By Albert J. Hawks

The basic origin story of Criminology is told with uniformity: once upon a time, ignorant humans were superstitious and believed in entities like demons, and causes like demonic influence. People saw spiritual solutions as the only solution. Into this ignorance, Beccaria and Bentham arrived, bringing light and order with them. In their wake, they left a legacy we call “Criminology”. From the wilderness rose a civilization.

If the tone so far sounds vaguely polemical, it should be considered a barometer of the tone going forward. In many ways, the origins of this piece started with me feeling confused and surprised by the theoretical narrative surrounding Criminology, particularly in textbooks targeting introductory level classes. This feeling deepened when I discovered a shocking lack of citations or evidence supporting the narrative. And it transformed into something approaching indignation as I perused textbook after textbook with the intent to shape a pedagogical introduction to the discipline. Thus, I think in this case, maintaining such a tone seems appropriate.

Fortunately, my interest in the general subject is beyond indignation and the question behind this paper is substantial. I’m currently co-directing an ongoing research project “Investigating Intellectual Boundaries of Criminology”, which at its core seeks to understand how Criminology as a field is defined and what it means to do “criminological” work. Obviously, studying the field’s boundaries will tell us something about Criminology. But it will also hopefully tell us something about disciplinary boundaries beyond our case.

Generally speaking, we know how academic disciplinary boundaries function. These are often tacitly accepted— or, at least, treated as generally reasonable confines to work within. In other words, most scholars come into a field, take requisite theory courses to complete their academic work, and develop their research in their disciplinary context.

The trouble is, I came into the field with a background in theology. Unlike the scholars in question, who may have not studied pre-Enlightenment life, I am practically steeped in it. 

In preparing to teach criminology last summer, I began exploring undergraduate textbooks. I was surprised to discover a fairly consistent narrative about the origins of the field— seemingly uniformly, scholars explain that before the development of the “Classical” School, crime was attributed to supernatural forces. I had literally never encountered this in any of my theological readings. As I started to investigate, I found myself repeatedly met with a lack of citations. 

In order to fully— albeit briefly— examine this puzzle, I want to first more carefully explicate the existing narrative in Criminology about the discipline’s origin. I will then highlight a few of the many substantial problems with this narrative. And finally, I’ll shift to considering the purpose of such a strangely widespread narrative.

A Narrative

Criminology identifies its birth at a moment of transition from what is called the “demonic period” to the “Classical” School of thought. This narrative -which is central to introductory courses in criminology- contributes to eliminate certain types of “explanation” for crime, thus encouraging the Criminological approach. The most consistent, and central, component to the “demonic period” narrative is the “supernaturalist” explanation of crime. According to a widespread criminology origin story, in fact, before the Classical School humans believed that criminal activity was fundamentally caused by “supernatural or religious factors”, a “pact… with the devil”, or more deeply because of our “cosmic connectedness” (Schram and Tibbets,  174; Berne and Messerschmidt, 84; Pfohl, 49). In other words, the traditional “devil made me do it” defense was generally considered accurate. Thus, the Classical School, which drew from utilitarianism, “represented a radical departure from the long tradition of demonic or supernaturalist explanation…” (Pfohl, 49).

The second narrative component defining the “demonic period” follows from this. Because people at this time believed crime was caused by demonic influence, the main source of law was the Word of God and the goal of punishment was to exorcise demonic influence. Berne and Messerschmidt argue that it was specifically tied to the “dogma” of Roman Catholicism, though it’s unclear how they mean the word “dogma” in this context if not derogatorily (84).

Punishments, by extension, aimed at removing the intrusion of spiritual evil, often with a supposedly literal exorcism involved. Indeed, Schram and Tibbetts cite the movie The Exorcist as evidence that Catholics still think in this way. They describe the punishments as “harsh” (175) and the demonic period as “extremely draconian times” (176). Berne and Messerschmidt mention in passing that in England there were a huge amount of capital offenses, lack of clear punishments in legal codes, and discretionary power (85).

 Thankfully, in this irrational world of cruel and inhuman punishment, the Enlightenment saves the day! In particular, Cesare Beccaria (1764) and Jeremy Bentham (1780) became the founders of criminology who developed the Classical School from Enlightenment thinking.

Pfohl offers a highly revealing narrative of this process. He argues, in fact, that the “emphasis on the individual” in Martin Luther is “taken to the extreme” by Calvinists, which eventually leads to the Protestant work ethic (52).

