)
Bonaventure – “Fearless feat. Hannah Black” Free Lutangu (2017)
Moss Harvest – “Corridor” Entwined (2016)
Rita Revell – “Relate To” Zastani (2017)
Etat Brut – “Zone Sinistre” EB 001 (1980)

Pharmakon – “Sleepwalking form” Contact (2017)
RJF – “Minimal Brain Function” Greater Success In Apprehension & Convictions (1983)
Anji Cheung – “The Automatic Message” Hypatia (2016)
Âmes Sanglantes – “Archaic Shared Unconsiousness” Crackdown (2017)
Chino Amobi – “The Failed Sons and Daughters of Fantasia” Paradiso (2017)
Branks – “Over The Mountain None Survive” Symbolic Body Altar (2014)

Read Full Post »

“Despite the attractiveness of a proposal by which boys were
to be provided with a prison at one-seventh of the capital cost of the new one
then being constructed at Millwall, nothing came of the plan. The treatment of
the juvenile offender remained virtually the same as that of a man. The only
concessions were the setting aside of a hulk from 1823 to 1844, and the
building of Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight in 1837. Boys found fit
enough to withstand the rigours of convict life in Australia came here for two
years before setting out on the next stage of their sentence. It was not until
1847 that the Juvenile Offenders Act offered the first possibility of a
differential treatment of juveniles. Limited to those under the age of 14, it
allowed magistrates to try offenders for simple larceny summarily instead of
having to remand them in prison for trial at some later date at assize or
quarter sessions. As alternatives to imprisonment, magistrates could order a
fine, not exceeding £3, or a whipping.

A growing awareness of, or increasing intolerance of,
disorderly behaviour amongst the young can be traced back to at least the last
quarter of the eighteenth century. However, Robert Raikes’ rule ‘clean faces,
clean hands, and hair combed’ must have excluded the very children he hoped to
influence. Similarly the New Poor Law, limited to succouring the children of
outdoor and indoor paupers together with those who were either orphaned or
deserted, failed to reach many of the destitute living by their wits. Although
the Ragged Schools, refuges, and industrial schools set up by voluntary effort
in the 1840s supplemented the work of the Poor Law Guardians, there remained a
large enough indeterminate number of children, living near-criminal lives, to
cause considerable concern.

Sheer numbers provide part of the explanation. The
under-twenty cohort had grown from 6,981,068 in 1821 to 14,422,801 thirty years
later and had become increasingly concentrated in an urbanizing society. At the
same time those who wished to confirm their general impression of growing
lawlessness among the young could do so by turning to the statistical evidence
of the commital returns available from 1834 onwards. The publication of details
of the age, sex, and degree of instruction of offenders made possible the
‘discovery’ of the juvenile offender as a social problem. Thus contemporaries
found ‘juveniles “aged 15 and under 20”, form not quite one-tenth of
the population, but are guilty of nearly one-fourth of its crime’. At the same
time criminal statistics showed an apparent rise in crime from under 5000
indictable commitals to trial a year in the quinquennium 1806-10, to 20,000 and
over by the 1840s.10 Legislation passed in 1829,1835,1839 and 1856 established
police forces over much of the country. During the same period the repeal of
more than 190 acts imposing capital punishment for a variety of offences,
together with administrative reforms made prosecution easier, less expensive,
and less serious in its consequences for the defendant. Such considerations,
together with a growing realization that the police were the allies of the
propertied classes, and not agents of political repression, encouraged the
public to report offences and hand over malefactors to the state judicial
process rather than take the law into their own hands. With the publication of
studies of urban conditions such as those of J. P. Kay and W. B. Neale on
Manchester, the hereditary criminal and juvenile delinquent, destined to become
a lifelong offender, jostled with the hereditary pauper as the bogey of the
middle classes, a climate of opinion that Charles Dickens exploited in Oliver Twist (1838).

The practice of imprisoning children was attacked both for
its inhumanity and its ineffectiveness. Unreformed prisons corrupted the young
by bringing them into association with older offenders who taught them the ways
of the criminal world. Reorganized prisons, where children could spend long
periods in solitary confinement, were attacked for their inhumanity. Common to
both these charges was the belief that with committal to prison a young person
lost his fear of incarceration and that it, with the workhouse, would become
his way of life. The high cost of imprisonment provided a further incentive for
seeking a cheaper alternative. One estimate put the total cost to the country
of a juvenile prisoner at £63. Os. Od. a year, if one allowed for the upkeep of
the judiciary and constabulary. Residence at Parkhurst cost £43.10s. 5d. a year
alone. In contrast a boy could be accommodated at Mettrai for £42 a year, at
Stretton for £31, while a mere £18 sufficed for his upkeep in an industrial
school. The total cost of supporting the pauper, his near brothers the vagrants
and thieves through the poor rate, charitable funds, together with the
maintenance of the necessary judicial apparatus, was put by one essayist at
£20,000,000 a year, nearly 5% of the estimated national income.

