Not much new under the sun

Today’s post might be of particular interest to you if you write historical or spec fiction.

One of the interesting things about the US criminal justice system is how old many of its components are. Although we’ve modernized certain aspects over the centuries, most of the basic building blocks can be traced back to England in the years shortly after the Norman Conquest. Circuit judges, juries, sheriffs, coroners, writs of habeas corpus… all of these concepts would have been familiar to a 12th century English person. Many of the modern definitions of crimes and defenses also are evolved versions of common law definitions created many hundreds of years ago. This is a handy thing to know if you’re writing something set in medieval or Renaissance times.

However, you still want to be careful. Last night my husband watched a King Arthur movie. I only saw bits of it–enough to know that the writers got stuff wrong. King Arthur was around several centuries before the Norman Conquest, and the CJ system then–such as it was–would have likely followed Roman and/or Celtic traditions rather than the rules laid down by Norman King Henry II and his successors. So if your story takes place before 1066, don’t expect anything much resembling our modern CJ system.

Furthermore, some pieces of our CJ system were developed well after the Henry II was dust in his grave. For example, although England had poorhouses and workhouses as early as the 16th century, prisons weren’t really used as a method of punishment until the 18th century. (Jails have been around much longer, but then–as now–they were used mostly to hold prisoners who awaited trial.) Professional police forces originated with Robert Peel’s London Metropolitan Police (the Bobbies, of course) in 1829. The first juvenile court was created in Chicago in 1899.

A good working knowledge of history can give your story a solid grounding, whether you’re writing a historical piece or one set in an alternate universe.

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