The Court of the Captain of the People


The Court of the Captain of the People was part of the judicial system of Florence, Italy, in the fourteenth century. It was created to defend the common man from political infighting between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor. Powerful families such as the Medici arranged advantageous marriages for themselves and developed political and financial ties to other powerful people outside of the city. This network allowed them to gain enough power to upset the Florentines, who exiled the Medici in 1433. There were two other courts that began with their own jurisdiction: the Podesta and the Executor. Later on, toward the middle of the fourteenth century, their jurisdictions began to overlap. With the overlapping of jurisdictions, it was unclear what kinds of cases the Captain and the other rectors oversaw. Through reading and translating court documents from this period I will attempt to delineate the jurisdiction of the Captain. 

Table of Contents: 


    In this paper I will investigate the jurisdiction of the Renaissance Florentine Court of the Captain of the People in the early fifteenth century. The office of the Captain of the People was created between 1244 and 1250.1 I will investigate this jurisdiction through examination of court records of the Captain of the People, beginning with the year 1433. Although the records show that the Captain had a civil jurisdiction, I looked only at its criminal jurisdiction. The court records from 1433 show that the Captain had a jurisdiction over ordinary crimes such as assault and theft. Political crimes are another part of its jurisdiction and, according to the cases I reviewed, they revolve around misbehaving nobles. This could be attributed to the fact that the year 1433 was a time of financial and political instability. A war and a struggle for power between the Medici and Alberti created a surfeit of political crimes in my sample. Other kinds of criminal jurisdiction I found included defaulting on taxes, specifically the Catasto case roles, and cases of banned or exiled people.

    During this period, Pope Innocent IV and Frederick II fought for dominance of Florence.2 Frederick had inserted his son as the Podesta of the Florentines.3 The Florentine people, in fear of losing the support of the Pope, withdrew from the commune and created the office of the Court of the Captain of the People and the Defender of the Guilds to rule over them.4 The Popolo, the people who were not part of the feudal and commercial aristocracy, would now receive representation for their segment of society for the first time with the creation of the office of the Captain. The Podesta represented the wealthy fiscal and commercial aristocracy. The court of the Executor was created in 1307; the rector could not be a knight.5 The Captain on the other hand, was required to be a knight according to the record.

    The Beginnings of the Captain

    The Captain became parallel to the Court of the Podesta. The Captain’s traditional jurisdiction started with specific jurisdiction but, after the statutes of 1415, the jurisdiction of the three rectors became more general.6 The generalizing of jurisdictions resulted in an increase of authority of the Captain in criminal cases. The generalization of jurisdiction occurred because all of the rectors could arrest for crimes inflagranti, a process which finally erased the differences of criminal jurisdiction for the rectors.7 Before 1415, criminal cases related to these three titles: Conserver of the Peace, Captain of the People, and Defender of the Guilds and Guildsman.8 He handled cases involving rebels, those guilty of political extortion and corruption, as well as those banned from the city for crimes that required that their goods be confiscated.9 The defense of non-magnate classes and guilds was also under his traditional jurisdiction.10 The magnate classes caused trouble for the Florentine commune and their political enfranchisement became limited under the statute of limitation. After the Statutes of 1415, the Captain and the other two rectors handled many of the same kinds of cases.11 Additionally, the Captain, also under the Statutes, received the power to prosecute more serious crimes. In the fifteenth century, with the creation of specialty courts like the Onesta that tried cases of prostitution, jurisdictions were taken away from the three rectors.

    The Inquisition gave the judges more power over criminal cases.12 The system changed from a process of accusation, which meant an individual had to come forward and accuse someone of committing a crime, to inquisition.13 Inquisition procedure allowed the judges to choose their own witnesses without having to wait for an accusation.14 The power of arbitrium allowed the rectors to take some liberty with the statutes and they could have some discretion in their interpretation.15 This power in the Statutes of 1415 extended to all three rectors and the power of the judge over his cases became great. Judges had great discretion over torture in the crimes of sodomy, hiring assassins, rebellion, and crimes committed by clerics. In most cases the decision to torture had to be preceded by incriminating evidence but in a few instances the rector could use torture without incriminating evidence.16

    The Captain held office in Florence for only six months and then moved on to another city.17 Some indication of the jurisdiction of the Captain can be gathered from the judges and notaries. The Captain had three judges: one Criminal, one Civil, and one for Camera and Gable as well as seven notaries.18 All three rectors had some of the same notaries, such as the notary of the Capsa. The notary of the Capsa, who handled criminal matters, wrote down the names and crimes of those coming into custody at the Palazzo of the Podesta and the Captain.19 Captured subjects, who had committed various crimes such as breaking curfew, gambling, and similar offenses, were arrested and taken to the notary located inside or near the rector’s palace.20 The Capsa assessed and recorded the diligence that brought the suspects in.21 Open at all hours of the day he recorded any flagrant crimes brought to him. He mainly registered those arrested by the milites and other policing officials.22 The duties of this notary show the beginnings of a police system.

