Was there Really Such a Thing as Feud in the High Middle Ages?
Paul R. Hyams
Vengeance in the Middle Ages: Emotion, Religion and Feud, Ashgate Publishing (2010)
Few of us, however hard we try, can avoid the urge to take vengeance for the wrongs that others do to us, to try and get our own back. We may restrain ourselves from action, but the urge is always there. The pull toward the taking of personal vengeance is at least as evident in the medieval West as at other times and in other places. It is, indeed, a staple theme of entertainment literature, quite as much in gentle late medieval romances as in the chansons de geste that seem to speak to us of earlier times and their mores. So widespread a cultural pattern necessarily moved clergy to the protection of their lay flocks, and so features in pastoral works as behavior to avoid or guard against. The fear was always that one violent act could beget another and lead participants into that much-cited “unending cycle” of tit-for-tat violence. What gives this fear a certain plausibility is the way that we humans so commonly adduce a casus belli, some previous wrong done to ourselves or our associates and loved ones, in justification of any harm we may plan to commit against our fellows. We do this in many circumstances, from petty thefts represented as recalled loans all the way up to attempted genocide said to be in requital for the killing of God‘s son.
Any observer, even an alien spaceman with no knowledge of earthly tongues, would visually identify this behavior pattern in us humans. Indeed the urge to vengeance is often immediately apparent through body language. But every culture needs a form of words, a discourse, with which to explain, justify, plan and persuade. This chapter aims to show one significant way in which the men and women of the high middle ages managed and waged their conflicts and vengeance within a set of behavior patterns— scenarios, if you like—inherited from the past and widely recognized at the time. Medieval men and women articulated these behaviors through a small group of locutions familiar to contemporaries, but which we historians can recover only with difficulty from written materials often quite distant from the acts themselves, their language independently important as the means by which this imaginaire was propagated, calibrated, and renewed.