Thus the reformatory held out the lure of being cheaper and
more cost-effective than the prison. It also attracted the support of those who
saw the young offender as the victim of circumstance rather than as someone who
was inherently vicious:

There is no vicious child, as experience daily proves, who
is prematurely wicked, that might not, under a well directed and religiously
conducted system, still grow up an honest and industrious citizen. He was not
born a vagrant; he was not born a thief. Our neglect made him a delinquent; our
pernicious interference hardened him for the gallows, the hulk, or Botany Bay.

Such a view was essentially optimistic, for it implied that
if only the right kind of education and environment could be found, such
children would become useful citizens. However, the fact remained that some
children had committed either petty or major criminal acts. Hence the
Reformatory Schools Act, more correctly known as the Juvenile Offenders Act,
compromised between those who saw the child as the victim of circumstance and
society’s neglect and those who saw him as part of the ‘scum of the populace,
fit only to be swept as vermin from the face of the earth’. So the offender had
to spend a preliminary period in prison prior to admission to a reformatory.
Imprisonment did not cease to be a mandatory preliminary to detention in a
reformatory until 1893; six years later it was abolished altogether. Much of
the opposition to these changes came from the value school managers put on the
preliminary period of imprisonment, usually mainly in solitary confinement, as
a means of breaking the will of their future charges. Imprisonment provided
them with subdued and easily malleable charges who found their new place of
detention preferable to their old. It also gave the police time to find
reformatories prepared to take the offender. If, because all reformatories were
private institutions, they failed in this there was no alternative but to let
the child go.

In contrast to the reformatory child who, after
imprisonment, had a criminal record, the vagrant child brought before a
magistrate under the Industrial Schools’ Act, 1857, did not become a criminal,
although vagrancy was an offence for which an adult could receive six months’
imprisonment on his third conviction. Yet a child of seven could be confined to
an industrial school until the age of fifteen. This, it was urged, was an act
of kindness for it rescued him from the street, that preparatory school of the
criminal, and gave him shelter and education. In 1861 the Newcastle Report
found the Act too limited in scope and in danger of becoming a dead letter for
no more than 171 children, 100 from the city of Newcastle alone, had been sent
to industrial schools the previous year. It endorsed the view of Sydney Turner,
the inspector of reformatories, that there were hundreds of children whom
compulsory powers of detention and compulsory attendance at a ragged or
industrial school would save from sinking into the criminal classes thereby
qualifying for admission into the more costly reformatory.

Legislation of the next two decades gave the industrial
schools a considerably enlarged clientele that encompassed social problems
ranging from the child guilty of some minor offence to one guilty of none but
deemed to be in need of care and protection. Thus a two- or three-year-old
could find himself in the same institution as, and at the mercy of, much older
children sent by their parents or workhouse officials as uncontrollable, or
those picked up as beggars or as destitute. Others were there because they
consorted with thieves or prostitutes, “or had mothers serving a second
prison sentence. Yet another group had been sent there for truancy.

Yet the regime for all these children corresponded closely
to that of a reformatory school, despite the earlier wish of some that the
industrial school should be a less rigorous alternative. In common with the
workhouse child, inmates underwent a disciplined and oppressive routine of hard
work, severe punishment, austere living conditions, and a spartan diet to eradicate
the alleged defects of their characters, the evil influence of their previous
environment, and the sins of their fathers. Within the constraints of the
institution the child conformed, if only to come to terms with authority.
Outward conformity, it was hoped, bred inward a conversion which would guide
the inmate’s way of life on release. In practice so attenuated was
officialdom’s faith in this principle that the great aim of all concerned,
except that of the children and their families, was to ensure that discharged
persons were sent well away from their old haunts and friends, preferably to
another hierarchically-structured environment; the Army, Royal Navy or Merchant
Navy for boys; a household for girls who went as domestic servants.

