For five miles and ten years: The practice of banishment in late medieval Basel

In July 1387, two brothers named Henman and Burkart Kesseler, up until then living in one of the suburbs of Basel, were ordered to leave Basel and to stay five miles away from the city for ten years. Banishment was a common penalty imposed by the authorities on individual offenders in late medieval European cities. Research labels banishment as a punishment as well as a governmental instrument of safekeeping the community. It could also function as a form of pardon, given instead of corporal punishment or a death sentence.[1]

In Basel, the practice of banishing delinquents from the city is well documented. During the years 1357–1473, the city council recorded the banishments in the so called “Leistungsbücher” (Leistung=Banishment).[2]

Fig. 1: Leistungsbuch vol. 1 and folio 118r. Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher A2, Leistungsbuch I, 1357–1392. Picture by the author.

For a closer look, a page from the first of the two volume Leistungsbücher was selected (Fig. 1). Based on this page, the characteristics of these particular records will be examined with a special focus on spatial aspects of the banishments. Based on the variety of recorded crimes and misdemeanours it contains, and for the interesting insights they offer into the varied spatial dimensions of the banishments, folio 118r was selected for further analysis.

Folio 118r contains five entries detailing individual cases, all from July 1387. Each entry records how long the delinquent had to leave Basel, and how far he had to go, as well as a short description of the circumstances leading to this verdict. The names of the delinquent and their victims were only recorded when they or their families were of some notability inside the urban community.

The first entry on this particular page is also the one describing the most serious crime recorded here: The two Kesseler brothers were found guilty of killing a tailor whose name remains unknown. They were sentenced to spend ten years and five miles away from Basel. Before leaving the town, they were put in prison for one month. This combination of banishment and incarceration was commonly used for emphasizing the seriousness of a crime. The five mile equals 22.5 kilometres[3] measured from the city gates. The brothers were not allowed to cross into this virtual circle around the town.

The next entry on the page concerns a man named Schotto. As a measurer of grain (Kornmesser) he had succumbed to the typical temptation of his position and had forked out corn, which he most probably sold for his own profit. As a measurer of grain he was member of the “Brotbecken”, the local bakers guild, but also employed by the authorities. They did not take this abuse of duties lightly. They banned Schotto from Basel for a period of two years and a distance of one mile from town. Even more severe and in the long-term more serious for Schotto, however, was his permanent expulsion from the guild and that he was forbidden to ever work as a grain measurer again.

The third entry on folio 118r concerns the butcher Jacob Lurtsch, a member of one of the most influential families within the butcher’s guild.[4] He was overheard talking about someone planning to harm the city. The members of the city council took gossip about threats to the city and, in extension, to their rule very seriously, even if they were unfounded, as it probably was in this case.[5] Jacob Lurtsch was banned for a year outside the “crutzen”. These “crutzen” were border stones (Fig. 2) not far from the city gates that had a cross engraved on them. Generally speaking, they signalled the end of the city councils’ jurisdiction. The distance the punishment refers to – the lands outside the immediate legal dominion of the town – and the period of one year – was the most common verdict found in the Leistungsbücher.[6]

Fig. 2: Kreuzstein (“crutzen”) from Basel, 14./15. Jh. Delinquents were often just banished to the other side this border stones, Historisches Museum Basel, Maurice Babey,

The second to last entry concerns a bodily injury inflicted by one man on another. Again, the perpetrator had to spend a year outside the “crutzen” as it was usual for crimes that implied bodily injury.[7]

The last entry on the page features a female perpetrator and a female victim. Women are seldom mentioned in the Leistungsbücher and if they are, rarely appear as offender. According to the studies of Simon-Muscheid, women most frequently show up in the Leistungsbücher for deliberately creating and spreading rumours.[8] In this case, a woman whose name is not recorded told Mrs. Morschartz falsely that her husband, a butcher, had died, causing Mrs. Morschatz to suffer a shock that had a lasting effect on her wellbeing. The unknown women was banished for one year outside the “crutzen”. However, since she was highly pregnant, she was allowed to stay in the city until giving birth and then for another six weeks. In fact, once the verdict was published, the convicted person usually had to leave town on the same day or within 24 hours. Pregnancy is one of only a few exceptions to this rule.[9]

