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Violence and Predation in Late Medieval Mediterranean Europe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2012

Daniel Lord Smail*
Department of History, Harvard University


In the full-text databases of Latin sources from Europe from the period between 400 and 1500, the Latin word for violence crops up around two thousand times, about as often as “justice” (2,400) though not as often as other interesting words like “envy” (6,000) or “vengeance” (3,800). The frequency of use of the word, adjusted for the vagaries of survival, reveals an interesting trend. From the tenth to the eleventh centuries, an age of predatory castellans and violent territorial expansion, the frequency nearly doubles in the extant literature, and remains high for several centuries to come. The word often appears in texts alongside nauseating tales of violence, of hands lopped off and eyes plucked out and intestines dragged from their hidden recesses. There is the story told by Guibert of Nogent about the predatory castellan Thomas de Marle, who hung his captives by their testicles until the weight of their own bodies tore them off. These were exempla. They painted verbal pictures of the behavior of those who were surely doomed to hell. In the hands of clerical authors like Guibert, they served as a goad to kings and princes who, in their indolence, might allow this stuff to go unavenged.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2012

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1 From the Library of Latin Texts and the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, which I consulted at For the sake of simplicity I considered only nominative, accusative, and ablative forms in the singular of the following words: violentia, iusticia, invidia, and vindicta. I normalized the frequency relative to appearances of et, a word of relatively unvarying frequency.

2 Self and Society in Medieval France: The Memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent, Benton, John F., ed., Bland, C. C. Swinton, trans. (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), bk. 3, ch. 11Google Scholar.

3 See, among others, Thatcher, Oliver J. and McNeal, Edgar H., A Source Book for Mediaeval History: Selected Documents Illustrating the History of Europe in the Middle Age (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905)Google Scholar. Weber's classic statement was published in 1919; see Max Weber, “Einleitung,” in Politik als Beruf, (accessed 30 June 2010).

4 Bloch, Marc, Feudal Society, Manyon, L. A., trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 73Google Scholar. For interpretations, see White, Stephen D., “The Politics of Anger,” in Rosenwein, Barbara H., ed., Anger's Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 127–52, here 127–28Google Scholar.

5 Important works include Chiffoleau, Jacques, Les justices du pape: délinquance et criminalité dans la region d'Avignon au quatorzième siècle (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1984)Google Scholar; Gonthier, Nicole, Le châtiment du crime au Moyen Âge (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Muchembled, Robert, Le temps des supplices: de l'obéissance sous les rois absolus, XVe–XVIIIe siècle (Paris: A. Colin, 1992)Google Scholar.

6 Cohen, Esther, The Crossroads of Justice: Law and Culture in Late Medieval France (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993)Google Scholar.

7 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Sheridan, Alan, trans. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977)Google Scholar; for a critique, see Andrews, Richard Mowery, Law, Magistracy, and Crime in Old Regime Paris, 1735–1789, vol. 1, The System of Criminal Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

8 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 8. See Shoemaker, Karl, “The Problem of Pain in Punishment: A Historical Perspective,” in Sarat, Austin, ed., Pain, Death, and the Law (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 1541Google Scholar.

9 For the art historical evidence, see Merback, Mitchell B., The Thief, the Cross, and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

10 Meyerson, Mark D., Thiery, Daniel, and Falk, Oren, eds., “A Great Effusion of Blood”?: Interpreting Medieval Violence (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 6Google Scholar.

11 Bisson, Thomas N., “The ‘Feudal Revolution,’Past and Present 142 (1994): 642CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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15 This was the explicit goal of some of the most formative work; see, among others, Cheyette, Fredric L., “Suum cuique tribuere,” French Historical Studies 6 (1970): 287–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar; White, Stephen D., “Feuding and Peacemaking in the Touraine around the Year 1100,” Traditio 42 (1986): 195263CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Geary, Patrick, “Vivre en conflit dans une France sans état: typologie des mécanismes de règlement des conflits (1050–1200),” Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 41 (1986): 1107–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 See Benjamin, Walter, Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913–1926, Jennings, Michael W., Eiland, Howard, and Smith, Gary, eds., Livingstone, Rodney and others, trans. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1996), 236–52Google Scholar.