The initial missionary zeal, expressed by such propagandists
as Mary Carpenter and Matthew Davenport Hill, never infused the movement as a
whole. There can be little doubt that the motives of some management committees
were far from altruistic. The landowner, who provided land and buildings for a
school on his land, despite his advocacy of agricultural labour as a
character-cleansing therapy, was also providing the home farm and the fields of
his tenants with cheap, if not free, labour.17 The shipping line director, who started
a school in a superannuated vessel, was guaranteeing himself a supply of hands.
As a whole, management committees were more concerned with the economical
running of their schools than the rehabilitation of the offender. In the eyes
of most, young delinquents were the pariahs of the nation, society’s forgotten
children, the offspring of the undeserving poor remembered only when news of
some scandal erupted.”

– John Hurt, “Reformatory and industrial schools before 1933.” HISTORY OF EDUCATION, 1984, VOL. 13, NO. 1. pp. 46-49.

Read Full Post »

“The Ostrogothic king Totila (541-552) commands respect. Coming to power when the fortunes
of his people were at a low ebb following the successes of Justinian’s general Belisarius,
he was able to gain control of most of Italy and was only defeated when Justinian committed
the resources of the Empire against him on a massive scale.’ Further, according to the picture
of him which emerges from the account provided by Procopius in the Bellum Gothicum, our
only narrative source, he was a person of nobility of character and broad sympathies. On
entering Rome he prayed in St Peter’s church (B.G. 3.20.22), protected Boethius’ widow
Rusticiana and other women from the Goths, an act for which he won great renown for
moderation, scarcely a virtue one would associate with a barbarian, and went on to hold games in the city (B.G. 3.37.4), behaviour which, together with his
addressing the senate, strongly suggests an imperial adventus and the conduct of an emperor in
his city. Procopius also credits him with a certain style, most notably in the dance he made his
horse perform and which allowed him to display his prowess before the fatal battle of Busta
Gallorum (B.G. 3.31.18-20). These emphases may partly be the product of Procopius’ having
turned against the war machine of Justinian and come to idealise a Gothic leader whom it
doomed, but there is no mistaking the warmth of a phrase in the Liber pontificalis, according to
which Totila lived in Rome as a father with his children. But some scholars have given Totila
credit for more than military ability and personal qualities. An influential tradition in modern
scholarship has seen him as instigating something approaching an economic and social
revolution, arguing that he welcomed into the Gothic army large numbers of freed slaves and
dispossessed the owners of the latifundia, thereby giving peasants control over the lands they
worked. In the following pages we shall evaluate such an interpretation of the activity of

The evidence for slaves joining the Gothic army is contained in Procopius’ account of a
meeting between Totila and the Roman deacon Pelagius, subsequently to become pope
Pelagius I, during a siege of Rome in 546. Pelagius went outside the city to negotiate with
Totila, whereupon the latter welcomed him but warned him that there were three topics
concerning which he was not prepared to negotiate. These were the Sicilians, who had proved

disloyal to the Goths, the walls of Rome, which he proposed to overthrow, and the slaves
whom he described as having put themselves under the protection of the Goths:

‘if, after they have taken their places in our ranks against our adversaries and have
received from us the promise that we will never abandon them to their former masters, we
should at the present juncture decide to put them into your hands, we shall have no right to
be trusted by you either’. 

Pelagius replied, making brief reference to the situations of the Sicilians and the Romans,
but not the slaves, and declined to continue the discussion. Unless I am mistaken, this is the
sole evidence in Procopius for slaves, or perhaps more precisely former slaves, in the Gothic
army. It is a slender peg on which to hang a theory of ‘l’affranchissement en masse des
esclaves’. Indeed, there is no need to think in terms of ‘schiavi liberati di Totila’. It is more
reasonable to think in terms of a fait accompli, for during a period of great social dislocation,
such as we may deduce the Gothic war to have been, it would have been a simple matter for
slaves to abscond on their own initiative. A papyrus of Ravenna indicates that the slaves of
Gothic as well as Roman landowners took the opportunity to make themselves scarce during
the war. For slaves seeking to cover their tracks, adhesion to the Gothic army would have
been a reasonable option. There is other evidence from late antiquity for poor Romans seeking
to improve their situation by throwing in their lot with barbarians, while the case of runaway
slaves crossing to barbarian territory had been dealt with in a law of 320 which found a place
in the Codex of Justinian. Moreover, the mere fact that slaves fought does not entail social
revolution. The brothers Didymus and Verenianus, relatives of the emperor Honorius, can
hardly have been revolutionaries, yet they armed slaves in 408-409.10 At the end of the Vandal
war a Roman, Stotzas, led a rebellion against imperial power, and was joined by a ‘great
throng of slaves’ (Procopius B. V. 2.15.4). There is no suggestion that these slaves had been
freed by the leaders of the rebellion, and in number they may have been more significant than
those who joined Totila, for Procopius gives no indication that the latter were particularly
numerous. We may take it, then, that there-is no reason to interpret the presence of an unknown
number of slaves in Totila’s army as a sign of social revolution.

