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BANDITRY. Throughout the early modern period, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, affluent travelers and merchants as well as peasants and farmers were afraid of banditry. The population shared with rulers and governments the general feeling that pilfering beggars and occasional stealers of food and wood among the local poor were something one knew how to deal with. Robber bands, however, as well as vagabonds and gypsies traveling in groups of varying sizes, were both more incalculable and more dangerous. Contemporaries regarded bandits as archenemies of the state and a threat to divine order, denying the state monopoly over the possession of arms and sinning against God's eighth commandment. The penal policy of the early modern state (public executions, large-scale patrols, printed lists of wanted persons) is a proof of this perennial threat.


The romanticization of banditry is a phenomenon that started with the popular ballads about prominent ringleaders such as Louis Dominique Cartouche in the eighteenth century. It gained momentum in the nineteenth century, and still persisted in twentieth-century historiography, when historians such as Carsten Küther interpreted preindustrial banditry as a counter-society. The absence of what Eric J. Hobsbawm has named "social banditry" in some territories led to the popular idealization of ordinary robbers, interpreting their deeds as a primitive form of social protest.

There can be no doubt that the discontent of the underprivileged, impoverished, and sometimes marginalized sectors of the population occasionally erupted into popular or mostly local food riots; but it also expressed itself on a smaller scale as "social banditry." It was a form of crime that rose out of political and social crisis, especially in areas over which the government could exercise only very little control, above all mountainous regions and often frontier zones. According to Hobsbawm, the characteristic feature of social bandits is that "they are peasant outlaws who the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by the people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported" (p. 17). The late medieval legend of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich, switched clothes with beggars, and helped the poor, was popular not only in England but also in the rest of Europe for hundreds of years. All other bandit-heroes are much more recent, many of them living in the early modern period. There is, for example, Stenka Razin, the insurgent leader of the Russian poor in the seventeenth century. In Italy, the bandits also came from an agrarian background. Marco Sciarra, the famous Neapolitan brigand chief of the 1590s, declared himself a "scourge of God and envoy of God against usurers and the possessors of unproductive wealth" (quoted in Hobsbawm, p. 98). There is evidence that this popular bandit really practiced some kind of redistribution of wealth. For this reason he was highly esteemed by the poor of Naples.

Indeed, the records sometimes confirm the image, insofar as it represents reality and not wishful thinking on the one side and social prejudices on the other. There is ample proof, though hardly needed, that vagrants and social bandits were brothers in hardship and frequently mixed with each other. Impoverished day laborers and domestic servants often joined a gang where young beggars rubbed shoulders with old soldiers, deserters, murderers, expriests, and prostitutes. Social bandits did, in some cases, begin their career with some petty crime or offense that sooner or later brought them in contact with the itinerant underworld.


The major haunts of bandits in the early modern period were the Dalmatian highlands between Venice and Turkey, the vast frontier region of Hungary, Catalonia, the Pyrenees near the French border, and some of the low mountain regions in the Holy Roman Empire (e.g., Spessart, Westerwald).

Spanish bandits of this period operated in many parts of the country, especially in Catalonia, Valencia, Murcia, and Castile. One of these bands was known as los beatos de Cabrilla (the holy ones of Cabrilla), because its members behaved like "gentlemen," robbing their victims of only half of their goods. The peak of Catalan banditry was during the reign of Philip III (15981621). In mountainous areas of early modern Spain, banditry and brigandage remained a continual phenomenon throughout the period under discussion. In the early seventeenth century the most famous Spanish bandit was Perot Rocaguinarda. He started his criminal career in 1602 and even features in Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605, 1615). His Italian counterpart was Marco Sciarra, who controlled the countryside around Rome in the 1590s. He was betrayed by a friend and was killed. Other Italian bandits never reached his fame as they lacked popular support. Violence and indiscriminate robberies alienated them from the peasantry.

In early-seventeenth-century France the region of Périgord was infested with bandits. The brigands found their victims mostly among rich merchants traveling through the forest in that part of France. The most famous French bandit of all times was Louis Dominique Cartouche (16931721), a celebrated Parisian outlaw, whose name became synonymous with "highway robber" to the French. His adventurous life is the subject of many novels, poems, and even movies. In the 1962 film classic Cartouche, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays the role of this infamous eighteenth-century French bandit. In the beginning he is portrayed as an ordinary criminal robbing from everyone in sight. Later Cartouche becomes a kind of Gallic Robin Hood. A beauteous gypsy by the name of Venus (Claudia Cardinale) sacrifices her own life to save Cartouche from harm. He vows to continue his activities in order to avenge her death, but still manages to have a good time doing so. This box-office success, which was later reissued under the completely inappropriate title Sword of Blood, is part of the ongoing popularization and romanticization of the premodern underworld. The other French bandit-hero of the eighteenth century, Robert Mandrin (17241755) was, as Hobsbawm has shown, a somewhat less suitable candidate for idealization.