17 Zorzi, Andrea, “The Judicial System in Florence in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries,” in Dean, Trevor and Lowe, K.J.P., eds., Crime, Society and the Law in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 4058CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, “La cultura della vendetta nel conflitto politico in età comunale,” in Donne, Roberto Delle and Zorzi, Andrea, eds., Le storie e la memoria: In onore di Arnold Esch (Florence: Firenze University Press, 2002), 135–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Meyerson, Mark D., The Muslims of Valencia in the Age of Fernando and Isabel: Between Coexistence and Crusade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Schuster, Peter, Eine Stadt vor Gericht: Recht und Alltag im spätmittelalterlichen Konstanz (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2000)Google Scholar; Hyams, Paul, Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; Rousseaux, Xavier and Lévy, René, eds., Le pénal dans tous ses états: justice, états et sociétés en Europe (XIIe–XXe siècles) (Brussels: Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis, 1997)Google Scholar; Netterstrøm, Jeppe Büchert and Poulsen, Bjørn, eds., Feud in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

18 Gauvard, Claude, “De grace especial”: crime, état, et société à la fin du Moyen Âge, 2 vols. (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1991)Google Scholar; see also Davis, Natalie Zemon, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar; Lacy, Helen, The Royal Pardon: Access to Mercy in Fourteenth-Century England (York: York Medieval Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

19 My emphasis is on Lucca since I have explored Marseille elsewhere: see The Consumption of Justice: Emotions, Publicity, and Legal Culture in Marseille, 1264–1423 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

20 For a general introduction and orientation to the literature, see the first chapter of my Imaginary Cartographies: Possession and Identity in Late Medieval Marseille (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

21 For Lucchese history, see, among others, Green, Louis, Castruccio Castracani: A Study on the Origins and Character of a Fourteenth-Century Italian Despotism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Meek, Christine, Lucca 1369–1400: Politics and Society in an Early Renaissance City-State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978)Google Scholar; idem, The Commune of Lucca under Pisan Rule, 1342–1369 (Cambridge, Mass.: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1980)Google Scholar; Bratchel, Michael E., Medieval Lucca and the Evolution of the Renaissance State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 In Marseille, the Latin word for seizure was sazimentum and the object of seizure, more often than not, was simply called a pignus (English, a “pawn”; mod. French, a gage).

23 Tilly, Charles, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Evans, Peter B., Rueschmeyer, Dietrich, and Skocpol, Theda, eds., Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 169–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 As Rees Davies has reminded us, it is easy to overlook “the interstitial and non-institutionalized forms of power”: The Medieval State: The Tyranny of a Concept?Journal of Historical Sociology 16 (2003): 280300, here 291–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Archivio di Stato di Lucca (hereafter ASL), Podestà di Lucca (hereafter PdL) 4725, fols. 2v, 3r, 4v, 5r.

26 In addition to the literature cited in my Consumption of Justice, see Zaremska, Hanna, Les bannis au Moyen Âge, Douchy, Thérèse, trans. (Paris: Aubier, 1996)Google Scholar; Potter, David, “‘Rigueur de Justice’: Crime, Murder and the Law in Picardy, Fifteenth to Sixteenth Centuries,” French History 11 (1997): 265309CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 274, 284, and passim; Davis, Robert C., “The Renaissance Goes Up in Smoke,” in Martin, John Jeffries, ed., The Renaissance World (New York: Routledge, 2007), 398411, here 399Google Scholar; Schwerhoff, Gerd, “Justice et honneur: Interpréter la violence à Cologne (XVe–XVIIIe siècle)”, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 5 (2007): 1031–61, here 1048Google Scholar.

27 For example, Guenée, Bernard, Tribunaux et gens de justice dans le bailliage de Senlis à la fin du Moyen Âge (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1963), 293–95Google Scholar; Chiffoleau, Les justices du pape, 44.

28 Meyerson, Thiery, and Falk, Great Effusion of Blood, 6.

29 Ruff, Julius R., Violence in Early Modern Europe 1500–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 44Google Scholar.

30 ASL PdL 4717, fols. 2r–3r.

31 The court notary who kept a register from October of 1339 to March of 1340 was especially attentive to the several forms of summoning and distinguished carefully between citations issued in person and citations issued to the house, via the family. See ASL PdL 4739: respectively se citasse dictum inquisitum personaliter and se citasse dictum inquisitum domo in familia.

32 Statutum Lucani Communis, Bongi, Salvatore, ed., presentazione di Vito Tirelli (Lucca: Maria Pacini Fazzi editore, repr. ed. 1991 [1867]), bk. 3, ch. 2, 132–33: Et si probaretur de ipso maleficio vel iniuria, ad condepnationem faciendam procedere debeant; non obstante quod de iure comuni absens condenpnari non possitGoogle Scholar.

