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This chapter discusses violence associated with the exercise of lordship and the culture of nobility in Europe from ca. 500-1500. For most of the twentieth century, historians argued that lordly violence rose and fell in inverse proportion to the power of ‘sovereign’ rulers, such as kings and emperors. It is now recognized that aristocrats in general and lords in particular played roles in medieval societies and polities that made their use of violence not just tolerable but also necessary. The practice of ‘feud’ has also come in for reassessment, increasingly understood not as anarchic or usurpatory, but re-envisaged as rule-based and self-limiting. Yet, if seigneurial violence now appears much more socially productive and politically intelligible to historians, it is important to realize that the exercise and experience of seigneurial violence varied a great deal according to social position and context. Aristocratic women were less likely than aristocratic men to be involved in such conflicts, and non-aristocrats, of both sexes, bore the brunt of the violence. This essay proceeds chronologically, examining changes in the ideas and practices that shaped how lords and nobles used violence in different regions.
Although it is often assumed that resurgent royal government eliminated so-called 'private warfare', the French judicial archives reveal nearly one hundred such wars waged in Languedoc and the Auvergne between the mid-thirteenth and the end of the fourteenth century. Royal administrators often intervened in these wars, but not always in order to suppress 'private violence' in favour of 'public justice'. They frequently recognised elites' own power and legitimate prerogatives, and elites were often fully complicit with royal intervention. Much of the engagement between royal officers and local elites came through informal processes of negotiation and settlement, rather than through the imposition of official justice. The expansion of royal authority was due as much to local cooperation as to conflict, a fact that ensured its survival during the fourteenth-century crises. This book thus provides a narrative of the rise of the French state and a fresh perspective on aristocratic violence.