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  • Honor, Vengeance, and Social Trouble: Pardon Letters in the Burgundian Low Countries by Peter Arnade and Walter Prevenier
  • Thierry Boucquey
Peter Arnade and Walter Prevenier, Honor, Vengeance, and Social Trouble: Pardon Letters in the Burgundian Low Countries (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 2015) 244 pp.

Elopement, intrigue, vendetta, rivalry, prostitution, abduction, betrayal, sex, honor, crimes of passion: these are the subject matter of the pardon letters investigated in Honor, Vengeance, and Social Trouble: Pardon Letters in the Burgundian Low Countries. The setting: city and town squares, taverns, brothels, inns, street theater, monasteries and convents, bathhouses, back streets, and noblemen’s dinner tables of the late-medieval and early-modern Burgundian Low Countries. Professors Peter Arnade and Walter Prevenier’s adept examination of some thirty pardon letters—entreaties written to the dukes of Burgundy by citizens convicted of serious crimes in the hopes of being pardoned-dated between 1386 and 1500 and taken from the repository of the administrative archives of the Burgundian court currently housed in Lille, constitutes a valuable and fresh contribution to pardon-letters scholarship. It provides students of History, Medieval Studies, Legal Studies, Social Studies, as well as Literature with a snapshot of the social realm of family, township, community, and countryside in the late-medieval and early-modern communities of Flanders, Brabant, Hainault, and Zeeland under the rule of the dukes of Burgundy. Each of the four chapters feature a very useful addendum containing an English translation from the original French or Dutch/Flemish of several of the letters examined in the text.

In the introductory section, entitled The Forgiving Prince, the authors aptly describe the origin and principle of the ducal pardon, as well as the nature of the corpus of letters under investigation. They insist on the hybridity of the [End Page 254] pardon letters, whose supplicant was often only marginally literate and always assisted by a notary who supplied rhetorical and jurisprudential know-how to the claimant’s storyline. The petitions were composed with a specific strategy in mind, their narrative structure arranged in such a way as to bring about a favorable outcome for their petitioner. These letters were at once literary, social, and legal documents, and represent a unique record of the mores, actions, and conduct of ordinary people of the period—from all social classes—who otherwise left no trace of any writing whatsoever. The granting of a ducal pardon, however, was not the end of the supplication process. Local judicial authorities needed to vet the veracity of the petition’s account and possibly adjudicate counter-claims by the victim’s side before declaring the pardon definitively valid. Moreover, most successful petitioners were ordered to pay compensation to the victim or their family, in addition to civil amends that covered the administrative fees involved in granting the pardon.

Chapter 1, “Social Discord: Disputes, Vendettas, and Political Clients,” closely examines seven pardon letters with the aim to expose the Burgundian court’s efforts to nurture political allies as well as show how in various social arenas such as the workplace, the family, or the military, disputes, quarrels or feuds could be resolved by ducal pardon when it could not by traditional jurisdiction.

Chapter 2, “Violence, Honor, and Sexuality,” is devoted to the problem of male violence and vengeance, with a particular focus on adultery and sexual scandal, including infanticide committed by women. The ubiquitous medieval standard of male honor and how its loss provokes aggression and brutality on the principle of chaude colle (hot anger) holds a central place in the authors’ argument, although one could contend that for the two women perpetrators of infanticide as well the prospect of losing their reputation or honor was the motive for their crime.

In Chapter 3, “Marital Conflict,” Arnade and Prevenier focus on several pardon letters appealing for remission and exonerations awarded for the crimes of abduction or seduction of women, particularly widows. The kidnappings and numerous seductions and elopements enacted in an attempt to marry mainly arose from a tension between canon law and social practice. Whereas the church declared marriage—clandestine or not—indissoluble on the principle of free consent between two partners and considered it legal after consummation, many...