The evidence which has been adduced for the dispossession of the owners of the latifundia
by Totila comes from a number of passages in Procopius. We are told that in 542 Totila
‘collected the public taxes and also the revenues from the land instead of those
who owned the estates’ (B.G. 3.6.5). Similarly, during the siege of Rome which ended in
December 546, he did not harm

‘the farmers in this or any other part of Italy, but commanded them to continue tilling the
soil without fear, just as they were accustomed to do, bringing to him the revenue which they had formerly brought to the public treasury and to the owners of the land’ 

It is obvious that revenues were being directed away from the owners of the estates to the
state, but, even excluding the possibility that landowners had been collecting taxes on behalf
of the state, it does not follow from this that Totila had taken measures practically equivalent
to the expropriation of the land;“I it could simply have been the case that the landowners had
fled during the war, and as we shall see there is evidence for the flight of landowners at this
time. Procopius elsewhere states that the Italians were ‘deprived of their lands’ by the Goths
(B.G. 3.9.3), but this suggests a de facto rather than a de jure change in the control exercised
over the estates: the victories of the Gothic army meant that the owners of the estates, many of
whom would still have resided in Rome and other large towns, found their estates on the other
side of enemy lines, rather than having been dispossessed because of some fiat issued by
Totila. A later passage of Procopius is revealing on this score. In 546 Totila, having been
dissuaded by Belisarius from destroying Rome, sent some of the inhabitants of the city into

‘Now those patricians who were being taken into Campania sent certain of their domestics
into Lucania, by direction of Totila, and bade their tenants abandon their machinations,
and till the fields as they were accustomed; for, the message announced, they would
have the property of their masters’ (B.G. 3.22.20). 

But there is no need to see here evidence for systematic appropriation of estates by the
Goths, for Totila’s action responded to local circumstances. Not long before, a powerful man
in Lucania, Tullianus, had gathered together the country people of the region and
set them as a guard to keep the Gothic army from entering Lucania (B.G. 3.22.2). The message
Totila directed the domestics to take to the tenants can therefore be plausibly seen as a device
to get the rural workers to abandon their guard, no more than a response to contingent circumstances.

These passages in Procopius seem to provide the only direct evidence which could be
used to sustain an interpretation of Totila’s having followed revolutionary social and economic
policies. There is nothing suggestive of such activities in the auctarium to the chronicle of
Marcellinus Comes, which refers to Totila in its entries for every year from 542 until 548, the
year in which it breaks off, nor in the Dialogues of pope Gregory the Great, which preserve
a number of hostile stories about Totila. One would have expected the Roman church, a
major landowner, to have been badly hit by any expropriation of latifundia, but there is no sign
in Gregory’s work of this having occurred. The contents of one document, however, have been
held to reflect the situation created by Totila’s revolutionary acts, the Constitutio pragmatica
issued by Justinian in 554, following the defeat of Totila, and it will be worth our while
examining it in some detail.

This document is distinguished by the vehemence of its references to Totila, whom it

identifies as tyrannus and refers to as nefandissimus, in a spirit quite different to the way in
which it mentions Theoderic. More particularly, the contents of the Constitutio indicate the
restoration of an aristocracy which had recently lost property: hence, while the concessions of
Amalasuinta, Athalaric and Theodahad were valid (1), the donations of Totila were null and
void (2), the loss of documents was not to hinder possession (3), property taken from someone
during absence or captivity was to be restored to the owner or that person’s heirs, on the return
or release of the owner (4), and property which changed hands because of violence or fear was
to be returned on payment of a refund (5). Furthermore, Justinian’s concern with marriages
which had taken place between slaves and free people (15) could be held to imply a situation in
which slaves were being freed.

But caution is called for. The Constitutio certainly reveals concern for the regaining of
property by a landowning class, but there is no need to invoke hypothetical revolutionary policies
to account for the preceding loss of property: the war between the Goths and the Byzantines had
caused massive dislocation, concerning which a passage of Procopius, which describes a group of
Romans which included some senators towards the end of the war, is revealing:

‘These Romans, being reduced to the state of slaves and stripped of all their money, were
not only unable to lay claim to the public funds, but could not even secure those which
belonged to them personally’ (B.G. 4.22.4). 

