- 'A Great Effusion of Blood'? Interpreting Medieval Violence
By almost any measure, the Middle Ages were a violent time. At every level of society from peasant communities to the kingdom, violent acts were common, whether in the form of private quarrels that could suddenly erupt in violence to sustained feuds between families to the organized violence of executions and warfare. Violence worked its way into literature, as well, where it became a leitmotiv in works as disparate as Beowulf, the Robin Hood Ballads, Chaucer, Gower, and hagiography. There were therefore myriad forms of violence as well as representations of violence throughout medieval society. Not surprisingly, medieval violence has attracted a growing number of modern investigators who have tried to quantify or interpret it as a means of understanding the nature of medieval society and how it fitted into a broader pattern of the development of society and the state in Europe. 'A Great Effusion of Blood'? takes it as axiomatic that although medieval society was violent it was not anarchic because violence was often exercised to achieve particular goals that reflected different aspects of medieval life. The thirteen essays that make up the volume collectively argue that it is important not simply to recount violent acts but to penetrate beneath their surface to interpret what they meant for the participants as wall as for the investigator. The volume provides, therefore, a fascinating tour through many different kinds of violence across medieval Europe along with illuminating commentaries about the nature and meaning of violence.
The essays are grouped into two sections, 'Violence and Identity Formation' and 'Violence and the Testament of the Body,' but the methodology is roughly the same: close readings of texts or sets of documents to discover the meaning of violent acts. The first group is the more consistent of the two, examining how violence helped to foster or confirm personal, group, or national identity. Thus, accounts of violent acts committed by slaves in medieval Valencia reveal under close scrutiny that slaves were often used by masters to inflict violence on rivals or enemies or to deflect blame for violence. Despite the close bond between slaves and their masters, Debra Blumenthal concludes that slaves cannot not be seen as having been fully integrated into the social world in which they lived. At the other end of the scale, Andrew of Wyntoun used the depictions of excessive violence committed by Edward i at the siege of Berwick in 1296 [End Page 232] to demonstrate his tyranny and to foster a sense of Scottish identity in the face of English brutality. That violence ranged in scale from 'mere' to excessive violence is evident in almost all of the essays, and is made explicit in Daniel Baraz's analysis of where authors in different cultures drew the threshold between violence and cruelty.
His is one essay in the more miscellaneous group dealing with violence and the body, which shows that representations of violence were closely attuned to differences in the rank, office, and gender of the victims. Descriptions of the martyrdom of saints, to take but one example, are rife with graphic descriptions of violence done to individual men and women who retained their faith despite their torments. But Beth Crachiolo goes a step further, showing how the South English Legendary differentially described the torture of male and female saints - by lavishing greater attention on the torments of females, and by interweaving humour with some descriptions of the death of males - to create a gruesome and somewhat prurient form of entertainment. Violence or the representation of violence in history and literature therefore varied considerably depending on the context of the act and the nature of the individuals involved, including spectators.
What we learn from a volume as diverse as 'A Great Effusion of Blood'? is not only the ubiquity of violence in the Middle Ages but its varied purposes and meaning. These essays demonstrate that the study of violence and depictions of violence provides a significant tool for understanding how gender...