From here, Pfohl shifts to scholastic theology, Thomas Aquinas, and his influence on Beccaria. According to Pfohl, “scholastic theology equated sin with a failure to make free and calculable reasonable choices for the common good… this is a long step from a strictly supernatural interpretation of deviance” (53). Thus, scholastic theology prepared thinkers like Beccaria to break from spiritualist thinkers.

Logical Flaws

Before questioning the historical foundation of the “demonic period” narrative, it is necessary to highlight some pressing logical issues that are typical of criminology textbooks and can at times also be found in the literature at large.

First, theological doctrine (1) and messy legal codes (2) are not equivalent to majority belief (3) and/or justification (4). Really, each of these four units should be treated separately. At the risk of over explaining, a series of incoherent laws does not automatically connect to orthodox theology then any more than it does now. Further, whatever a formal theological position may or may not be, this does not mean that most people share this view. And finally, even if a large number of individuals believe something, this distributed, collective belief does not represent actual theology nor is it tied in a direct way to Church doctrine.

Second, evidence of a few anecdotal stories does not equal substantial proof. None of the literature reviewed offered clear, sufficient evidence for their claims at virtually any level (the theological level, the social level, the institutional level, etc). Instead of substantially investigating the complex relationship between formal doctrine, cultural values, and social systems, each author seems content with offering anecdotes in a way that feels almost incomprehensible to me.

Third, their intellectual timeline was consistently confusing. All of the mentioned scholars would reference Christian thinkers before the Enlightenment effectively as contemporaries. A simple illustration: Pfohl first describes the Reformation and then shifts to discussing Scholasticism and Aquinas as if they were historically close, when in reality they were nearly 250 years apart (which would cover the entire age of the United States for reference).

Finally, if it is true that Thomas Aquinas offered a rational, logical antecedent for the Classical School and Thomas Aquinas is indeed officially a “Doctor of the Church”, then wouldn’t it be  more accurate to say that Catholic thought was the opposite of whatever backwards world view was being actively pursued by provincial governments?

Historical Flaws

As it is, it is crucially important to historically critique this picture of the pre-classical era as being “demonic” and fundamentally rooted in spiritual forces. Indeed, the reality was at best much more multifaceted, and has been throughout all of Christian history. As early as 397 AD, St. Augustine wrote in detail in his famous Confessions about an experiment his friend performed on two sons. In this experiment, said friend tracked the life path of two boys born on the same day of the same father, one legitimately and one illegitimately. After watching the illegitimate child fall into deviancy and crime, they concluded that the only true explanatory factorfor their behavior was their socio-economic status— in particular, inherited wealth. This conclusion was reached almost 1500 years before Marx came along, and surely reflects a material understanding of social behavior that according to criminology’s origin story didn’t exist until after the Enlightenment.

Second, while less directly critical to the overall picture discussed in this essay, it seems telling to reflect briefly on Aquinas’ definition of sin. Pfohl claims that Scholastic theology equated sin with a failure to make choices for the common good. But this is simply false. Indeed, Aquinas explicitly affirms Augustine’s definition of sin and highlights its two core components:

Accordingly Augustine (Contra Faust. xxii, 27) includes two things in the definition of sin; one, pertaining to the substance of a human act, and which is the matter, so to speak, of sin, when he says “word,” “deed,” or “desire”; the other, pertaining to the nature of evil, and which is the form, as it were, of sin, when he says, “contrary to the eternal law.” (II.71.6.ad1)

In other words, sin has literally nothing to do with the common good, except in as much as the eternal law is good for everyone. The reason an action is considered sinful does not lie in  a violation of mutual responsibility, but rather in the violation of the “cosmic” order that according to Pfohl scholasticism would reject.  Thus, while crime was a sin by virtue of the expectations set by eternal law, it was not a crime because it was sin. In this perspective, a crime is a violation of natural law and violating natural law— and harming the world— is a form of sin. In this same vein, Aquinas also believed this was often done because of circumstantial suffering such as poverty. Finally, Aquinas offered essentially two reasons for punishing crime: deterrence and re-establishing order and equity (De Malo, q. 1, a. 5, ad 7;  IV Sent., dist. 20, q. 1, a. 2, qa. 1). Both explanations sound surprisingly similar to reasonings that characterize modern criminal justice systems.

Semi-contemporaneously with Aquinas, another Doctor of the Church, Albertus Magnus, the future patron saint of the natural sciences, made this comment in his writings on science:

Now it must be asked if we can comprehend why comets signify the death of magnates and coming wars, for writers of philosophy say so. The reason is not apparent, since vapor no more rises in a land where a pauper lives than where a rich man resides, whether he be king or someone else. Furthermore, it is evident that a comet has a natural cause not dependent on anything else; so it seems that it has no relation to someone’s death or to war. For if it be said that it does relate to war or someone’s death, either it does so as a cause or effect or sign.

