The Medieval Review 11.02.16

Throop, Susanna A. and Paul R. Hyams. Vengeance in the Middle Ages: Emotion, Religion and Feud. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010. Pp. ix, 232. $104.95 ISBN 978-0-7546-6421-5. .

Reviewed by:

Sara Butler
Loyala University, New Orleans

Since at least 1990, medieval scholarship has been experiencing a resurgence of interest in the culture of vengeance and the related concept of feuding. William Ian Miller, Richard Fletcher, Trevor Dean, and Edward Muir represent a mere handful of eminent scholars engaged in studying the place of vengeance in medieval society: the "rules" of revenge-taking and the cultural traditions that regulate it, its legal or extra-legal nature, and the general social and political attitudes towards it. [1] Despite the explosion of literature in this field, its scope has been surprisingly limited. Geographically, Italy and the north (Scandinavia and England) have shared the spotlight. In terms of social rank, studies have been equally limited: honour worth killing to protect seemingly belonged only to the wealthy and the warrior. Paul Hyams' 2003 Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England was the first to challenge these broad assumptions. His provocative (but exceptionally well- received) study was founded on the universality of the urge to avenge a wrong, going so far as to claim that it "may indeed even be hardwired into the human psyche." [2] With this current volume, Hyams and his co-editor, Susanna Throop, have gathered a respectable array of scholars ostensibly tasked with two goals. First, the volume heaps dirt on the grave of established views alleging the exclusivity of vengeance culture. Second, Throop and Hyams offer new direction to the field, revealing the need for a more conscious recognition of the role emotion played in understanding and motivating revenge. While commendable in its daring approach, the result is uneven at best.

The book divides naturally into three parts. Confronting the issue of geographic diversity head on, the first three chapters investigate the role of vengeance in Ireland, Scotland and Portugal. Máire Johnson's painstakingly meticulous study addresses Ireland's notoriously vengeful saints. Juxtaposing hagiography with scripture, Johnson reveals that the wrath of Irish saints was not especially Irish. Irish hagiographers drew from Moses, Elijah, and other Old Testament figures to model the violence of male saints, while they deliberately moulded the anger of female saints in a more forgiving and merciful manner typical of the New Testament. Johnson's chapter is followed by Jackson Armstrong's micro-history of a cross-border feud in the Scottish marches of the fifteenth century, highlighting the ways in which the bonds of lordship expanded beyond national borders. Armstrong's very narrative history makes a number of interesting observations about the role of private vengeance in the administration of public justice; however, Armstrong's work is exceedingly insular given the broader readership of the volume. Armstrong's insularity leads him to draw seemingly obvious conclusions. In his own words, his main contribution to the field is to note that the best attempts at conciliation build new amicable relationships to replace older hostile ones. The example he offers is one of inter-marriage between families. Is this really a "new" observation--marriage as peace- making? François Soyer's examination of weapons permits and the light they can shine on Muslim feuds in medieval Portugal stands out as superlative detective work drawn from rather unusual sources. Analyzing these permits alongside crown pardons, Soyer is capable of opening a window onto the Muslim community living in Christian Portugal and its regulation, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of public institutions to quash private feuding.

Chapters by Dominique Barthélemy and Thomas Roche focus on feuding and its story-tellers. Employing the Annals of Flodoard and the Histories of Richer, Barthélemy examines how the identity of those writing about feuding has an impact on its interpretation. Barthélemy's exceedingly bottom-up approach is unusual for historians of tenth-century France. He observes that the game of indirect feuding in which lords attacked each other by targeting their lands, merely victimized the peasantry. Barthélemy's chapter is compelling and gripping with its spirited writing and refreshing perspective. It should have been one of the best chapters in the collection, but at nine pages in length (in a volume where most chapters spanned a good thirty pages), it ends abruptly before he is capable of substantiating his point. Thomas Roche's highly readable chapter on the Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis underscores the importance of the emotional context in the recording of feuds. Orderic's own monastic environment and the relationship of feuds to that community played a central role in his analysis of vengeful acts as positive (that is, undertaken by instruments of divine will) or negative (diabolical).

The final three chapters take the vocabulary of vengeance as a subject of study. Marina Brownlees literary musings on the mid-sixteenth- century Historie of Aurelio and Isabell is sorely out of place in this otherwise historically-minded volume. Inexcusably, given the lateness of the text for a medieval audience, Brownlee fails to offer a decent plot summary in order to make sense of her assertions. For example, she discusses two characters, Afranio and Hortensia, at great length without any identification or context. Drawing on the works of Foucault, Bahktin and Kristeva to guide her in her analysis, she makes many nonsensical statements about "linguistic incest" and "linguistically polluted language"; the low-point of the chapter is certainly when she references the tower imprisoning Isabell as a "metaphorical, architectural phallus" (138). The final two chapters written by the editors themselves return us to the objectives of the volume. Paul Hyams sees his "Was There Really such a Thing as Feud in the High Middle Ages?" as a corollary to his 2003 book. In trying to pin down exactly what scholars are talking about when we discuss "feud," and gain a better understanding of how "feud" differs from "vengeance," Hyams returns repeatedly to his earlier book. As someone who read (and appreciated) his book, I can see the value in having an opportunity to revise and restate one's position. However, for those who did not read it, the chapter may elicit more questions than it answers. Hyams reprises his book's stance by claiming that "[f]ew of us, however hard we try, can avoid the urge to take vengeance for the wrongs that others do to us, to try and get our own back" (151). While his book brims over with case studies drawn from the law courts of medieval England to corroborate this perspective, none of that appears in this study. Nor can he rely on the volume as a whole to make this point; while Vengeance in the Middle Ages works hard to expand the geography of vengeance culture, it does not descend down the social scale. Even Soyer's feuding Muslims in Christian Portugal represent the minority's elite, fighting over the position of alcalde, the elected leader of the Muslim community. Without the documentary support, Hymans's chapter remains an interesting, yet problematic rumination. Susanna Throop's fascinating insight into the emotional language of crusading texts focuses on the rhetorical connections between crusading, zeal, love and justice to demonstrate how emotional context went a long way to mitigate the guilt of crusading. Her work rescues the term "zeal" from the scholarly dustbin. While earlier historians have argued that zeal for crusading was an emotion tied exclusively to the First Crusade and evidence of the immature grasp of "theological subtlety" (177), rather Throop confirms the expanding discursive authority of zeal throughout the period making appearances in works by theological experts such as Bernard of Clairvaux, James of Vitry, and even Pope Innocent III.

This volume makes an important contribution to the field of vengeance studies; its greatest flaw, however, is that it fails to explain to its readers just how it is making that contribution. Neither Throop's introduction, nor Hyams' conclusion make any effort to place this work into the field's expansive historiography and clarify how what this collection is doing is different. A specialist audience may not find this necessary; without such an introduction, however, the coherence of the volume and its unique qualities are not always obvious and consequently may go unappreciated.



1. William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago, 1990), and his more recent Eye for an Eye (Cambridge, 2006); Richard Fletcher, Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 2004); Trevor Dean, "Marriage and Mutilation: Vendetta in Late Medieval Italy," Past and Present 157 (1997), 3-36; Edward Muir, Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta in Renaissance Italy (Baltimore and London, 1998).

2. Paul Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England (Ithaca, 2003), p. ix.