By Gadi Algazi
Medieval Transformations: Texts, Power and Gifts in Context, eds. Esther Cohen and Mayke de Jong (Leiden: Brill, 2000)
Introduction: Around 1450, the Swiss canon of Zurich, Felix Hemmerli (ca. 1388-1458/9), wrote a Latin treatise, De nobilitate et rusticitate dialogus, constructed as a dispute between a rustic and a noble protagonist. In chapter 32, the discussion reaches a high point as the rustic accuses nobles of engaging in endless feuds and bringing destruction upon the countryside. In response, the noble protagonist develops an elaborate argument for the social use of private wars. Like an exceedingly ramified tree, whose lush branches and twigs must be lopped off for it to remain fertile, peasants must be occasionally pruned so that they renounce their arrogance, lethal hatred and invidiousness and be brought back to the discipline of humility, servility and self-recognition. They should be stripped of their feathers, so that they cannot fly too high. As Gregory the Great said, worldly prosperity can be detrimental for certain people. Without affliction, the wicked would be all the more removed from salvation. But the peasants’ rustic nature calls for an especially harsh and befitting remedy. Hence, every jubilee year, their small houses, cabins and fields should be plundered, destroyed and burnt down.
This passage has been well-known since the nineteenth century. Historians, however, have tended to treat it either as an unusual expression of unrestrained hatred for peasants, or as a pronouncement by an author whose Latin abounds in elaborate metaphors and tangled circumlocutions, but cannot be taken all too seriously. I do not think this is the case. As I shall try to show, Hemmerli’s argument refers obliquely to a recognizable social practice (section II) and is embedded in a widely prevalent mode of constructing late medieval society (section III). But first I would like to examine more closely the basic agrarian metaphor of pruning, which Hemmerli uses in order to represent necessary and legitimate violence against peasants (section I). The range of metaphors and images a culture places at people’s disposal is not unlimited. Political metaphors, those used in order to encode relations of power and authority, form an even more restricted set of options. The examination of this metaphor may thus provide a convenient point of departure for reconstructing the ways lords’ violence against peasants could be perceived in late medieval Germany.