In Anglo-American folklore Dick Turpin (17051739) is the English counterpart of Cartouche. Turpin's popular image entails many legends. He was born in 1706 in rural Essex, the son of John Turpin, a small farmer. Caught in the act of stealing two oxen, he fled into the depths of the Essex countryside to save himself. After a short time he left his hiding place and tried his hand at smuggling. He eventually settled on robbery. He and his gang invaded isolated farmhouses, terrorizing and torturing the female occupants into giving up their valuables. By 1735, London newspapers regularly reported the exploits of Turpin and his "Essex Gang." In 1739 he was finally brought to court and sentenced to death. Turpin is another fascinating case of an early modern criminal whom history turned from a ruffian into a glamorous character.

The German equivalent to Dick Turpin is Johann Bückler (17831803), alias Schinderhannes (John the Knacker). He is still celebrated in German folklore, being idealized as a "social bandit." Modern research has tried to debunk this myth, but largely to no avail. Other famous bandits of the eighteenth century were Nickel List, who was active around 1700 in North Germany, and Lips Tullian, who committed most of his crimes in the Saxon region of Germany. Tullian and eleven of his associates were ultimately caught and executed.

In Ottoman times, the many wars in the Balkans left poverty and anarchy in their wakesuitable conditions for the work of brigands and bandits. In Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian collective imaginary, the so-called haiduks were men of the people who stood against the hegemony of foreign rulers and the exploitation of the poor by the nobility. However, in some cases it proves difficult to distinguish between ordinary bandits and politically minded heroic outlaws, fighting against the oppressor. In the Balkans, the recorded history of haiduks goes back to the fifteenth century, but popular ballads about their lives and deeds did not flourish before the middle of the eighteenth century.


Recent research has revealed that bandits cannot be generally identified with the itinerant population. It was not the traveling life that led some persons to banditry. It was rather the other way round. According to German sources, three-quarters of Christian bandits whose parentage is known to us originated in the sedentary and integrated sectors of society. A particular feature of the German underworld of the eighteenth century is the rather high proportion of Jews among organized robbers. But for them, too, it is clear that the structure of their gangs was decisively shaped by people who had a permanent address. However, in half of the German gangs studied by Uwe Dancker, wayfaring people (among them ex-soldiers, beggars) were overrepresented.

Women played only a minor role in banditry. The women who shared the roving life of bandits normally did not step outside the generally accepted gender role. Despite the popular image, polygyny among bandits was the exception and not the rule. Female gang leaders were out of the question in early modern times, although some of the women associated with organized robbery, such as the famous German archthief named Alte Lisel, could well have commanded a band themselves. In banditry, women usually functioned as supporters and links with the outside world.

See also Crime and Punishment ; Vagrants and Beggars .


Barkey, Karen. Bandits and Bureaucrats: The Ottoman Route to State Centralization. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994.

Blok, Anton. "The Peasant and the Brigand: Social Banditry Reconsidered." Comparative Studies in Society and History 14 (1972): 494503.

Bracewell, Catherine Wendy. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1992.

Comeche, Juan Antonio Martínez, ed. Le bandit et son image au siécle d'or. Madrid, 1991.

Danker, Uwe. "Bandits and the State: Robbers and the Authorities in the Holy Roman Empire in the Late Seventeenth Century." In The German Underworld: Deviants and Outcasts in German History, edited by Richard J. Evans, pp. 75107. London and New York, 1988.

Gaunt, William. Bandits in a Landscape: A Study of Romantic Painting from Caravaggio to Delacroix. New York, 1937.

Glanz, Rudolf. Geschichte des niederen jüdischen Volkes in Deutschland: Eine Studie über historisches Gaunertum, Bettelwesen und Vagantentum. New York, 1968.

Hobsbawm, E. J. Bandits. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1972.

Küther, Carsten. Räuber und Gauner in Deutschland. Göttingen, 1976.

Lüsebrink, Hans-Jürgen, ed. Histoires curieuses et véritables de Cartouche et de Mandrin. Paris, 1984.

Murphy, Agnes Genevieve. Banditry, Chivalry, and Terror in German Fiction, 17901830. Chicago, 1935.

Ortalli, Gherardo, ed. Bande armate, banditi, banditismo e repressione di giustizia negli stati europei di antico regime. Rome, 1986.

Reglà, Joan. El bandolerisme català. 2 vols. Barcelona, 19621963.

Spraggs, Gillian. Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century. London, 2001.

Robert JÜtte

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