By Guy Halsall
Memoria y civilización, Vol.2 (1999)
Introduction: The period after the fall of the Roman Empire is still widely regarded as one of untrammelled violence. In some formulations it is (to caricature the approach only slightly) thought that the end of Roman civilization was followed by a period wherein:
the labours and happiness of peaceful development are … wiped out by the upburst of elemental passions which have only slumbered. The long tranquillity of the Roman sway ended in the violence and darkness of the Middle Age.
In perhaps more optimistic readings of the situation, this was a ‘heroic age’. Another approach would interpret the post-Roman centuries as a part of the ‘civilizing process’ , wherein even and unilinear progress was made towards more ‘Christianized’ social and political norms, which eschewed physical violence in favour of other, less sinful alternatives.
Indicative of many of these approaches are interpretations of the ‘blood-feud’. Following the dissolution of the Western Empire in the course of the fifth century, it is alleged that state power was weak and that, consequently, people were forced to rely on ‘self-help mechanisms’ such as ‘blood-feud’ to maintain the peace within their localities. In traditional explanations, the threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ of families through quite legitimate reciprocal killing, involving widely defined kin-groups, acted as a brake upon any urge to use lethal violence to settle disputes. In interpretations driven by readings of the sagas or heroic poems, much is made of characters doomed to extract vengeance upon close-friends or marital relatives by the demands of ‘the’ blood-feud.