Some senators had abandoned Italy years before. By 548 there were ‘many very notable
men’ from Rome in Constantinople, urging Justinian to make war with vigour; Cethegus, a
patrician and former consul, is mentioned as having been among them (3.35.9f.). The Liber
mentions three senators and exconsuls, Cethegus, Albinus and Basilius, who fled
to Constantinople, apparently early in the 550s, and made a sorry showing when they appeared
at Justinian’s court. The end of the war allowed such people to return to Italy. During the
pontificate of pope Pelagius 1 (556-561), Cethegus was living in Sicily, while the patrician
Liberius, who seems to have stayed in the East following his participation in an embassy sent
by king Theodahad to Constantinople in 534 and was an ineffectual commander of Byzantine
forces during the Gothic war, had returned to Italy by the time he died. The movements
during the war of another leading Roman, Cassiodorus, are mysterious, but he was certainly in
Constantinople in 550 and subsequently returned to Italy. The war had struck a blow at the
senatorial landowning class, perhaps reflected in the permission the Constitutio accorded its
members to travel to Constantinople whenever they wished to. The concern of the government
that these people regain their lands, control over which had lapsed during the war and, in

some cases, their lengthy absence from Italy, is enough to explain the provisions of Justinian’s
legislation, rather than their being seen as indirect evidence for the policies of Totila. 

The case for Totila having been a revolutionary therefore looks decidedly weak. Perhaps,
it could be countered, the extreme hostility with which he was regarded after his death is a
pointer to antagonism felt by property owning classes because of expropriations. After all, the
adjective nefandissimus which the Constitutio applies to him also occurs in an inscription, while the terms in which Gregory describes Totila in the Dialogues are exceptionally hostile. But such animosity can be otherwise explained. The Gothic war had begun well for the
Byzantines. Theodahad failed to oppose the invading army, and Witigis made peace after
leading a dilatory resistance. When Belisarius entered Ravenna in 540, it must have looked as
if the Gothic war were over, and the manoeuverings among the Gothic leadership which
immediately followed can have done little to change this perspective. It was the achievement
of Totila to revive the cause of the Goths and sustain it for over a decade. But the cost was
enormous. The devastation Totila brought to different regions of Italy, including areas which
had escaped untouched during the war between Odovacer and Theoderic and the opening
stages of the Gothic war, is reported in the auctarium to the chronicle of Marcellinus in
language as powerful as it is laconic, and the agrarian economy was shattered. Writing to
Childebert in 556, pope Pelagius observed that the estates of Italy had been so forsaken that no
one could bring about their recovery, and in a letter to Boethius, the praetorian prefect of
Africa, some years later, he wrote of the continuous destruction which over 25 years of war
had brought to Italy. It has been suggested that Gregory the Great’s account of the life of St
Benedict, in that it locates it against a background of brambles and thorny trees, is indicative of
recently abandoned lands. King Theodahad is said to have conducted a test before the Gothic
war began which indicated that only half the Romans would survive, and that these would be
deprived of their possessions. The abandonment of Rome for more than forty days during the
war prompted one bishop to observe to St Benedict that through Totila the city would be
destroyed and cease to be a place of habitation, and if the holy man’s reply absolved Totila
from blame it was no less apocalyptic: ‘Rome will not be destroyed by the nations, but, worn
out by storms, flashes of lightning, confusion and shaking of the earth, it will collapse upon
itself.’ Gregory felt that the prophecy was being fulfilled clearly in his own day. After the
war was over, it was clear that Totila’s ultimately futile resistance to Justinian had turned. Italy,
prosperous when Theoderic died and still well off when Witigis surrendered in 540, into the
impoverished land of the 550s and beyond. It was recognition of this, rather than any lingering
resentment arising from revolutionary activities, which brought about the hostility Romans
later displayed towards him.”

– John Moorhead, “Totila the Revolutionary.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 49, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 2000), pp. 382-386.           

Read Full Post »

“By the mid 1850’s suggestions were being made about the actual
design of the proposed Reformatories which provide an interesting insight
into the penological philosophy of the era. The physical structure, it was
felt, must be of such construction so that it would not “give dignity to
crime, and deprive it of its hideousness”’ and the cells were to be of
such limited dimensions that “work would be eagerly sought after as a
relief from so uninviting and monotonous an abode.”  Of significance
though, was the recognition that the system of discipline applied at the
Provincial Penitentiary would not be suitable for a population of young
offenders. Accordingly, the aim of the proposed Reformatory was to "reform
by discipline approaching as near as possible that followed in a
Christian and well regulated family.” 