33 ASL, Sentenze e bandi, 2.

34 ASL, Sentenze e bandi, 7. By way of comparison, Peter Raymond Pazzaglini has counted up sixteen hundred acts of banishment in Siena in the space of a little over two years earlier in the fourteenth century; see The Criminal Ban of the Sienese Commune, 1225–1310 (Milan: A. Giuffrè, 1979), 34Google Scholar.

35 ASL PdL 4739. The register opened on 6 October 1339 and closed on 8 March of the following year.

36 In six cases, including one involving a petty insult, the accused were simply released, and in a further four cases involving groups the outcomes were mixed.

37 Whereas in Lucca, assailants appear to have slipped straight into self-imposed exile, in Marseille, as in London, escape was a two-stage process, beginning with sanctuary in church. See Rosser, Gervase, “Sanctuary and Social Negotiation in Medieval England,” in Blair, John and Golding, Brian, eds., The Cloister and the World: Essays in Medieval History in Honour of Barbara Harvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 5770CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the law of sanctuary, see Shoemaker, Karl, Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400–1500 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

38 Archives départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône (hereafter ADBR) 3B 96.

39 I have translated these acts in Smail, Daniel Lord and Gibson, Kelly, eds., Vengeance in Medieval Europe: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 417–27Google Scholar.

40 ASL PdL 4739.

41 ASL PdL 4721.

42 ASL, Curia dei ribelli e dei banniti, 6.

43 Jansen, Katherine Ludwig, “Florentine Peacemaking: The Oltrarno, 1287–1297,” in Andrews, Frances, Egger, Christoph, and Rousseau, Constance M., eds., Pope, Church and City: Essays in Honor of Brenda Bolton (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 327–44Google Scholar; Zorzi, Andrea, ed., Conflitti, paci e vendette nell'Italia comunale (Florence: Firenze University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 ASL PdL 4739, 3 Dec. 1339.

45 Statutum Lucani Communis, bk. 2, ch. 23, p. 85.

46 Gaulin, Jean-Louis, “Les registres de bannis pour dettes à Bologne au XIIIe siècle: une nouvelle source pour l'histoire de l'endettement,” in Mélanges de l'École française de Rome. Moyen-Age, Temps modernes 109 (1997): 479–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 Finn, Margot C., The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740–1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; Lester, V. Markham, Victorian Insolvency: Bankruptcy, Imprisonment for Debt, and Company Winding-Up in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 See Claustre, Julie, Dans les geôles du roi: L'emprisonnement pour dette à Paris à la fin du Moyen Âge (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2007)Google Scholar; Geltner, Guy, The Medieval Prison: A Social History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

49 ADBR 3B 822, fol. 75r, case opened 24 Nov. 1357 on fol. 67r. See also 355E 9, fols. 47r–48r, 8 June 1358.

50 ADBR 3B 808, fols. 290r–303v, case opened 28 Nov. 1342.

51 ADBR 3B 19, fols. 11r–20v, case opened 23 Dec. 1325.

52 ADBR 3B 42, fols. 14r–31v, case opened 24 July 1341, in which the merchant Antoni Catalan had Johan Esteve imprisoned for debt; ADBR 3B 29, fols. 75r–79r, case opened 19 July 1334, in which a merchant from Narbonne was imprisoned in Marseille at the behest of another Narbonnais merchant; for the wine-seller, see ADBR 3B 37, fols. 264r–269r, case opened May or June 1339 (date illegible).

53 ADBR 3B 57, fols. 2r–19v, case opened 8 Oct. 1354.

54 ADBR 3B 30, fols. 3r–8v, case opened 18 Mar. 1335.

55 ADBR 355E 10, fol. 38v, 14 Aug. 1359, shows how oathswearers could help get people released from jail; in 355E 10, fol. 18v, 8 May 1359, a woman stands surety for her husband in jail for debt.

56 ASL PdL 33, fol. 101r, and following.

57 ASL, Opera di Santa Croce 9, fols. 148r–155r.

58 The florin, at this time, was being exchanged for 69 Lucchese shillings, and a staria of wheat cost around 12½ Lucchese shillings. I do not yet have price data on some of the other commodities listed in the register.

59 I have yet to discover a record from Lucca that records the fees.

60 ADBR 3B 822, fol. 75r, case opened 24 Nov. 1357 on fol. 67r.

61 ASL, Camarlingo Generale 15, fol. 196r: Titulus pecunie percepte de proventu carcerarum.

62 ASL, Camarlingo Generale 4, fols. 94r–114r.

63 Records of the criminal court of the Podestà suggest that two-thirds of the cases resulted in convictions, indicating an annual total of around 250 criminal inquests during the 1330s.

