The Medieval Review 10.03.15

Smail, Daniel Lord and Kelly Gibson. Vengeance in Medieval Europe: A Reader. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 13. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2009. Pp. xix, 474. . $42.95 pb 978-1-4426-0126-0.

Reviewed by:

Susanna Throop
Ursinus College

Vengeance in Medieval Europe: A Reader is the thirteenth volume in the excellent series Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures from UTP Higher Education (series edited by Paul Dutton). The two editors of this volume, Daniel Smail and Kelly Gibson, have picked a unique and fascinating theme for their collection (I am admittedly partial!), making this volume an especially welcome addition to the series. It is even more valuable in its own right as an independent sourcebook of translated texts, since no other readers devoted to the burgeoning subfield of medieval vengeance yet exist. All teachers will be grateful to Smail and Gibson for producing an essential sourcebook on a timely and charged subject.

This user-friendly reader is organized chronologically, with major sections devoted to Ancient Sources for Medieval Concepts of Vengeance, The Early Middle Ages (400-1000), The High Middle Ages (1000-1250), and The Later Middle Ages (1250-1500). Within each chronological section, sources are grouped according to genre, authorship, or theme. For example, The High Middle Ages is subdivided into "The Effort to Regulate Violence and Emotion," "Sermons and Learned Commentary on Anger and Vengeance," "Saints' Lives, Chronicles, and Epics," and "Peace Charters and Oaths." Every source is listed in the Table of Contents, making it easy to find specific readings and assess holdings at a glance. Moreover, the topical index is extremely helpful for tracing specific themes like violence against women, or crimes involving property.

The volume is markedly successful in carrying out its diligent editors' promises. Smail and Gibson have ensured that all periods are equally represented, and included alongside the obvious sources (for example, the Laws of Ethelbert and works by Augustine and Aquinas) plenty of less well-known texts, including some that even hardened vengeance specialists may not know well--the story of the Levite's concubine from the Old Testament Book of Judges, the exemplum of the wolf of Gubbio, and the vengeful miracles of Saint Bridget of Sweden in particular sparked my interest. The breadth of the source material makes this reader equally suitable for courses emphasizing more traditional aspects of legal history, and for courses focused on the socio-religious context of medieval law and order. The editors did not limit themselves to works that had already been translated, or even edited. To their special credit, the volume includes new translations from manuscript sources, notably a wonderful collection of fourteenth-century lawsuits, inquests, notarized peace acts and more from the Archives Départementales des Bouches-du-Rhne (France) and the Archives Municipales de la Ville des Marseille--this goes far in dragging the scholarly center of gravity closer to the Mediterranean.

Even so and for the usual reasons of the distribution of surviving sources, a predictably large number of the sources are from England, France and Germany, and from male, Christian voices of authority. The editors conscientiously did what they could to balance the picture with sources from other regions (Eastern Europe, the Iberian peninsula, Scandinavia, etc.). They also included a number of male-authored texts that at least discuss women. There will always be those of us who wish more of a specific type of source or author had been included. That said, on the whole, this is the type of thorough and balanced sourcebook academics dream about.

My reservations about Vengeance in Medieval Europe center on its utility as a guide to the study of medieval vengeance, even one aimed primarily at undergraduates.

My first worries regard a lack of technical clarity in definition and methodology. Smail and Gibson very properly note that the words used to discuss vengeance, vengeful emotions, and vengeful practices like feud, varied--not just between different languages, but within the same language. Yet, because they do not specify the words and phrases they consider evidence for vengeance, vengeful emotion, or vengeful practices, they conceal from readers the premises behind their own view and source selection. We are not given insight into the way in which they selected their sources, and this allows for the suspicion (right or wrong) that some sources may have been chosen to fit their own modern idea of medieval vengeance, rather than that of the actual medieval actors.

To give a specific example of this issue, we are told in the Introduction that "many languages of medieval Europe...never actually developed a word for 'feud.'" Yet, we have sources titled "From Edmund's code concerning the bloodfeud," "Gregory of Tours on Feuding and Vengeance," "Rules for determining who should bear the feud," "The Bloodfeud of Meingold and Albric," "The Story of a Feud in Njal's Saga," "Henry II Settles a Feud on Monastic Land," and "Ignoring Due Process during a Feud in the Paston Letters." Were all these sources from languages that did contain specific words for "feud"--or are these sources that correspond to modern ideas of feud and bloodfeud? The lack of clarity allows for confusion.

My second, related concern is that although the study of vengeance by scholars today is dynamic and challenges many conventional ideas about medieval culture, [1] the somewhat traditional narrative framework provided by the editors does not convey the current liveliness of vengeance studies. The introduction rightly notes that in the Middle Ages, "vengeance was justice," and that examining the role of emotions like anger and hatred is pivotal to understanding medieval vengeance. Thus vengeance was not just about violence; the very existence of customs of vengeance in a society requires that customs of peacemaking and conflict resolution also exist. Well and good. However, the editors uphold two traditional assumptions about medieval vengeance that are, in my opinion, overly simplistic: first, that the "long history of vengeance may be a history of the civilizing process--how states and societies repressed the urge to do violence," and second, that "Old Testament themes of vengeance and hatred are largely absent in the books of the New Testament" and that there was a "consistent ecclesiastical stance" against vengeance.

By framing their collection as an illustration of the "civilizing" of Europe, the editors reinforce two common stereotypes about vengeance and vengeful societies: that vengeance is more primitive, less effective and less desirable than what we nowadays consider "justice," [2] and that the history of European culture is one of steady, gradual "improvement," culminating in what we consider to be the proper state of things--statehood and state-sponsored violence. My concern is that the prominence of these judgments may hinder students from approaching medieval vengeance on its own terms. That said, it may well be that the best rebuttals to the traditional story of "civilizing" are the sources themselves--in that sense, perhaps the editors very wisely have let the sources do the arguing for them.

