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Obituary for Herman Bianchi (1924-2015)

Pieter Spierenburg

Herman Bianchi, who died on December 30, 2015, was a remarkable criminologist in several ways. In this obituary I am concentrating on his interest in, and merits for, the history of crime and justice. Although his name may be unfamiliar to younger scholars outside the Netherlands, he was an active member of the “Dutch group” in the 1970s and participated in a number of workshops and conferences of the IAHCCJ in the 1980s. By then he already boasted a many-sided career. In 1956 he finished his PhD (which in the Netherlands usually was – and still is – a full-blown published monograph). Entitled Position and Subject-Matter of Criminology, it was also one of the rare English-language books by a Dutch practitioner of the social sciences at the time. Two years later he was appointed ‘lector’ and in 1961 professor of criminology at the Free University of Amsterdam.

When I first met him, I was ignorant about his person yet. It was in 1974, in the preparatory phase of my own PhD when I had learned about the Werkgroep Strafrechtsgeschiedenis, an informal discussion group of researchers interested in the history of crime and justice. After hearing Bianchi speak two sentences, I figured that I knew a little more of him – he must be gay. As René van Swaaningen explains in Tidschrift over Cultuur en Criminaliteit, this is one of the clues to his life and work. Although he remained pretty much in the closet during several periods of his life, his sexual orientation contributed to his sympathy for outcasts of every kind, including lawbreakers. Next to this, his internment as a young man in Camp Amersfoort in 1944 stood at the basis of his life-long aversion to imprisonment and the criminal law generally. It was his great dream that criminal justice might once be replaced, at least partially, by a system of reconciliation and compensation voluntarily entered into by victims and perpetrators.

Bianchi turned to history to find ammunition for his dream. He was fascinated by sanctuaries, reconciliation ceremonies and ancient anarchists. Within the Dutch group he belonged to the core members who regularly held separate meetings in the home of one of them to discuss theoretical issues. In 1975 I was admitted to this core-group and so I became a visitor in his apartment at the Prinsengracht. He explained that the house was built in the late 1660s just after the English had taken Manhattan, but that commercial supplies to Amsterdam continued for a few years. To American visitors, he continued, he always pointed out that the floor of his apartment consisted of wood from Central Park. It was symptomatic for his broad knowledge of history. Although his historical interest stood squarely in the service of his political and social vision, he was by all means an erudite. Yet, our approaches to historical scholarship were radically different and we had frequent discussions during the period that I regularly saw him. One of our few moments of emphatic agreement was at a dinner after one of the Paris workshops, during an extremely hot summer. Unlike the others, we thought it a disgrace that a French waiter served cooled red wine and we decided to ask him for a bottle kept at room temperature (which he provided).

Internationally, the theme of infra-judicial conflict resolution – by mediators, church bodies, neighborhood associations and more – was an exciting new subject within the history of crime in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This and related subjects took center stage at the meetings of the IAHCCJ at the time, many of them at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris. Bianchi was an active participant in several of these. Rather than presenting papers, he was a provocative discussant. It was also, perhaps, his moment of greatest glory with respect to historical “lessons” for the present. It turned out indeed that in the early modern period a lot of conflicts between neighbors and within families were handled without the intervention of judicial institutions. Without publishing much himself about such issues, Bianchi sponsored the research of several young scholars. Undoubtedly, this is his greatest merit for the historiography of crime and justice, or historical criminology.

All this was interdisciplinary research and, perhaps significantly, none of the four major books resulting from it were written by investigators originally trained as historians. The sociologist Marijke Gilswijt-Hofstra pioneered with her investigation of sanctuaries within the Dutch Republic (1984), which, she found, offered refuge mainly to killers who claimed self-defense and to debtors. In 1987 Bianchi’s assistant Sibo van Ruller published his study of pardons from the death penalty granted by the Dutch king in the nineteenth century, showing how a right with great symbolic value still bolstered the position of monarchs during a period when their power steadily declined. Sponsoring research like this hardly diminished the rejection of Bianchi’s work by his major critics. When Herman Roodenburg, also trained as a sociologist, wanted to convince his supervisor to accept Bianchi as co-promotor for his study of conflict resolution by the Amsterdam consistory in the early modern period, he took me with him as mediator. My pleas that one could disagree with this idiosyncratic criminologist, but still respect his erudition, were of no avail. Subsequently, Bianchi got Roodenburg a grant and became his principal supervisor, which resulted in an innovative study in 1990. The fourth book in this series is Theo van der Meer’s thorough study of the persecution of sodomy and the rise of homosexual subcultures in the Netherlands from 1730 to about 1830. He, too, could start working due to a grant that Bianchi obtained, but since the latter retired in 1988 and Van der Meer’s book came out in 1995, the sponsor could no longer act as official “promotor”. Although these four books were published in Dutch, their results were incorporated into English-language syntheses, thus entering international debates. This sponsoring of original research remains Herman Bianchi’s lasting legacy to historical criminology.