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Violence and Predation in Late Medieval Mediterranean Europe

  • Daniel Lord Smail (a1)

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.

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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. 11.

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). 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), 73. 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 127–28.

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); Gonthier Nicole, Le châtiment du crime au Moyen Âge (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1998); Muchembled Robert, Le temps des supplices: de l'obéissance sous les rois absolus, XVe–XVIIIe siècle (Paris: A. Colin, 1992).

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

7 Foucault Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Sheridan Alan, trans. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977); 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).

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), 1541.

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).

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

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

12 Wickham Chris, Legge, pratiche e conflitti: Tribunali e risoluzione delle dispute nella Toscana del XII secolo (Rome: Viella, 2000).

13 Miller William Ian, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); idem, Humiliation: And other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

14 Bartlett Robert, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950–1350 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 8689.

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): 287–99; White Stephen D., “Feuding and Peacemaking in the Touraine around the Year 1100,” Traditio 42 (1986): 195263; 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): 1107–33.

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), 236–52.

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), 4058; 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), 135–70; Meyerson Mark D., The Muslims of Valencia in the Age of Fernando and Isabel: Between Coexistence and Crusade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Schuster Peter, Eine Stadt vor Gericht: Recht und Alltag im spätmittelalterlichen Konstanz (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2000); Hyams Paul, Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); 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); Netterstrøm Jeppe Büchert and Poulsen Bjørn, eds., Feud in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 2007).

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

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).

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).

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); Meek Christine, Lucca 1369–1400: Politics and Society in an Early Renaissance City-State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978); idem, The Commune of Lucca under Pisan Rule, 1342–1369 (Cambridge, Mass.: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1980); Bratchel Michael E., Medieval Lucca and the Evolution of the Renaissance State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

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), 169–91.

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 291–92.

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); Potter David, “‘Rigueur de Justice’: Crime, Murder and the Law in Picardy, Fifteenth to Sixteenth Centuries,” French History 11 (1997): 265309, 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 399; Schwerhoff Gerd, “Justice et honneur: Interpréter la violence à Cologne (XVe–XVIIIe siècle)”, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 5 (2007): 1031–61, here 1048.

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), 293–95; 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), 44.

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 possit.

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), 34.

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), 5770. On the law of sanctuary, see Shoemaker Karl, Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400–1500 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011).

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), 417–27.

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), 327–44; Zorzi Andrea, ed., Conflitti, paci e vendette nell'Italia comunale (Florence: Firenze University Press, 2009).

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): 479–99.

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

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); Geltner Guy, The Medieval Prison: A Social History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

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); Stuard Susan Mosher, Gilding the Market: Luxury and Fashion in Fourteenth-Century Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); 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), 238–59; O'Malley Michelle and Welch Evelyn, The Material Renaissance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

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): 215–46; 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), 1953.

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).

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), 3752. 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), 139–56.

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 42.

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

Acknowledgments: I have presented these and related arguments at workshops and talks at Denison College, the University of Minnesota, the University of Ottawa, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Michigan, the University of Toronto, Yale University, Harvard University, Stanford University, the Université de Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Dumbarton Oaks, the Universität Bielefeld, Auxerre, Venice, and the 2011 American Historical Association convention. I am immensely grateful to my hosts for their invitations and to many friends and colleagues for their feedback, and also wish to express my profound thanks to Christine Meek and Dott. Sergio Nelli for guiding me through the Lucchese archives.

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