64 Goldthwaite, Richard A., Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300–1600 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Stuard, Susan Mosher, Gilding the Market: Luxury and Fashion in Fourteenth-Century Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kowaleski, Maryanne, “A Consumer Economy,” in Horrox, Rosemary and Ormrod, W. Mark, eds., A Social History of England, 1200–1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 238–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar; O'Malley, Michelle and Welch, Evelyn, The Material Renaissance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

65 One of the most common registers found in the records of the Lucchese courts was one entitled Liber reclamorum, or “Book of claims.”

66 ASL PdL 79, fols. 90r–91r.

67 Ibid., fol. 28v.

68 See ASL, Curia Nuova di Giustizia e dell'Esecutore, 32. Fol. 25r of this register records an act of intesimentum with a marginal notice of predation. The formal record of the predation appears on fol. 101r.

69 Ibid.: (the marginal notes are heavily abbreviated): P[reda] l[evata] e[st] d[ie] p[rima] Marcii in libris decem d[enariorum] et expensis et sic p[ro]n[unciata] per jud[icem].

70 For example, ASL, Curia dei Rettori 11, p. 290: Et publice et alta voce ad domum eius habitationis et per dictam contratam in vicinia publice et alta voce cum proclamatione dicti nuncii et tunc in dictis locis eidem Johanni locasse.

71 ADBR 3B 145, fols. 97v, case opened 17 June 1405 on fol. 94r.

72 ASL, Curia dei Visconti o dei Gastaldioni 24, fol. 54r.

73 ADBR 3B 859, fol. 133r, case opened 26 Apr. 1408 on fol. 105r.

74 Varanini, Gian Maria, “Tra fisco e credito: note sulle camere dei pegni nelle città venete del Quattrocento,” Studi storici Luigi Simeoni 33 (1983): 215–46Google Scholar; Furió, Antoni, “Crédit, endettement et justice: prêteurs et débiteurs devant le juge dans le royaume de Valence (XIIIe–XVe siècle)”, in Claustre, Julie, ed., La dette et le juge: juridiction gracieuse et juridiction contentieuse du XIIIe au XVe siècle (France, Italie, Espagne, Angleterre, Empire) (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2006), 1953Google Scholar.

75 Regrettably, such records are relatively uncommon; further research may turn up more.

76 ASL PdL 33, fol. 137r.

77 A record of the Curia di San Christoforo from 1315 shows that court costs for predation were fixed at one penny for every 60d., or 1.67 percent. See the list of court receipts in ASL, Curia di San Christoforo 24, fol. 42r ff. Later in the century, court costs grew to 4 or 5 percent.

78 Paolo Grillo, “Indebitamento, giustizia e politica nella Lombardia comunale (fine XII-prima metà del XIII secolo),” in Claustre, ed., La dette, 169–85, here 183–84.

79 Edgerton, Samuel Y., Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

80 For some of the ways in which shame was leveraged in debt recovery, see Schuster, Peter, “The age of debt? Private Schulden in der spatmittelalterlichen Gesellschaft,” in Clemens, Gabriele, ed., Schuldenlast und Schuldenwert: Kreditnetzwerke in der europäischen Geschichte 1300–1900 (Trier: Kliomedia, 2008), 3752Google Scholar. The recent literature on shaming punishments in criminal context is surveyed in Wettlaufer, Jörg, “Beschämende Strafen in Westeuropa und Ostasien: Zwischenbericht zu einem kulturvergleichenden Forschungsprojekt zum Spätmittelalter und der Frühen Neuzeit,” in Kesper-Biermann, Sylvia, Ludwig, Ulrike, and Ortmann, Alexandra, eds., Ehre und Recht—Ehrkonzepte, Ehrverletzungen und Ehrverteidigungen vom Späten Mittelalter bis zur Moderne (Magdenburg: Meine-Verlag, 2011), 139–56Google Scholar.

81 The scale of resistance may have been significant. According to Michael Bratchel, nearly 10 percent of the crimes prosecuted in one of Lucca's courts between 1441 and 1461 were acts of resistance to agents of the court, and many of these would have arisen from processes of debt recovery. See Criminality, the Criminal Records and the Reconstruction of Social Realities: The Example of Late Medieval Tuscany,” The Southern African Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 (1997): 3747, here 42Google Scholar.

82 Andrews, Law, Magistracy, and Crime, 309.

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