Negotiating justice and (in)equality. Criminal justice trajectories in nineteenth-century Belgium, 1870-1910

Start - End 
2023 - 2027 (ongoing)
Department of History
Research Focus 



In the nineteenth century, equality before the law was considered the cornerstone of the Enlightenment legal doctrine, and this principle was enshrined in the constitutions of the liberal democracies of Western Europe. Belgian politicians and magistrates, like their colleagues abroad, proudly regarded the law as inherently impartial, symbolized by Lady Justice’s blindfold. Court records and academic literature, however, suggest that certain social groups appeared to be more equal before the law than others. Some people were punished more harshly than others for crimes committed under relatively similar circumstances. This observation is not surprising, since the principle of equality operated in a context of extreme inequality.

This doctoral research is the first of its kind to shed light on the issue of (in)equality before the law in Belgium in the late nineteenth century, a period marked by significant socio-economic changes that gave rise to new forms of social vulnerability and exclusion. I aim to examine and explain the seemingly unequal sentencing of offenders and their divergent criminal justice trajectories. The central research question of this project is: why did the criminal justice trajectories of offenders in Belgium between 1870 and 1900 differ so much, if the law claimed to treat everyone equally? My main research objective is to renew and deepen our understanding of the biases in the everyday functioning of the criminal justice system, and to show how judicial outcomes are the result of negotiations between the various actors involved, such as the defendants, victims, witnesses and judicial authorities.

Specifically, I will examine how the intersections between different social dimensions, such as gender, social class, age, migration background, and access to social networks (i.e. the ability to summon witnesses in court), shaped individual justice trajectories, and how defendants attempted to negotiate judicial outcomes. I hypothesize that criminal justice trajectories were not merely shaped by decisions and prejudices of justice officials, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, by defendants’ social positions, their economic, cultural and social capital, and their negotiation strategies. Drawing on preliminary findings and recent historiography, this study also considers prior encounters with the law to explain divergent judicial outcomes.

Innovatively integrating different strands of research, I approach the criminal justice system as a complex ‘multi-levelled arena’: each stage in the judicial chain had a specific set of actors, particular power relations, and processes of negotiation. I identify three main levels within the criminal justice system and thus divide the central research question into three specific but intertwined lines of inquiry. Firstly, at the neighborhood level, I will focus on processes of informal criminalization (i.e. the social construction of behavior as criminal), community tolerance thresholds, and the social contexts of the offenses; secondly, at the level of the correctional court, I will examine the sentencing of crimes and defendants’ negotiation strategies; and, finally, at the level of the prison, I will study inmates’ agency during imprisonment, their coping strategies, and the dynamics of their release. This threefold analysis will allow me to unravel both the influence of different social dimensions on criminal justice trajectories and the different degrees of agency that offenders had at each stage of the judicial chain.

To answer the central research question, I will reconstruct the trajectories of individuals through these three distinct stages by linking judicial sources, such as the sentencing registers, police reports, or court case files, and prison records, such as detention registers, registers of the moral bookkeeping, and detention files. Despite its added value, this research strategy is underexplored in the historiography of criminal justice. Studying these different types of sources and examining the influence of different social dimensions and negotiation strategies on judicial outcomes requires a mixed methodology. In this dissertation I will use quantitative analysis to uncover hidden biases and possible patterns in the administration of justice, while employing in-depth qualitative research methods to examine, for example, the social contexts of the crimes, negotiation strategies, and the agency of the defendants at the different levels of the justice system. This project is feasible only on the scale of the judicial districts for which archives of the correctional court and prisons have been fully preserved. This is the case for the jurisdiction of Bruges, which until the turn of the century was one of the most impoverished districts in Belgium.




Phd Student(s)