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This chapter explores the relationship between law, crime and violence. It begins by setting out a fairly standard historiographical narrative that, as polities coalesced and became more powerful over the course of the Middle Ages, so the law and legal mechanisms which underpinned political structures of power became more efficient. The rediscovery of Justinian’s Digest of Roman law in late eleventh-century Italy and a subsequent emphasis on Roman law in medieval Europe, is presented as pivotal. This paradigm is, however, then complicated in a number of ways. The legal prosecution of violence continued to be dependent upon the cooperation and involvement of communities. The courts’ growing interest in equity and the examination of fact as well as just law, further problematizes the picture. Roman law co-existed alongside customary law and canon law; this kind of pluralism is set beside the diffusion of justice across fragmented political units. Vengeance continued to be a powerful motivator both in episodes of interpersonal violence, and in the logic underpinning the law itself. Far from contributing to a state monopoly of violence, law most often aimed to channel and circumscribe violence rather than entirely to prohibit it. The essay ends by examining the methodological implications of these considerations.
TAKEN TOGETHER, THESE ARTICLES serve as a powerful corrective to lazy stereotypes of the Middle Ages as horrifically and unthinkingly brutal. It is perhaps ironic that a volume devoted to the subject of murder should have this effect, and certainly we do not emerge with any rose-tinted illusions about the level of violence in medieval life. But we do gain a sense of the complexity and sophistication of responses to fatal violence. Whether or not medieval reasoning resonates with our own, contemporaries wrote, spoke about and listened to accounts of violence with an almost obsessive interest which went beyond the prurient. As these essays reveal, it was a subject whose dubious moral framework provoked anxiety and ambivalence.
Of course, if murder was a common medieval literary theme, this was partly because of its theatrical potential: it has drama, often mystery and a good deal of human interest. A medieval crowd-pleasing example which usefully embodies many of the observations which follow about this volume is the play La Femme du Roy de Portugal (1876): it contains multiple murders. This is a reworked narrative from the Vie des Pères, a popular collection of miracle stories from the mid thirteenth century, surviving in over thirty manuscripts. The play version was produced for the annual festivities of the Parisian guild of goldsmiths. Over the course of the play, the soon-to-be-Queen is raped by the King's Seneschal, whom she subsequently murders. Realising that this jeopardises her role as a virgin on her wedding night, she persuades another woman to replace her for the one night, only to find the other woman unsurprisingly reluctant to relinquish her place. The Queen, in despair, murders the woman who is attempting to usurp her place. Condemned by law to death, she is rescued at the last minute by the efforts of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The story makes splendid theatre, keeping the audience breathless with the melodrama and tension of it all. It is also a highly problematic tale, not least because of the extreme levels of violence, and it is surely this problematic nature which was designed to keep the audience rapt by a series of moral and legal knots which cannot easily be disentangled.
It is obvious that processes of exchange must be shaped and often constrained by the boundaries across which they operate, and it is therefore fitting to open this volume with various explorations of the nature of boundaries and units in the later Middle Ages. The relationship between developing boundaries and units, and processes of exchange, is a reciprocal one: the nature of boundaries was itself moulded by the contacts and exchanges which took place across them. This is true of a variety of different types of contact. In the commercial sphere, Spindler's article demonstrates that perceived boundaries between what it was to be considered English or Flemish respectively were concretised by the presence of Flemings in an alien environment. In the social sphere, Dumolyn's article illustrates how social boundaries were shaped by the fear of too much social interchange. Branco and Pépin both consider the ways in which linguistic influences and identities shored up perceptions of boundaries. Keen demonstrates that political exchange across Channel and political borders actually helped to shape the nature of those boundaries, and engendered far more complex configurations of political networks than the French versus English paradigm we might assume.
The relationship between units and boundaries was indeed especially complex, and potentially highly charged: the possibility of their deliberate manipulation in the interests of political expediency meant that exchange across boundaries was a particularly effective way of making points about social and territorial relationships.
Contact and exchange is not a process that just happens: even when unconsciously undertaken, it has agents, and depends upon particular networks and structures, as well as the mechanisms themselves, technological or otherwise, of communication. Recent methodological developments in transnational studies and histoire croisée oblige us, in focusing upon the processes of exchange, to look to the actors and mechanisms which made this possible. In this section of the volume we explore the different modes through which exchanges could be conducted and the transformative nature of exchange relationships.
Although social, political and cultural boundaries became more stridently articulated in this period, they were, in many ways, challenged and subverted by exchanges, notably by travel and trading interests. Yet these papers also point to an alternative paradigm: firmer boundaries could actually lead to intensified processes of exchange, rendering it an increasingly self-conscious process. Contacts took on new and highly charged meanings, as Costa-Gomes demonstrates in her essay on the gifting of objects from West Africa. She illustrates that as objects were transferred across increasingly strongly circumscribed and physically challenging political and geographical boundaries (the sea), the distant origins of the objects became all the more important in giving them meaning. Likewise, institutions of exchange assumed an ever greater prominence, with the result that contacts invited reflection and comment. Lachaud'ss paper points to the importance of some of these institutions, including the 'sinternational's orders of the friars, in spreading ideas.
The processes by which ideas, objects, texts and political thought and experience moved across boundaries in the Middle Ages form the focus of this book, which also seeks to reassess the nature of the boundaries themselves; it thus appropriately reflects a major theme of Dr Malcolm Vale's work, which the essays collected here honour. They suggest ways of breaking down established historiographical paradigms of Europe as a set of distinct polities, achieving a more nuanced picture in which people and objects were constantly moving, and challenging previous conceptions of units and borders. The first section examines the construction of boundaries and units in the later Middle Ages, via topics ranging from linguistic units to social stratifications, and geographically from the Netherlands and Scotland to Gascony and the Iberian peninsula; it reveals how much the relationship between exchange and boundaries was reciprocal. The second section considers the mechanisms by which it took place, from West Africa to Italy and Flanders, and discusses the actual exchange of people, texts, and unusual artefacts. Overall, the essays bear witness to the constant interplay and interconnections throughout medieval Europe and beyond. Contributors: Paul Booth, Maria João Violante Branco, Rita Costa-Gomes, Mario Damen, Jan Dumolyn, Jean Dunbabin, Jean-Philippe Genet, Michael Jones, Maurice Keen, Frédérique Lachaud, Patrick Lantschner, Guilhem Pépin, R.L.J. Shaw, Hannah Skoda, Erik Spindler, John Watts.
Human beings, in the words of Adam Smith, have ‘the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another’.
This innate human tendency – which is not restricted by national boundaries, nor expressed only in trade and economic exchange – is the subject of this collection of articles. By the time Smith was writing his Wealth of Nations (1776), apparently ever denser levels of connections on the European continent, as well as between Europe and the rest of the world, seemed a particularly stark manifestation of this fundamental principle of human interaction. Yet, relationships of contact and exchange had been built up over centuries. They not only crystallised around the continent's strong nation-states which played such a fundamental role in modern processes of exchange, but were also made possible by the multiple other institutions and networks that Europeans had been constructing across geographical, political, social, cultural or linguistic boundaries on their own continent. ‘Globalisation’ is often presented as a product of the modern age, but the theme of contact and exchange across existing boundaries is one that is scarcely confined to any epoch, or even any particular area of the world.
The later Middle Ages are a crucial juncture in this regard. A period often viewed as decisive for state growth and solidifying boundaries, this was also a period in which contact and exchange across such boundaries was intense, fruitful and decisive for historical processes.