More problematic, in my opinion, is the way the volume reinforces the related assumptions that the New Testament does not promote vengeance or violence, and that medieval Christianity consistently appealed for peace and against anger and hatred. [3] The editors do not note the pivotal New Testament verse that was used to justify all sorts of vengeance and violence, Romans 13:4-- minister Dei enim est, vindex in iram ei qui malum agit . [4] They also do not mention the Book of Revelations, possibly one of the most angry and vengeful books in the Bible as a whole, and one with great cultural influence on medieval millenarians and apocalyptic thinkers. [5] Their choice of ecclesiastical sources potentially distorts the historical record in the direction of their own assumptions (just as a group of ecclesiastical sources that all advocated anger and vengeance would, likewise, be a distortion). Similarly, the editors may exaggerate the importance of the "larger transformation in theology and Christology [in the High Middle Ages] that began to depict the Lord as a figure of peace and mercy, rather than one of vengeance, and his Son as suffering and pitiable rather than imperturbable and powerful." The popularity of the Vindicta Salvatoris narrative alone, a source included in the collection, showcases that the suffering Christ was not only interpreted as a symbol of peace and mercy--it was frequently interpreted as calling for vengeance on his behalf. [6]

For these reasons, although I will undoubtedly use sources from this volume in my own undergraduate classes, I shall hesitate to assign the volume as a whole. Scholars of medieval vengeance will find much to surprise and excite them in this collection, but because of the methodological ambiguity, many may find it most useful as a set of general directions pointing them back towards the original primary sources and secondary literature, rather than a detailed map.

I am sure that some other reviews will be more whole-hearted in their applause for this volume than I feel able to be myself. And despite my reservations, this is certainly to be welcomed as one of the more innovative and thought-provoking collection of teaching sources that has appeared in quite some time. I am personally very grateful indeed for Vengeance in Medieval Europe .



1. Most recently these two collections of essays: Dominique Barthélemy, François Bougard and Regine Le Jan, eds., La Vengeance 400-1200 (Rome, 2006) and Susanna Throop and Paul Hyams, eds., Vengeance in the Middle Ages: Emotion, Religion and Feud (Aldershot, 2010).

2. There are at least two good starting points for those interested in the rebuttal of this broad stereotype: most recently Peter French, The Virtues of Vengeance (Lawrence KS, 2001) and also the classic interdisciplinary collection edited by Raymond Verdier, La Vengeance: Études d'Ethnologie, d'Histoire et de Philosophie (4 vols, Paris, 1980-84).

3. For medieval Christianity, there is no one convenient rebuttal (yet). However, see Phillipe Buc, "La Vengeance de Dieu: De l'Exégèse Patristique à la Réforme Ecclésiastique et à la Première Croisade," in D. Barthélemy, F. Bougard and R. Le Jan (eds), La Vengeance 400-1200 (Rome, 2006), pp. 451-86; Susanna Throop, "Vengeance and the Crusades," Crusades , 5 (2006): 21-38 and "Zeal, Anger and Vengeance: The Emotional Rhetoric of Crusading," in S. Throop and P. R. Hyams, eds., Vengeance in the Middle Ages: Emotion, Religion and Feud (Aldershot, 2010); Máire Johnson, "'Vengeance is Mine': Saintly Retribution in Medieval Ireland," in S. Throop and P. Hyams (eds), Vengeance in the Middle Ages: Emotion, Religion and Feud (Aldershot, 2010); David Clark, "Revenge and Moderation: The Church and Vengeance in Medieval Iceland," Leeds Studies in English, New Series , 36 (2005): 133-56; Christina Heckman, " Imitatio in Early Medieval Spirituality: The Dream of the Rood , Anselm, and Militant Christianity," Essays in Medieval Studies , 22 (2005): 141-53; and Kimberly Rivers, "The Fear of Divine Vengeance: Mnemonic Images as a Guide to Conscience in the Late Middle Ages," in A. Scott and C. Kosso, eds., Fear and Its Representations in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Turnholt, 2002), pp. 66-91. For discussions that extend beyond the medieval period, see Timothy Gorringe, God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Cambridge, 1996) and Michel Desjardins, Peace, Violence and the New Testament (Sheffield, 1997). And although H. G. L. Peels has focused primarily on the Old Testament, his impeccable work has serious implications for the New Testament as well, and includes a discussion of those implications: The Vengeance of God: The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden, 1995).

4. To the best of my knowledge, this verse was first correctly identified by James T. Johnson in The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions (University Park PA, 1997), p. 54. I discuss it at greater length in "Zeal, Anger and Vengeance: The Emotional Rhetoric of Crusading" (full citation in note 3 above) and in my forthcoming Crusading as an Act of Vengeance, 1095-1216 (Ashgate).

5. See for example Adela Y. Collins, "Persecution and Vengeance in the Book of Revelation," in D. Hellholm, ed., Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East (Tbingen, 1983), pp. 729-49.

6. For more on this narrative and its popularity see Stephen K. Wright, The Vengeance of our Lord: Medieval Dramatizations of the Destruction of Jerusalem (Toronto, 1989); Alvin E. Ford, ed., La Vengeance de Nostre-Seigneur: The Old and Middle French Prose Versions (2 vols, Toronto, 1984-93); and Loyal A. T. Gryting (ed.), The Oldest Version of the Twelfth-Century Poem La Venjance Nostre Seigneur (Ann Arbor, 1952).