Linda Mitchell

title.none: Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation (Linda Mitchell )

identifier.other: baj9928.0408.002 04.08.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Linda Mitchell , Alfred University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Hyams, Paul R. Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England. Series: Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. xxvii, 344. $45.00 0-8014-3996-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.08.02

Hyams, Paul R. Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England. Series: Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. xxvii, 344. $45.00 0-8014-3996-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Linda Mitchell
Alfred University

In Rancor and Reconciliation, Paul Hyams (Cornell University) has created a long-needed bridge between legal and social history, especially with respect to the ways historians look at legal and juridical texts and what they tell us about the interactions of medieval people. Spanning an impressive chronological range, from the later years of the reign of King Alfred (d. 899) to about 1300 and the later years of the reign of King Edward I (d. 1307), Hyams focuses specifically on what some social historians and anthropologically-inclined legal historians often refer to as "self-help" in the realm of dispute resolution: the tendency of medieval families and communities to engage in vendetta-style actions and to use whatever kinds of legal means available to work against their enemies and opponents. Making clear distinctions between "feud," "proto-trespass," "felony," and "trespass," Hyams traces the process whereby royal intervention led to the delineation of violent interactions into discrete legal categories while at the same time admitting that such categories were not often clearly understood by the people using them. In the process of tracing these categories, Hyams also discusses the ways in which the legal innovations of Henry II--especially the possessory assizes and the establishment of the Grand Jury--worked as well to neutralize or address vendetta actions and were sometimes used as a substitute for feud, especially since they were often open to abuse and manipulation. Finally, he focuses on the development of the central courts after the Barons' War and the rebellion of Simon de Montfort and how the establishment of separate common pleas and crown pleas (already in evidence in the early thirteenth-century eyres but embedded formally in the system by Edward I) with their individual courts succeeded in establishing the basis for what eventually became the distinction between felony and tort in Common Law.

Instead of approaching this laundry-list of legal actions linearly and chronologically, Hyams chose to organize his text more by subject, although a rough and general chronology also exists. Part One, entitled "Approaches to the Study of Wrong," focuses on defining terms such as feud, enmity, friendship, and affinity and on describing medieval cultures of violence, including the highly formalized systems of vendetta and feud that characterized the legal environment of early Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. Part Two, "Undifferentiated Wrong and its Redress," discusses the issues of law and order in England from roughly the reign of Cnut to that of John and the ways in which late Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and Angevin kings used changing notions of royal law and sanctions against violation of both the Church's Peace of God and the secular King's Peace to try to move communities away from private warfare into the public venue of the court, the formal wager of law (trial by battle), and eventually the use of juries of presentment. Part Three, "An Enmity Culture: Writs, Wrongs, and Vengeance in the Age of the Common Law," extends the discussion of Part Two into the thirteenth century and the growing differentiation between the civil plea of trespass and the crown plea of felony. It is important to note that Hyams often puts aside the apparent chronology inherent in these subtitles and moves between eras within each section comfortably, if occasionally confusingly. This is especially the case in Part One, which operates not only as a venue for defining terminology and laying out the rest of the book, but also as an historical introduction to the concept of vengeance cultures and how they contrast to legal cultures.

An appendix completes the text's organization. Instead of incorporating case narratives into each section as appropriate, Hyams chose to include them all in an appendix, where they could be discussed more elaborately and where the citation apparatus would not become overwhelmingly Byzantine. This was a good choice, but necessitates a certain amount of backing-and-forthing that can also break up the flow of the narrative in the main text. If the reader waits until the end to read the case studies, they provide interesting examples of different kinds of vengeance actions and the ways in which people engaged in acts of vengeance interacted with the prevailing legal systems, but their specific context as examples within particular discussions in the main text are lost. I cannot see any other way of dealing with the complexities inherent in such a textual organization, however, and Hyams seems to have been sensitive to the issues that extracting these examples and segregating them in an appendix raises. Nevertheless, a little more context embedded in each narrative in the appendix would have been welcome. His bibliography is extensive, but does not separate primary and secondary sources, and so is not as useful as it could be for the researcher seeking out the kinds of sources Hyams uses so elegantly.

The issues in which Hyams is most intereste--the ultimate establishment of both civil and crown venues for adjudicating vendetta and its effect on private violence--become much clearer about halfway through the book, as the legal innovations of Henry II began the crystallization process completed by Edward I. Before this time, royal attempts to control private warfare were inconsistent at best, not only because kings did not have formal legal mechanisms at their disposal but also because kings themselves presided over cultures that viewed "vengeance" as an appropriate motivation for warfare. Hyams' challenging thesis is that this "vengeance culture" did not radically change over the course of four hundred years of legal development; the venues for engaging in acts of vengeance, however, did change. Medieval people simply began to use legal mechanisms as they became more available instead of more ad hoc means to proceed against their enemies. This becomes really obvious when the action of trespass is established as a common plea: it becomes one of the most well-used pleas in the arsenal of the central courts.

Hyams does not limit himself to an analysis of the relationship between legal developments and individual actions, however. In all three sections of the text he also subjects legal theorists from the Carolingian era to the turn of the fourteenth century to scrutiny: how did theorists define violence, how did they equate vengeance with legal actions, how did they incorporate Roman legal definitions and categories into the growing analysis of English Common Law, and so on. In the process, Hyams also raises a series of challenges to traditional legal historians who depict the period after Henry II as increasingly law-abiding and the enormous expansion of the system of adjudication in the thirteenth century as a successful translation of dispute resolution from local and informal venues to the central and formal venue of the law court. Hyams also disputes--although he does not discuss at length--the characterization of the era between 1300 and 1485 as increasingly lawless and the growth of "bastard feudalism" as a response to the ineffectiveness of the central courts as a result of the breakdown of royal power late in the reign of Edward III. Instead, he suggests that the system known as bastard feudalism was simply another developmental mechanism that recreated the kinds of patronage webs that had always operated within medieval English culture but which are masked in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by the historians' emphasis on the successful establishment of royal courts of law.

If the above description sounds like a rather tall order, rest assured: it is. This is a densely packed book, by turns anecdotal and informal and highly technical. It is also more or less unique in the field of legal history, since Hyams makes a legitimate attempt to make substantive connections between the ways in which legalists use legal texts and the ways in which social and cultural historians use them. The integration of legal theory, social analysis, and case analysis is sophisticated but also sometimes nearly overwhelming, especially when Hyams mixes analysis of other historians into the pot. This is not a text that can be skimmed or read at leisure. It requires careful attention and a good deal of pondering. If the reader is willing to engage, it is a rewarding experience, but this book is not for the fainthearted or the beginner. For the historian who is struggling to integrate legal analysis with social and cultural analysis, on the other hand, this book is a must-read.