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About the project

The Cultural History of Crime

– A research network subsidized by The Danish Council for Independent Research | Humanities (FKK)

Steering Committee
Tyge Krogh, Senior Researcher, Danish National Archives (formal applicant)
Karl Peder Pedersen, Senior Researcher, Danish National Archives
Peter Fransen, Senior Researcher, Danish National Archives
Ulrik Langen, Professor, University of Copenhagen
Henrik Stevnsborg, Professor, University of Copenhagen
Nina Javette Kofoed, Associate Professor, Aarhus University
Louise Nyholm Kallestrup, Assistant Professor, University of Southern Denmark
Claus Bundgaard Christensen, Associate Professor, Roskilde University
Peter Henningsen, Head of Collections, Open Air Museum, National Museum of Denmark
Peter Edelberg, lecturer, University of Copenhagen


The wide range of Danish historical research projects based on issues of crime would reap significant benefit from a discussion forum working within the perspective: crime as culture. With the period 1500-2000 as framework, and cutting across conventional period boundaries, the network will focus on the historical changeability and constancy of crime and crime control. We will look at the capacity of criminality to create environments and identities, and its close interaction with the institutions that define and control crime. Furthermore, the network will work towards assembling its research results in an English-language anthology with the purpose of presenting Danish research to an international readership.

The files kept in the archives that are created by institutions of crime control are the historian’s microscope, which allows us to zoom in on ideas and worldviews of ordinary people in societies of the past. Much research into cultural history has thus found its empirical data in police archives, court archives and prison archives. The research is multifarious and utilizes occurrences of crime and crime control to highlight societal life and ideas, as well as what could be called historical psychology where the focus is on the manifestation of instincts under different historical circumstances. The research relates to themes such as social history, gender studies and studies of emotions, which all have established forums for debate. Looked at in context of the crime and crime control it describes, however, the research is highly disjointed. A more comprehensive understanding of the historical development of crime and of the apparatuses controlling crime is lacking. The separate contributions are, moreover, usually limited to conventional periods of historical research, so that there are almost watertight shutters between research into the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries, the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century and the twentieth century. Furthermore, although numerous, crime and crime control scholars are scattered across university departments of history, faculties of law and also in research institutions under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

The history of Danish crime and crime control has only had limited international exposure. Symptomatically, when describing Scandinavian developments, international presentations usually only refer to the Swedish example. The debate about crime and crime control is at a more advanced stage internationally. Recent years have thus seen in-depth methodological and theoretical discussion as well as important comparative and synthesizing work. Danish research will benefit considerably from a dialogue with international research, a dialogue that will also locate the position of the Danish history of crime and crime control within a European context.

The network wants to concentrate on three themes shedding light on the role of crime as catalyst for societal development and cultural productivity:

Crime as construction: Acts of crime are defined by the censure and punishment meted out by the community, the society. Historically, there have been major changes in crime classification. The criminalization of murder and violence has developed over the course of several hundred years, and the history of safeguarding religion and morals is rich both in criminalization and decriminalization processes. Definitions of theft and fraud have undergone countless elaborations. Developments in definitions of crime reflect changes in the structure of society and societal norms. They also reflect interaction with the acts being criminalized, forcing the establishment to express and specify its norms in new statutes and new procedures of case law. Therefore, the history of crime provides insight into the values accepted by past societies and, particularly, the sensitive areas in these value systems. In this criminalizing process, the establishment is often forced to articulate and act on behalf of values it does not always publicly acknowledge or want to clarify.

Crime as counterculture (as creator of milieus): Criminal milieus take many forms. They might be criminal gangs or organizations fencing stolen goods, but they might also be broader environments, which the surrounding world considers to be permeated by crime and in which special conditions promote crime: for example, traveling communities, communities of defiled/dishonored persons such as nightmen, mercenary soldiers, housing in outlying districts, city neighborhoods, inmates in penitentiaries, persons with criminal records, sexual minorities, prostitution milieus. These various environments develop in symbiosis with the norms of society and crime control. The milieus create special cultures, which reflect their social exclusion. They might assume self-seeking and anarchistic forms, but they can also create innovative subcultures, which challenge the ideologies and self-understanding of society.

Crime as social problem: Crime control has been a core task of state machinery ever since the state system evolved. From being embedded in the feudal fiefdom system, crime control has developed into separate state apparatuses – police, courts, penitentiaries – authorized to use compulsion against citizens. These state apparatuses determine in practice the intricate boundary between ideals of freedom, privacy and rule of law on the one hand, and, on the other hand, order and prevention, investigation and solving of crime. Objectives of punishment are the source of debate involving issues of revenge, prevention, religious stipulations, reform and rehabilitation. Measures available to state apparatuses – surveillance, production of evidence (torture) and categories of punishment – are developed and dismantled in dialogue with the perception of world and body evinced by their societies. Furthermore, crime control is an important part of public debate, and moral panics in the community must always be taken into account as a motivating force in specific initiatives of crime control.

Method Recent Danish studies of crime have generally been inspired by a micro-historical approach: detailed study of small communities or extraordinary criminal cases are made in order to reach a deeper understanding of the complex worldviews and motives influencing the individuals involved, thereby avoiding statistical caricatures of persons from the past. The vulnerable spot of the micro-historical method, however, is the contextualization of research results. International research involves interesting discussions of quantitative methods as foundation for broad syntheses of the history of crime and of comparative history of crime. A number of broad syntheses covering several centuries have been published in recent years. The research network will explore the methodological problems related to a shift from the detailed and individual level to a broader level of synthesis.