- Living Dangerously: On the Margins in Medieval and Early Modern Europe
This is an excellent collection of essays written and edited by a distinguished group of scholars. Specialists in medieval and Early Modern studies will find much to savour and enjoy here, but it is not a book for students. As Hanawalt points out in her valuable introduction, the focus of the essays is not only the underclass identified by Bronislaw Geremek in The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris but also relatively privileged people who lived dangerously. These include the courtier who seduced the king’s daughter in Vickie Ziegler’s ‘Upward Mobility in the German High Middle Ages: The Ascent of a Faithful Liar’, Italian and English writers in Ian Frederick Moulton’s ‘Sodomy and the Lash: Sexualized Satire in the Renaissance’, and Belgian, Dutch, and German merchants in Mary Lindemann’s ‘The Wind Traders: Speculators and Frauds in Northern Europe, 1650–1720’.
Hanawalt notes several themes that emerge from the essays. The first is the symbiotic relationship between marginals and the social, political, andreligious establishment. Those living on the edge were not useless but provided the rest of society with valuable services. The most obvious example is the beggar whose begging for alms provided an opportunity for the pious to exercise charity and thus help open the gates of heaven. As a result, much marginal activity functioned as a safety valve, and respectable society could [End Page 175] grant it a certain amount of toleration. Increasingly, however, the traditional tolerance dissipated in the later Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era as the power of the centralizing state grew, and both Protestant and Catholic churches placed higher standards of behaviour on their members.
In addition to these themes, one feature of many essays is their comparative nature. Dyan Elliott’s ‘Women in Love: Carnal and Spiritual Transgressions in Late Medieval France’ compares the cases of two prostitutes executed for sorcery with the Beguine Marguerite Porete, convicted of heresy and likewise executed. Not only did they share the same fate, they were also single and not under patriarchal control and protection. They also contravened the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 that attempted to regulate marriages and limit the creation of new religious orders such as the Beguines. Another similarity was the role of love in their transgressions; the two prostitutes used sorcery to regain a man’s love, while Porete’s book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, used lesbian imagery to invoke the love of God. The final point of comparison is the audacious and perceptive linking of the prostitutes’ use of wine mixed with menstrual blood in their sorcery to the Beguines’ promotion of the Eucharist to achieve union with the divine.
‘Gendering the Disenfranchised: Down, Out, and Female in Early Modern Spain’ by Anne J. Cruz compares the experience of Gypsy women with that of Moriscas, Moorish women who had converted to Christianity. As was the case with the prostitutes and Beguines, a pattern of shared experience emerges. Both faced prosecution from the Inquisition, both had reputations for making potions, and both prized their chastity. As indicated by their titles, the above-mentioned essays by Moulton and Lindemann are also comparative.
My favourite essay is Richard Firth Green’s ‘“Need ne hath no lawe”: The Plea of Necessity in Medieval Literature and Law’. Green begins with the passage in Piers Plowman in which Need proclaims that it is permissible to take what is needed when someone has no food or clothing, in other words, the legal maxim necessitas non habet legem that dated from at least the thirteenth century. Over time, courts increasingly accepted public necessity, such as appropriating land for a highway, while rejecting private necessity, but as late as 1884 the crew of a sunken ship received a conditional pardon and spent only six months in prison after confessing that in order to...