    Categories of Crimes

    There are several categories of crimes that had their own books in the records from 1433. The Catasto records contain the trials of those who defaulted on their payment of the Catasto tax of 1427.23 In the Florentine Catasto, citizens had to turn in a record of their entire patrimonies and this included all the citizens of Florence.24 During the fifteenth century taxation had become increasingly heavy in order to pay for the wars, to the point that the average Florentine was expected to pay 180 percent of their income in taxes.25 The law provided for a tax on five percent on the capitalization of each individual’s total wealth.26 The Catasto records contain an incredible array of information on Florentine citizens, including age, occupation, and wealth of household. Taxation became such a serious matter that it was considered treason to not pay one’s taxes. The city desperately needed money, and had to rely on a system of forced loans, which caused the government to be in debt to the nobility.

    Another record I reviewed tells of the extraordinary rolls of the notaries which contain information about people arrested for things such as gambling, carrying prohibited arms, and breaking curfew. These criminal records do not contain records of the trial for these crimes, but contain the commissions of officials. These official men would go out into the city and patrol on their rounds. The notaries told the officials the crimes for which they could arrest people and how they should interpret the crime. The milites or knights brought criminals to the notary of the Capsa. Included in the list of crimes for which the milites could arrest people was heresy. However, the commission in the statues for these officials did not include heretic hunting.

    The roles of the process of banning are another record I have from the Captain. All three rectors had a notary of the banned and in this year in particular it seemed to be used frequently. When someone was cited to come to court they could respond in four ways: flee, pose an exception, confess, or deny.27 If an individual did not respond, he or she could be banned from the city. Individuals could be banned for several different reasons, including not paying taxes and causing trouble for the commune.28 Wealthy and powerful families with their extensive alliances, consorteria, kinship ties, and client relationships made them dangerous to the commune.29 Often those banned from the city had all of their goods confiscated. Exiles often resorted to becoming brigands and pirates attacking and robbing anyone who came in and out of the city. Florence was once blockaded by a group of exiles and had to request help from other city states because their food supply ran short.30 The other cases reviewed included one murder case, one banning case, one theft case, four assault cases, and one case involving the Duchess of Bourbon, which is in its own category.

    There are five books that contain different parts of a criminal trial. One book held the accusations accepted and the inquisition performed by the Captain.31 The second book contained the testimony of the witnesses from the defense and in another book the testimony from the witnesses of the prosecution.32 The next book contained the book of the process, holding all of the acts of the court which would bring the case to litigation, such as bans and citations.33 The final book held the condemnations and absolutions.34 This book gives a summary of the case as well as the final ruling.35 It shows who all of the officials are as well as the defendants and absence witnesses. It describes the crime and then gives the ruling and the punishment. I am looking at the criminal jurisdiction of the Captain and the condemnation book is useful for this purpose.

    Politics and the Crimes Contained in the Condemnations

    In 1433, Florence became politically unstable, as it involved itself in a war with Lucca, which brought the city to near bankruptcy. The political fight for dominance in the government resulted in the politically powerful Medici being exiled. The Medici owned banks all over Italy including in Florence and Rome. They established their power thorough advantageous marriages and political alliances in Florence and in other city states.36 Cosimo de Medici used his wealth and political power to exert pressure, which worked well for the family until 1433. At that time, another rival family, the Albizzi, convinced people that Cosimo only cared about advancing his family.37 The Medicis, along with anyone associated with them, were exiled from the city. However, due to the political ties established by the patriarch, a year later the city asked him to return.38 All of the political upheaval makes it difficult to determine whether all of the criminal cases in this year are typical for this court. Certainly political jurisdiction involving nobles is established for this court.

    I reviewed ten cases in one of the condemnation books. Several of the cases involved nobles and are of a political nature. There are two cases that involve two nobles of the Acciaioli and Medici family, who have committed some form of treason or rebellion.39 The actual crime is unclear because both cases were a bullectini from the executive branch. A bullectino could be  either  an order to proceed in a particular case or a letter of instruction specifying either the outcome or the penalty.40 The Captain, the Podesta, and the Executor carried out commands from the executive branch, including exile and even full condemnation without any proof besides the bullectino.41 This method was rarely used and it is exceptional to find two cases of it. The two Bullectini came to the Captain with the verdict already in place for the rector to carry out. I believe that both of these cases are connected with the Medici and their exile from Florence. Dale Kent, in her book Rise of the Medici mentions a case, which I have also found in our records, involving a Medici tutor, who was sentenced earlier in the year.42 The man who tutored both children of Cosimo de Medici was exiled from the city for his acquaintance with the Medici family, and it seems to have escalated to the point that the government decided to use a bullectino instead of allowing the Captain to carry out the trial.

