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  • Blood and Violence in Early Modern France
  • Brian Sandberg
Blood and Violence in Early Modern France. By Stuart Carroll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 369 pp. $110.00).

Blood and Violence in Early Modern France provides a fascinating exploration of the intense inter-familial disputes that absorbed early modern French nobles. Provincial nobles quarreled continuously with their rivals over land, titles, offices, favor, precedence, and power. French nobles' preoccupation with honor and status ensured that their disputes frequently erupted into bloody violence through dueling, feuding, and outright assassination.

Stuart Carroll's meticulous research into the rich archival records of early modern French judicial proceedings on duels and feuds yields a remarkably detailed [End Page 461] picture of nobles' violent activities. Letters of remission, pardon letters, and parlementaire trial records conserved in the Archives Nationales form the main body of evidence for the book, but are well complemented by court documents and family titles from several departmental archives and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The author exploits these remission and pardon records effectively, following in the path of Natalie Zemon Davis's influential interpretation of pardon tales. Carroll clearly disagrees with Davis's approach to reading pardon letters, however, and a more explicit discussion of the complexities of interpreting the letters of pardon and remission that form the key sources for the book would assist readers in understanding the analytical choices available to historians when using these sources (23-24).

The author defines his subject as 'vindicatory violence', a category encompassing "acts of violence, such as revenge killing and the duel, which repair an honour or injury and which are suggestive of a reciprocal relationship between the parties, such as one finds in the feud" (5-10). This approach effectively considers disparate types of violence—including dueling, assassination, murder, feuding, and private war—as operating through a similar process of escalation and reprisal. The book details the techniques of vindicatory violence that nobles employed to insult, curse, intimidate, humiliate, challenge, maim, and kill their rivals, as well as members of their families and entourages. While it is refreshing to see a more comprehensive view of early modern violence, Carroll arguably follows William Ian Miller's model of feuding dynamics too closely, and the process of vindicatory violence thus sometimes seems overly scripted (6-8, 49-59). Blood and Violence in Early Modern France discusses the symbolic aspects of vindicatory violence and noble honor culture, but without resolving the tensions between Miller's conception of honor and the older Mediterranean model of honor and shame, which is also referenced in the book.

Provincial noble culture provides the setting of the dramatic action of feuding in Carroll's analysis. This methodology successfully avoids the statist perspective of so many studies of early modern French noble culture—which often portray French nobles as factional courtiers who were gradually subdued by a rising 'absolutist' monarchy. The author aims to provide a "renewal of political history from the bottom up" (331). Carroll's research confirms recent scholarship that stresses the inappropriateness of analyzing French noble elites through sword-robe opposition, effectively demonstrating how social roles, official duties, coercive techniques, and violent tendencies overlapped amongst the noblesse d'épée and noblesse de robe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. French provincial nobles' attempts to uphold their honor, to confirm their reputation, to control offices, to defend hunting rights, and to maintain precedence all produced violence.

One of the most exciting findings of this book is the prevalence of vindicatory violence prompted by precedence competitions within churches. Parish churches' decorations, seating arrangements, rituals, and processions all provoked familial contests for pre-eminence. Numerous legal cases demonstrate that the timing of violent sprees was often linked to the Christian festive calendar. Reader may wonder how religious motivations, justifications, beliefs, and [End Page 462] practices shaped the resulting vindicatory violence. Despite the turbulent religious changes that swept through France in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Protestant and Catholic reform movements are not explored thoroughly here.

Blood and Violence in Early Modern France also demonstrates that French noblewomen were closely involved in inter-familial violence throughout the early modern period. Carroll demonstrates how seduction, clandestine marriage...


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pp. 461-464
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