Common Violence: Vengeance and Inquisition in Fourteenth-Century Marseille
By Daniel Lord Smail
Past and Present, Vol.151:1 (1996)
Introduction: Medieval violence has a bad reputation. In the words of a student essayist, “Mideval [sic] people were violent. Murder during this period was nothing. Everybody killed someone”. Yet however much we might object to the sweeping generalization, the sentiment is not anachronistic. Violence was condemned as harshly in the Middle Ages as it is today. Consider the diatribe of the early eleventh-century bishop Burchard of Worms:
Homicides take place almost daily among the family of St. Peter, as if they were wild beasts. The members of the family rage against each other as if they were insane and kill each other for nothing… In the course of one year thirty-five serfs of St. Peter belonging to the church of Worms have been murdered without provocation.
This is violence without reason or justification, comprehensible only if viewed as insanity.
Burchard’s characterization of violence as a crime without reason was a little disingenuous, however. Violence was often linked to vengeance in the Middle Ages, and vengeance was something that all could understand, even men of the church. Whatever Abelard’s sentiments about the loss of his testicles, he was surely not surprised when the kinfolk of the woman he had seduced and abducted came to the defence of her honour – and their own, for that matter. The need for vengeance was as ancient as the lex talionis; in theology and Christology, the theme of God’s vengeance had only recently given way, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, to that of his mercy and suffering. Men of the church were perfectly aware of the social pressures that fostered vengeance in the secular world. The mendicant orders could not have emerged as Europe’s foremost peacemakers without this understanding.
This being so, we should understand the rhetoric for what it was and see vengeance as medieval observers would have seen it, as a practice worthy of condemnation that none the less had deep roots in society and served specific ends. For vengeance does make sense: order arises from predictability of behaviour and vengeance carries an aura of inevitability. This, at any rate, is what modern anthropologists have been arguing for some time. As students of the stateless societies of north Africa and the circum-Mediterranean region began to observe in the 1940s and 1950s, the feud and its attendant institutions of peacemaking comprised a legal system that offered a basis for political order. Medieval historians, of course, had long been interested in both feuding and peacemaking, and the arguments of E. E. Evans-Pritchard and others concerning the feud were not slow to cross from anthropology to history.