By Trevor Dean
Past and Present, Vol.157:1 (1997)
Introduction: Italian medieval vendetta is commonly explained, following the outlines of legal and family historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as a product of the family, clan or consorteria. Injuries to one member of a family were construed as injuries to all, we are told: they ‘belonged’ to the clan and would be avenged by the clan. ‘All of the family take up offensive weapons, for the injury done to one stains the whole house’, wrote one fourteenth-century lawyer. Vendetta was an obligation on kinsmen. That obligation did not die with an injured party: often quoted is Dante’s experience in Hell, when an ancestor angrily fled from his presence because his death had not yet been avenged. Vendetta was also fed by a sense of harmonious correspondence due between crime and expiation: an offended family would, ‘most often’, seek to render the same wound in the same place on the same day of the year. No law denied the legitimacy of vendetta, it is said. The law sought only to limit it, to impose truces or to attempt pacifications. The law stopped at the family threshold, and the state conceded personal injury as a private affair. The inability of the city-states to enforce their laws led them not just to tolerate vendetta, but to recognize and sanction such ‘private justice’.