    The Special Case of the Duchess of Bourbon

    The other highly political case is in a category of its own, and involved the efforts of the Duchess of Bourbon to collect money to get her husband, the Duke of Bourbon, released from prison in England.43 He was captured after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.44 The commune of Florence offered her 150,000 Florins for her husband’s release. The money never made it to the Duchess because another noble, Guelfus Rucellai, along with an accomplice, stole the money. Rucellai was supposed to deliver the money to the Duchess’ ambassador, Castiglione, but never arrived. Rucellai was caught and his confession was “spontaneously made,” though it is not clear if this means he was tortured. Typically, nobles were not tortured, which makes this case even more odd. Rucellai was found guilty and charged a fine of 500 florentini picoli in restitution and sentenced to a year in the Stiche prison. This case indicates Florence’s desire to make political connections with foreign nobility; Florence, however, required loans from its nobility to function. Where the funds came from for the Duchess is not clear.


    Ordinary crime, such as theft and assault, were violent, but it was what we expected to find. One of the murder cases involved a man named Bartolomeo stabbing another man seventeen times.45 A separate theft case involved two brothers and third man who owned a shop next to theirs.46 The man stole from the two brothers and fled the city.

    One of the assault cases involved a husband and wife team who attacked a man in their home with an axe.47 The case does not go into detail as to the motive; the wife, however, fled the city and the husband was cleared of all charges. The wife appears to have been the one who wielded the axe. The descriptions of the actual crimes are very graphic and it gives a good picture of what occurred.

    One of the assault cases I reviewed is a good example of this. A man named Thomas beat another man, Peter, almost to death.48 The severity of the assault affected the amount of the penalty, which made details necessary. The notary described the effusion of blood, the cutting of various fingers, and the fracturing of Peter’s skull. In Venice, notaries provided only a summary of events and never such detail. The information provided in Florence gave the court an opportunity to go back and look at the details of the case.

    By 1433, The Court of the Captain of the People  had  jurisdiction over ordinary as well as political crime. This year was  an unstable period in Florence politically, making it difficult to know if such political cases were normal for the Captain. The Captain was created as a court of the popolo. The political cases involve nobles infringing on the rights of the commune. His jurisdiction appears in this period to extend to ordinary crime, crime on the streets, political crimes perpetrated by nobles; and tax defaulting.


    • Brown, J. Agincourt: the king, the campaign, the battle. Britain: Little, Brown Books, 2005.
    • Capitano del Popolo. 3195. 1433.
    • Capitano del Popolo. 3154. 1433.
    • Kent, D. The rise of the Medici: faction in Florence 1424-1433. London: Oxford University Press, 1978.
    • Mohlo, A. Florentine public finances in the early Renaissance, 1400-1433. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1971.
    • Starn, R. Contrary Commonwealth. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1982.
    • Stern, L. The criminal law system of medieval and renaissance Florence. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.


    1. Laura Stern, The Criminal Law System of Medieval and Renaissance Florence. (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994) 117.
    2. Ibid., 117
    3. Ibid., 117
    4. Ibid., 117
    5. Ibid., 126
    6. Ibid., 54
    7. Ibid., 34
    8. Ibid., 119
    9. Ibid., 119
    10. Ibid., 118
    11. Ibid., 55
    12. Ibid.,38
    13. Ibid., 24
    14. Ibid., 24
    15. Ibid., 38
    16. Ibid., 38
    17. Ibid., 38
    18. Ibid., 54.
    19. Ibid., 56
    20. Ibid., 56
    21. Ibid., 56
    22. Ibid., 56
    23. Anthony Molho, Florentine public finances in the early Renaissance, 1400-1433 (Harvard University Press: 1971).  81
    24. Ibid., 81
    25. Ibid., 91
    26. Ibid., 81
    27. Stern.,30
    28. Ibid.,30
    29. Randolph Starn, Contrary Common Wealth (Berkley and Los Angeles: California: University of California Press, 1982) 43.
    30. Ibid.,47
    31. Stern 54
    32. Ibid.,54
    33. Ibid.,54
    34. Ibid. 54
    35. Ibid.,54
    36. Dale Kent, The Rise of the Medici: Faction in Florence 1424-1433 (Oxford University Press: 1778.) 94
    37. Ibid.,128
    38. Ibid.,128
    39. Capitano del Popolo 3195,P. 6-10. Cases of two nobles Acciaioli and Medici causing trouble and the government using a Bullectino sentence them.
    40. Stern., 176
    41. Ibid.,178
    42. Dale Kent., Rise of the Medici
    43. Capitano del Popolo, 3195 p.1-5. Case of the Duchess of Bourbon not receiving the funds needed to get her husband the Duke of Bourbon out of prison. He dies a year later in prison and she died a few months later.
    44. Juliet Brown, Agincourt: the King, the Campaign, the Battle (Britain: Little Brown Book, 2005) 378.
    45. Capitano del Popolo, 3154 p. 1-3. Violent murder of a man and for some reason the final sentencing is missing from this condemnation.
    46. Capitano del Popolo 3154 p.4-10. Theft case involving merchants and the theft of their goods.
    47. Capitano del Popolo 3195, p.4-5. Assault case involving a husband and wife attacking a man in his home.
    48. Capitano del Popolo 3195 p.11-14. Assault case involving the beating of a man almost to death.