At the risk of brow-beating, this hardly seems to suggest a supernaturalist, cosmic-connectedness worldview as repeatedly described in criminology literature.

These three all represent solid reasons for questioning the alleged “world view” of the demonic era from a proper theological standpoint. But there is also good reason to question the narrative on empirical grounds in a slightly closer historical period. For example, Monter’s “Crime and Punishment in Calvin’s Geneva” includes a list of crimes with their respective punishments for a twelve-month period between February 1562 and February 1563. The year 1562 represented the height of Calvin’s power over the government, a year that modern thinkers would view as inevitably leading to the sort of “demonic” perspective and bloodbath the Classical School undid. And while it is true that some things that were treated as crime— sodomy, for one— would not be considered such today, it’s also true that punishments as a whole were notably less severe than our modern hindsight may have supposed. Indeed, there were only 14 capital punishments, and most were not actually tied to “Biblical” law, but rather to other legal justifications. While certain crimes seem perhaps odd, some punishments may actually be defined as more humane, if compared to modern practices — the average time in the stocks, for example, was 2-3 hours (compared to the weeks in solitary confinement that us moderns regularly hand out). Alternatively, the average punishment for public fornication was a three day imprisonment.

In other words, the narrative of the “demonic period” at the birth of criminology is highly contestable and perhaps – deeply flawed. It is flawed from both a methodological and a logical standpoint. And it is flawed in historical terms— both in the sense of existing theological beliefs and historical practice. There is ample reason to question this narrative.


And yet my concern here is as a social scientist and, thus, not purely historical. While worthwhile, critiquing historical narratives in and of themselves takes on a different relevance if tested against the social process that created and sustained such a strange origin narrative in the first place. True or not, what was its purpose? What function did this origin story serve? Why demarcate criminology in this way? In short, this seems less as an issue of truth claims and more an issue of boundary work aimed at generating legitimacy.

The term “boundary work” originated in the natural sciences with Gieryn (1983). He was interested in the rhetorical boundaries between science and “less authoritative” non-science. He argued boundary work was fundamentally strategic for the purpose of epistemically establishing authority and characterized boundary work as essentially “credibility contests”.

Beyond disciplinary boundaries, Lamont and Molnar argue that symbolic boundaries are employed to contest and reframe the meaning of social boundaries (186).

I would suggest that the boundary surrounding criminology discussed here reflects both views. In general, there is a clear desire to establish the legitimacy of the Classical School— and all of criminology— by asserting its scientific, rational origins. But it also appears to reflect the broader symbolic battle happening in Western intellectual circles in the attempt to reframe the meaning of religion in society. A part of the Enlightenment transformation can in fact be described as symbolic, assigning meanings to religion and its place in society that had not previously been held. This cultural process was seen as legitimate and important. Thus, in framing the origins of the discipline as participating in this process, Criminology claimed legitimacy and authority.

Two Threads

 This relatively simple argument leaves many open ends to explore— which is part of what our ongoing project seeks to do. Two seem worth highlighting here.

The first is more a theoretical observation: This case demonstrates that boundaries are narratively situated. It is obviously simpler to think of boundaries as stark— constituting a structural binary of sorts. And while there are broad binaries here— legitimate vs. illegitimate, humane vs inhumane, Etc.— the origin story of criminology requires a multifaceted narrative of progress. Each part is relatively powerless if considered separately from the other components. People used to believe, and this led to horrible practices that were only stopped by rational, scientific insight. We should incorporate narrative exegesis into our studies of boundary work with much greater frequency.

Second, it raises a question. If we accept the critical theoretical rejection of the Enlightenment narrative, if we internalize and acknowledge the post-colonial orientation, what does this mean for criminology as a discipline? What might it mean for any discipline rooted in such a specific philosophical tradition?


Criminology regularly reproduces a narrative of its origins that is deeply problematic, if not flawed. Its imagination of the past is deeply rooted in the struggle for legitimacy during the dawn of the Enlightenment. My aim has been to deconstruct these narratives in order to learn something about criminology as a whole and suggest new theoretical avenues for boundary studies. In doing so, I’ve also suggested a major theoretical intersection between boundary studies and critical theory.

Albert Hawks, Jr. is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he is a fellow with the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. He holds an M.Div. and S.T.M. from Yale University. 

Featured Image: Witchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving (1875).  Wikimedia Commons.