It was not until 1857, however, that the Legislative Assembly authorized
the erection of two Reformatories for the Province of Canada.
Within a year one was established at Isle aux Noix, in Lower Canada and
in August 1859, a full decade after the completion of the Report of The
Royal Commission on the Provincial Penitentiary, the Upper Canada

Reformatory was opened. It was situated three miles from the small village
of Penetanguishene, thirty-six miles from Barrie, the closest railway point.
The institution stood on a point of land bounded by Penetanguishene Bay
and had attached to it two hundred acres of "light, poor soil.” The
buildings and grounds had been formerly a military barracks and were in
need of rennovation and cleanup. The first inmates were required, therefore,
to clear away boulders, build roads, and to repair the old buildings.
Upon the arrival of the first Warden, Mr. William M. Kelly, the barracks
were "fitted up like the staterooms in a ship with one tier above the
other"  and were used to quarter the boys. 

It became apparent almost from the outset that overcrowding would
become a problem. Within four months of its opening the inmate population
consisted of forty "juvenile” offenders, ranging in age from nine to
twenty-one years. Within a year the count had increased to eighty. As a
result a new wing was commenced in 1861. This new building, which contained
one hundred and twenty individual cells, was not completed until
1865 by which time 154 boys were imprisoned within the institution. The
degree of overcrowding was such that

as soon as the walls of the first erected cells were considered sufficiently
dry, the older boys were removed from the overcrowded
rooms in the old barracks to the new building to sleep.

 A school was started at the institution in November 1859 but within
a year the Protestant Chaplain, who was also the teacher, was forced to
confess that, 

We are already so overcrowded that I do not see how I shall be
able to manage if any more boys are added to our number.

Some appreciation of the problems which the Chaplain must have experienced
in attempting to impart academic instruction to his youthful
charges becomes evident from his description of the classroom as it
existed in 1860; 

The room used at present is … both as regards space and light very
unsuitable for the purpose. It is 34 feet 10 inches long, and 20 feet
5 inches wide; there are two windows at each end, but none at the
sides. I have maps and everything I require for the purpose of illustration,
but I cannot use them with effect. If they are hung between
the two windows, the glare of light coming full into the eyes of the
scholars prevents their having a clear view, and if they are hung on
the side walls there is no place for standing on account of the desks
and benches.

Daily life within the Reformatory followed a regimented routine. The
lads were awakened at six a.m. by the ringing of a bell and lockup occurred
after supper. During the winter months they were permitted to have
lights on in the dormitories until 7:30 p.m. On Sundays they attended
their respective chapels and religious instruction from the Chaplains was

received each Thursday. The lads were permitted to play outside after
dinner until one o’clock each afternoon. Breakfast consisted of one quarter
pound of meat, one pound of bread and pea coffee sweetened with molasses;
dinner was one half pound of meat, one half pound of bread, potatoes,
and soup with vegetables. A supper of Indian meal or oatmeal porridge
sweetened with molasses completed the daily menu. The cost of feeding
each young inmate in 1861 amounted to 81/2 cents per day.

The youthful prisoners were required to attend school and to learn
one of the trades practiced at the Reformatory which included tailoring,
shoemaking and carpentry. After 1862 a system of military drill was introduced
which, according to the Warden, “appears to be a source to them
of pleasure and great emulation.” He attempted also to secure instruments
for a small brass band which he maintained "would have a very
inspiring effect on the boys.” A sincere attempt seems to have been
made to keep the young charges occupied with training and work activities
as the following observation of life in the institution in 1861 notes: 

Some were engaged in digging up and blasting boulders for the new
building …. Some were engaged in making brick; some formed a
boat’s crew and were several miles off floating timber from the
opposite shore to the works; some were learning to be tailors, others
shoemakers and carpenters. All were busy and apparently happy. 

The administration of the Reformatory appears to have been popular
with the inmates. The Warden, for example, reported that "the general
feelings of the boys towards the Institution is attachment rather than fear
or distrust”.. One lad, for instance, came across a pocketbook on the
road outside the institution containing twenty-five dollars in currency and
five hundred dollars in papers. “Without the least hesitation or delay, he
carried the whole to the Institution and placed it in the hands of the Warden
to be restored to the owner."  On another occasion one of the inmates
joined the army following his release and soon earned his corporal’s
stripes. "He spent his leave at Penetanguishene, revisiting the Institution
which had been the means of snatching him from a life of shame and
misfortune."  The Annual Reports of the Warden reveal that efforts were
made to provide responsibility to the young offenders in their daily work,
and they were often allowed to work anywhere on the Reformatory
grounds "under a leader chosen from themselves."  In fact it was not
until 1863 that the first escapes were attempted and then "at the instigation
of a very depraved character who .. .has been a member of the
notorious Toronto Bush gang.”

