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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: March 2020

16 - Violence and Murder in Europe

from Part III - Social, Interpersonal and Collective Violence
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Summary

Just how violent was medieval Europe? Traditionally, historians have depicted the Middle Ages as an era of brute strength and underdeveloped empathy, leading to high rates of violence. Yet, the evidence to support this interpretation is highly flawed. While we cannot measure medieval rates of violence with enough accuracy to draw medieval-modern comparisons, we do know that medieval Europeans deemed some forms of violence as not only necessary, but laudable. God’s wrath was the archetype of principled violence wielded by a righteous authority. Spectacles of justice in the form of staged executions, shaming rituals, or torture procedures, when enacted by the church or the state, fell neatly in line with this view of violence as a purgative, removing sin from society before it infected others. This ideology was imposed also on the family, where communities urged patriarchs to govern their dependents with a firm hand. Nevertheless, violence also had its limits. As king in his own home, a patriarch’s conduct might still cross the line between chastisement and cruelty. The law generally sided with figures of authority, but in practice the courts protected both ends of the social and familial hierarchy from abuse.