We have seen that the distance as well as the time spent in exile varied. In fact, the overwhelming majority of cases recorded in the two volumes of the Leistungsbücher that mention distances do specify the distance in miles and do not, as one could expect, identify geographical or topographical features.[10] According to Marchal, when the authorities specified the distance in miles they did actually not intend to identify a clear borderline in the landscape, but meant to ensure that the delinquent was “far away” from the place of his or her crimes. The authorities aimed to safe keep the city and, by extension, its hinterland. Therefore, the goal was to bring distance between the delinquent and the city. Additionally, the heightened communication network and general close relationship between city and its hinterland did serve as a kind of social control mechanism in that the re-emergence of an exile would be noticed. Consequently, the further away someone had been banned, the sooner the authorities would be alerted if they were seen travelling towards the city again.[11]

Three delinquents mentioned on folio 118r were banned just beyond the “crutzen”. It is unknown where exactly these “Stadtkreuze” stood, but they were not far from the city gates.[12] This meant that the banished could at least continue living near Basel, making it easier for them to maintain their social and economic networks in the town. In general, the municipal authorities were free to decide each case as they saw fit,[13] however, a connection is observable between the severity of the verdict and the perceived gravity of the offence.[14]

The most obvious characteristic of banishments was the physical removal of an offender from Basel. For the exiled, it also meant the exclusion from local society and very probably loss of economical means.[15] However, banishment did not automatically mean criminalization of the exiled. Numerous offenders were able to return after their banishment ended and re-enter urban society successfully.[16] The brothers Kesseler, however, were apparently not among them. After this verdict, we do not hear from them in Basel again.

[1] Helmut Maurer, Erzwungene Ferne. Zur räumlichen Dimension der Stadtverweisung im Spätmittelalter, in: Grenzen und Raumvorstellungen 11.–20. Jh. (Clio Lucernensis 3), ed. by Guy P. Marchal, Zürich 1996, pp. 199–224, here pp. 200–201.

[2] Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Ratsbücher A2, Leistungsbuch I, 1357–1392 und Ratsbücher A3, Leistungsbuch II, 1357–1392.

[3] 1 medieval Swiss mile equals a modern 4.5 km. Guy P. Marchal, «Von der Stadt» und bis ins «Pfefferland». Städtische Raum- und Grenzvorstellungen in Urfehden und Verbannungsurteilen oberrheinischer und schweizerischer Städte, in: Grenzen und Raumvorstellungen (11.–20. Jh.) (Clio Lucernensis 3), ed. by Guy P. Marchal, Zürich 1996, pp. 225–263, here p. 246.

[4] Katharina Simon-Muscheid, Basler Handwerkerzünfte im Spätmittelalter. Zunftinterne Strukturen und innerstädtische Konflikte (Europäische Hochschulschriften, Reihe III Geschichte und Hilfswissenschaften, 348) Bern 1988, p. 115.

[5] Katharina Simon-Muscheid, Gewalt und Ehre im spätmittelalterlichen Handwerk am Beispiel Basels (Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung, 1991, 18/1), pp. 1–33, here pp. 21–23.

[6] Marchal, «Von der Stadt», p. 231.

[7] Hans-Rudolf Hagemann, Basler Rechtsleben im Mittelalter, Vol. 1, Basel 1981, p. 190.

[8] A quantitative study of the Leistungsbücher is to be found in: Simon-Muscheid, Gewalt, p. 19.

[9] Hagemann, Rechtsleben, pp. 191–192.

[10] There are examples of banishments with the mention of a specific geographical area that had to be crossed (for example the Alps) but they are very rare. Marchal, «Von der Stadt», pp. 231–233.

[11] Marchal, «Von der Stadt», pp. 247–249.

[12] Claudius Sieber-Lehmann, Grenzen im spätmittelalterlichen Basel, in: Begegnungen mit dem Mittelalter (Basler Beiträge zur Geschichtswissenschaft 171), ed. by Simona Slanička, pp. 185–207, pp. 189–190.

[13] Marchal, «Von der Stadt», p. 231

[14] Maurer, Erzwungene Ferne, p. 201

[15] Elizabeth Ewan, Crossing Borders and Boundaries. The Use of Banishment in Sixteenth-Century Scottish Towns, in: Crossing Borders: Boundaries and Margins in Medieval and Early Modern Britain. Essays in Honour of Cynthia J. Neville (Later Medieval Europe 17), ed. by Sara Butler and K.J. Kesselring, Leiden 2018, pp. 237–257, here p. 238.

[16] Simon-Muscheid, Gewalt, p. 10 and pp. 26–29.

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