–  Sydney Shoom, “The Upper Canada Reformatory, Penetanguishene: The Dawn of Prison Reform in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Criminology & Corrections, #14/260 1972. pp. 263-265. 

Read Full Post »

“Caught Up in the Flux

There is a primal scene in All That is Solid that brings to life the new experience of feeling modern. As the prototype of the urban renewal that smashed through the Bronx, architect Baron Haussmann obliterated the small medieval neighborhoods of Paris into the grand, sensual nineteenth-century boulevards we see today in postcards. This destruction of the old Paris was also the opening of new visual and public spaces — old neighborhoods were literally torn open, and pedestrians could walk on café-lined streets through the entire city (as could troops and artillery should there be another communard insurrection).

Berman meditates on the meaning of these new, modern streets and their social spaces of cafes and restaurants through the Baudelaire poem, “The Eyes of the Poor,” in which a middle-class couple is observed eating a luxurious meal by a beggar, perhaps one recently displaced by Haussmann’s “modernization.”

“What did the boulevards do to the people who came to fill them?” Berman asks. “Caught in up in its immense and endless flux,” the boulevard becomes a place to see and be seen, a place of “amorous display,” where one showed oneself and one’s fantasy of life to others to a new modern “family of eyes.”

This play of spectacle and fantasy, where the flaneur meets the window display, cannot exist long without the repressed reality creaking through. The couple in Baudelaire’s poem, having gone to the café to experience the luminous pleasure of grand boulevard, are confronted by a destitute father and his two children who gaze into the café to marvel at the sumptuous food and ambience. The woman is horrified and wants to ask the maître’d to force them away from the window. The man is moved by the family’s rags, while also disgusted by both his romantic partner, and the feast they share between the two of them.

This brief exchange, for Berman, is the both the promise and the unique subjectivity of the modern.

Not only is there the moment of self-reflection by the man, where he is forced to see himself through the eyes of another; there are also the eyes of the poor, separated only by a slim pane of glass from the food and comforts of a good life. And despite the man’s liberal sentimentality and the woman’s right-wing barbarism, Berman sees this interaction as the shock, disequilibrium, and promise of both the art and architecture of modernism, bringing both pleasure and dis-ease of modern life into contact.

Returning to the view from the Third Avenue Bridge, Berman relates how, driving through the Bronx in the late 1970s, one sees simultaneously the “magical aura” of Manhattan and the burning hellscape on the other side. This twin view, this double vision, this forward and backwards motion through space and time is the strange vitality of modernity and its unique historical experience.

From the Ruins, Yet Not Ruined

As part of Berman’s insistence that the violent shocks of modernity produce new, radical subjectivities, he devotes a major portion of the book to chronicling how hip-hop and street art emerged out of the ashes of a devastated Bronx. “Because of its misery and anguish — the Bronx became more culturally creative in death than in life,” Berman writes.

Starting with the “bold and adventurous visual language” of subway and ruin graffiti, Berman makes the argument that graffiti throw-ups and blockbusters are not just visual litter, but attempts to communicate with the wider city — which in turn sparked a costly, destructive, and even deadly conflict with city agencies that criminalized such public art.

The conflict over the public space that graffiti provoked for Berman was much like the Baudelaire poem, in which the site and presence of the poor, suddenly erupting into the streets, creates a panic for the bourgeois order: their own processes of development have summoned forth voices that they cannot control and do not understand.

Moving from graffiti to hip-hop, Berman muses on the most famous hip-hop song to emerge from 1980’s Bronx, Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”:

What was “the message”? Maybe, We can be home in the middle of the end of the world. Or maybe, We come from ruins, but we are not ruined. The meta-message is something like this: Not only social disintegration, but even existential desperation, can be sources of life and creative energy.

The view from the bridge, while disorienting and perhaps chaotic, is also the starting point for new possibilities, new ways of seeing. “Modernism in the streets” is not a claim about formal style or literary genre, but a recognition of the way the urban maelstrom enlarges the sensorium, opens doors for new perceptions, and reorganizes mental life.”

– Benjamin Balthasar, “Modernism or Barbarism,” Jacobin. May 25, 2017.

