In his groundbreaking 1992 novel, Snow Crash, author Neal Stephenson imagines an ultra-libertarian future America where every government function, including law enforcement, is privatized. Rather than spend large sums on incarcerating criminals, privatized police forces instead tattooed the foreheads of suspects with their particular criminal predilection to warn future victims.
I always thought this was an creative narrative solution to the problem of decentralized law enforcement. But, upon reading the Martyrs Mirror, I came to realize that Stephenson wasn’t the first one to come up with this idea.
The Mirror records that in 1161 a group of 30 or so Germanic proto-anabaptists lead by a man named Gerard appeared in England. Church officials didn’t think much of them, writing:
Their principle leader was one Gerard, upon whom they looked as their lord and master; for he alone had a little learning, while all the rest were illiterate idiots, a very low and boorish class of people, and of the German nation and language.
King Henry II put them on trial in Oxford, and they were found by church officials to be heretics. They were sentenced to be scourged and banished.
They were then, according to the rigor of their sentence, branded on their foreheads, their leader receiving a double brand, one on his forehead the other on his chin, as a sign that he was their leader. Thereupon, their upper garments, to the waist, were cut from their bodies, and they were publicly scourged and cast out of the city. But it being a bitter cold winter, and no one showing them the least mercy, they miserably perished by the intense cold, which they were unable to bear on their naked bodies.