Read Full Post »

“Here’s another bonus that comes with writing speculative literary fiction: Even the most obvious extrapolation you make will be lauded as prescient. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, published in April, has been called “astounding” in this respect because it depicts a dystopian future in which a celebrity becomes an authoritarian politician. As shocking as the presidency of Donald Trump has been, there’s a history of mulishly regressive Americans electing such people, from Ronald Reagan to Jesse Ventura. It was hardly prophetic to imagine us getting around to voting in someone even worse to the highest office in the land. But the newsiness of this aspect of Yuknavitch’s premise seems to distract many critics and readers from the novel’s other, frankly nonsensical qualities. In her version of the future, wealthy elites live in a “suborbital complex” suspended above the Earth, where they have been rendered bald and white-skinned, genderless and sexless, unable to reproduce. Nevertheless, these people are automatically executed when they reach the age of 50, a seemingly unnecessary economy destined to eventually zero out their class.

Similarly, the New York Times has marveled over how it “strange” it is that Omar El Akkad’s American War, also published in April, now seems “more like grim prophecy than science fiction.” El Akkad’s novel depicts a future America reduced to a divided, war-torn state by regional tensions. Again, that’s hardly a brainstorm; not only is the polarization of the nation a topic of nonstop media conversation, but America has already been through one civil war. In American War, the South resists Northern restrictions on the use of fossil fuel, and this, of all things, leads to the breakdown of the union. (Far stranger to this reader is the way race simply doesn’t factor in the schism.)

The plausibility of El Akkad’s back story may be beside the point, though. His aim is not to anticipate where America is headed but to translate the sectarian fighting currently going on in Africa and the Mideast to a context that American readers will find more relatable. His heroine, Sarat, becomes radicalized against the North when her mother dies in a retaliatory attack on the refugee camp where they live. She’s groomed by a local handler whose efforts are funded by a shady representative of the North African Bouazizi Empire, one of the superpowers that, along with the Chinese, have supplanted the nations of the West. The concealed desire in El Akkad’s account of Sarat’s travails is that Americans should know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their own country’s machinations.

Emily St. John Mandel’s best-selling 2014 novel, Station Eleven, wears its wish fulfillment on its sleeve. Most of the planet’s population gets killed off by a superflu, leaving the survivors to pick through the remnants while fending off marauders and creepy doomsday cults. The novel focuses on a band of traveling players who cater to the public’s renewed appreciation of Shakespeare and Beethoven now that the mass-media trash that once diverted them has been switched off. (You can see why a literary novelist would find this prospect heartening.) Scenes of the troupe’s adventures alternate with scenes from before the pandemic, all related to the life of an actor, Arthur Leander, who dies on the eve of the outbreak. Once creatively ambitious, Arthur became corrupted by fame and celebrity culture, losing his ability to be genuine even with those he professed to love. In case you miss the point, in a subplot, a paparazzo-turned-EMT finds that his life as a Pa Wilder–style homesteader is much more meaningful that hanging around outside the stars’ homes smoking cigarettes and hoping for an embarrassing candid shot. (Although if he’d stuck around any longer, Instagram would have rendered his old profession obsolete anyway, a development Mandel didn’t foresee.)

Supposedly, the advantage to having literary novelists take up stories once dismissed as the stuff of genre fiction is that readers can get exciting plots to go with the mainstays of literary work: nuanced characters and the kind of aestheticized writing conventionally referred to as beautiful. The latter is a dubious improvement. Beautifully written is a phrase often applied to any fiction that involves a lot of poetic landscape description, but to Mandel’s credit she doesn’t indulge too much in that. She does, however, produce a lot of passages like this:

That evening on the beach below her hotel, Miranda was seized by a loneliness she couldn’t explain. She’d thought she knew everything there was to know about this remnant fleet, but she was unprepared for its beauty. The ships were lit up to prevent collisions in the dark, and when she looked out at them she felt stranded on a dark shore, the blaze of light on the horizon both filled with mystery and impossibly distant, a fairy-tale kingdom.

Despite their varying ages, races, and genders, this is the basic temperament of all the characters in Station Eleven: a propensity toward melancholic, vaguely paralyzed reveries that invokes the type of personality you’d expect to find in someone who writes literary fiction. These people are, when you get right down to it, all pretty much the same person. So much for the promise that literary writers will bring something more than stock figures to their science-fiction scenarios; Mandel’s rueful musers are just a different kind of stock figure.

Science fiction writers and readers have long resented incursions like these into their territory, especially when they come, as such novels often do, with a disavowal of the genre itself. (Mandel insisted that she didn’t consider Station Eleven to be science fiction.)”

– Laura Miller, “Dark Futures,” Slate. May 25, 2017.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »