03.12.17, Baraz, Medieval Cruelty

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Mitchell Merback

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.017


Baraz, Daniel. Medieval Cruelty: Changing Perceptions, Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. Series: Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 225. ISBN: 0-8014-3817-9.

Reviewed by:
Mitchell Merback
Depauw University

Condemnations of the enemy's cruelty have staged a remarkable political comeback in the past year. Well before the first shots were fired in Iraq, alarming news of Saddam Hussein's torture chambers started showing up in a supporting role as rationales for the U. S. administration's plans to topple the Baathist regime. Once Baghdad fell, however, and the primary rationale for the war-- predictions about weapons of mass destruction being transferred to terrorist clients--began to melt into air, official word of the dictator's cruelty, dramatized on TV, was parlayed into a fully sufficient, retroactive casus bellus. Eager to put humanitarian dress on an otherwise naked imperial adventure, American liberals were likewise heard gravely invoking the horrors of Saddamic cruelty. That, as of this writing, public support for the war still remains above the impeachment threshold, despite a growing awareness of high-level mischief, means that the cruelty trope, the subject of Daniel Baraz's impressive new study, has lost little of its inflammatory power over the course of two millenia. By compelling consensus about the just desserts of tyrants who persecute, punish, kill, torture, and oppress their enemies in excess of civilization's limits, the trope still legitimizes at a stroke the application of force-- ideological as well as physical-- by the representatives of good, legitimate, and just violence.

Political morality is but one of the discursive contexts into which Baraz delves as he explicates the changing roles, meanings, and perceptions of this single, protean concept-- cruelty, from the Latin crudelitas, derived from crudus, meaning "raw"-- over the long duration of late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and early modern period. Focusing on a corpus of texts comprised largely of chronicles, hagiographical, and philosophical works, Medieval Cruelty offers a detailed anatomy of what its author calls the "lexical field" of references to unjust and excessive violence. This effort to "reconstruct the basic conceptual framework of cruelty" (4) takes him back to-- but no farther than-- Seneca and forward from the Middle Ages to-- but little farther than-- Montaigne (glimpses of our own culture's uses of cruelty are fleeting, and modern treatments of the theme in psychology and ethics, like the tradition's biblical paradigms, are sequestered from the main narrative in their own appendix). Baraz brings to the project an unimpeachable knowledge of the relevant texts and an enviable command of languages for dealing with them; his discussion of Mongol atrocities, for example, ably compares Latin and Arabic chronicles of the invasions. The writing is straightforward, free of jargon, driven by a clear thesis, and backed by a sweeping historical narrative. Yet the book is not quite everything it claims to be. Although inspired, according to the author, by Lucien Febvre's impassioned call for a history of cruelty as one installment in a collaborative histoire de sensibilite [[1]], the overall approach here is largely philological, at times narrowly so. While scholars should, and I think will, greet the work as a diligently researched contribution to the history of ideas, general public readers may find the extended treatments, if not the overall approach, pedantic. Baraz proves himself alert to the nuances of how diverse medieval authors recounted and lamented the myriad forms of violence that best their societies, but equally capable of missing the rhetorical point of what his sources are staking out. Having for all intents and purposes cracked the cruelty code, a great accomplishment in itself, the book ultimately falls short in showing how its diverse decrypted meanings might be reinscribed within a larger history of violence in the Middle Ages.

Chapter one, which appeared earlier in a more focused form [[2]], introduces the author's methodological framework through a telescoped history of cruelty references whose guiding spirit is Seneca's De clementia (a treatise addressed to Nero and written for basic training in the moral education of the prince); the framework Baraz develops here rests on an immovable distinction between explicit and implicit modes of reference; and this serves the author as both taxonomic device and heuristic principle for analyzing the diverse approaches to writing about cruelty. Unlike Aristotle, whose Nicomachean Ethics dealt "with concepts related to cruelty but not with cruelty itself," Seneca stands for Baraz as "the first thinker to deal with cruelty as a subject per se" (14). This phrase, "as a subject per se," encapsulates the rigor, but also the rigidity, in Baraz's approach. Authors disposed to theoretical discussions of cruelty, as opposed to those who invoke it by name without discussing it, or those who invoke it only indirectly, become here the privileged interlocutors for cultural perceptions. It would appear that the author has staged an all-out raid on the western tradition for the word crudelitas and its derivations, and discovered beneath the diversity "two primary fields of reference": cruelty denoting irrational and inhuman forms of violence associated with wild beasts and demons (this includes crudelis, iratus, saevus, atrox and ferox), and cruelty denoting a human quality linked to the dispensation of unjust punishments (severitas, austeritas, etc.) Baraz is rightly keen on the fact that cruelty gets its start in the Latin classical tradition. He also demonstrates vividly that classical pedigree was often the decisive factor in medieval resuscitations of the cruelty trope.

Yet the realization of cruelty's potential as a term of moral opprobrium did not enter medieval intellectual culture along a continuous path. From late antiquity until the central Middle Ages a long silence prevailed. In early Christian martyrdom accounts, whose antagonists, the pagan rulers of yore, would qualify as cruel by any standard, references to their particular brand of unjust violence are always oblique; nor does the general subject of cruelty invite speculation among late antique writers. Whereas in Eusebius's martyrological writings in Greek, for example, cruelty is only represented, Rufinus's tellings of the same events, translated from Eusebius, reveal a "detailed and explicit mode of reference to cruelty" that seems to be "a Latin peculiarity" (45; cf. Appendix 3). In the early to high Middle Ages this detached attitude toward atrocious violence persists; Baraz's survey of chronicles before about 1200 reveals an "almost complete disappearance of explicit references to cruelty despite historical circumstances" (11), that is, despite endemic feudal warfare, the Muslim conquest of Iberia, Viking depredations in the north, and a nascent public awareness of the perfidious rituals performed in the heart of Christian society by a tolerated religious minority, the Jews. Even those writers who served as eyewitnesses to the grim events they describe, evince a "detached attitude toward violence" (4). Only in the era of scholasticism, namely in Aquinas's Summa Theologia, do we encounter the "re-emergence of cruelty as a topic for speculation" (22). Once in place, this medieval model, directly inspired by Senecan ethics, became the baseline for the "intensifying cultural preoccupation" with cruelty characteristic of the later Middle Ages. In the course of the sixteenth century, however, this model gets displaced as ethnographical accounts of the primitive savagery of New World natives circulated alongside reports of atrocities committed during the European Wars of Religion. Together, Baraz suggests, these discourses contributed to an "explosive growth of the cultural role of cruelty" (12). It was left for Montaigne, who personally observed the vicious marauding of "souls so monstrous that they would commit murder for the sheer fun of it," to bring this early modern tradition to its culmination in his critique of "ordinary vices" (treachery, disloyalty, cruelty and tyranny). Thus were presaged our modern, democratic limits on judicial force, for example, those enshrined in the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

Before explaining these dramatic changes in the cultural predisposition to discuss cruelty, Baraz rightly dispatches the old saw about how a medieval "familiarity" with violence resulted in its normalization, which in turn bred an unthinking coarseness of attitudes (though he surely did not mean to be cruel, the author unjustly blames this paradigm on Johann Huizinga and Norbert Elias, whose portrayals of medieval mental structures suffer the violence of caricature in Baraz's account). In place of this notion the author identifies three principle factors that came into play whenever speculative interest in cruelty surged or receded: "the perceived relation between body and soul, the diffusion of the Latin classical heritage, and the relative weight of actions and intentions in the ethical systems dominant in a particular cultural context" (28). These three themes sound again and again throughout the book (the third far more frequently), and with them Baraz performs a number of nicely pitched analytical refrains. Every so often they are subsumed by the general conclusion that invocations of cruelty are culturally conditioned and even subjective. As moral norms shift, Baraz explains in a typical passage, so do perceptions of what constitutes their transgression: "cruelty is a threshold concept. Violence that is deemed excessive-- for a variety of reasons-- is defined as cruelty" (7).

Yet Baraz's survey also makes clear that none of these factors would have brought the cruelty trope to the fore unless one other essential condition was in place: an intense awareness of ethnic and religious difference, what our social sciences have taken to calling "otherness." There is a stunning proverb Clifford Geertz relates in his great study of the Balinese cockfight: "Every people loves its own form of violence." [[3]] After reading Medieval Cruelty, I am certain there is a counterpart truth that is nearly as universal: that the violence of the other is hated, it inspires horror or terror (depending on one's proximity to it), and its effects are felt to be polluting. The discourse of cruelty serves as a powerful tool for drawing boundaries around other people's violence. Baraz traces this tendency back to Herodotus's potrayal of the Scythians as cannibals-- "the most enduring image of the cruel 'other' in Western historiograhy until the sixteenth century" (30)-- and Ammianus Marcellinus's detailed descriptions of the Goths and the Huns, which "linked cruelty and savagery to irrationality and consequently related it to madness and beastly behavior" (31). He also draws out the dilemma that arose for the "ethics of intention" when Christian authors regarded the wanton destructiveness of foreign invaders-- pagan Vikings, infidel Saracens, godless Mongols-- as a divine chastisement, a flagellum of God (63). Biblical fields of reference here clashed with the anthropologically-oriented critique of otherness derived from the classical tradition.

Although the stigmatizing mechanism endured within the discourses of cruelty, the motifs that clinched the portrayal of the other as cruel were ever-shifting. In western medieval sources Baraz notes a striking divergence between the type of atrocities most frequently attributed to Viking invaders-- violence against clerics and the destruction of church properties-- and those reported for the Mongols-- the systematic extermination of towns, aggravated rape, and cannibalism. Each attribution stemmed in no small measure from observations of actual events and practices, but their cultural importance for Baraz lies less in their veracity than in their coding of ethnic and religious distinctions. Cannibalism, for example, functioned for Europeans as a radical exoticizing trope and as such aroused intense horror, but also fascination. While tending to be only "minor issues" in Muslim sources for the Mongols, cannibalism reports galvanized western perceptions against the menace posed by Christendom's archenemies-- linking threats both foreign (Mongols) and domestic (Jews). Culturally conditioned, the cannibalism topos was at the center of Christendom's siege mentality and, in Baraz's view, exemplifies a "whole new mode of reference to cruelty" characterized by "detailed descriptions . . . density of references . . . and their affective tone" (100-01).

Baraz duly acknowledges the conventionalized nature of these alienating expletives, noting for example that the appearance of the cannibalism topos in western sources (again) betrays the influence of Latin classical culture. He also outlines a historical explanation for the shifting direction of cruelty tropes that I found persuasive: he argues that internal enemies like Jews, or the peasant insurgents of the Jacquerie (whom Froissart denounced as chiens esragies), bore the brunt of cruelty-based denunciations in "interim" periods such as the fourteenth century, when the Albigensian heresy had been all but stamped out and the threat of massive external invasion had temporarily abated). Further, this corresponded to a moment when "the discourse of cruelty as a descriptive tool" had reached "the peak of its development" (121-22). From this point onward the descriptive discourse "assumes an ever- increasing political and social role, to such a degree that its descriptive role would no longer be separable from its manipulative political role" (122).

But Baraz tends to skirt a fundamental question that his historical findings raise: What part empirical and what part conventional, what part real and what part rhetorical, is a given writer's portrayal of events or behaviours in a given context? If the cultural importance of the cruelty trope lies in its shifting applications to situations of conflict-- real or imagined-- and not in its political or ethnographic precision, then the interpretation of texts should lead, one might think, to some understanding of the relative weights of description, ascription, proscription and prescription in their overall structure. Such an interpretive imperative leads-- if one were to accept it -- to the demand that we deploy our best and most plausible reconstructions of context, the "background" against which we sort out the competing preoccupations of his texts. For the most part Baraz underestimates his readers' need for context, and what he does provide is too closely intertwined with the analyses of texts to allow the reader to form some kind of independent picture of events in which evil is allegedly done (naturally this is not a problem in texts whose evildoers, for example the Jews of ritual murder lore, are patent fabrications or projections). Does the author believe his informants can also be relied upon to furnish neutral data about the actions and events they describe, even as they come under philological scrutiny as the makers of constructed representations? I realize that the very possibility of reconstructing socio-cultural realities from texts, and counting on them to form stable "contexts" has been much contested and remains highly debatable. Unhindered by such doubts, at least none that he expresses, Baraz on a case by case basis makes no special effort made to distinguish the facticity of medieval violence from his texts' mediated portrayals of it (in a sense the book as a whole may be understood as an exercise in this very thing). About his disciplinary orientation he is quite frank, explaining at the outset, "this book is concerned primarily with abstract entities--conceptions, representations, attitudes, and so on" (9). This is not to say that Baraz discounts the historical reality: throughout he evinces an awareness that the discourse of cruelty was triggered as much by the eruption of real violence into society as the circulation of texts; but he gauges the sensitivity of the trigger reductively, usually with phrases like "extremely high levels" (180) or the "unprecedented magnitude" (92) of violence, supported by little analysis.

Given the book's claim to be capturing changing cultural attitudes across a longue duree, Baraz's criteria for selecting sources should be considered. Perhaps because the corpus of texts he handles is already considerable, the author ventures only rarely beyond the specific genres he has identified as the truest vehicles of cultural attitudes toward cruelty -- historiography, hagiography and moral philosophy. That Seneca's dramatic works, Ovid's Metamophoses, or Apuleius's Golden Ass, "deeply influenced representations of cruelty from the central Middle Ages onward" (177-78) is asserted but not substantively discussed (cf. 32). Moreover, other entire domains of cultural representation, such as the visual arts or theatre, are waved aside or ignored (in a footnote the author voices a common misconception that iconographic sources "by their nature . . . belong to the mode of showing [rather than telling]" and this, he avers, makes it difficult to distinguish cruelty from mere violence (4)). Such self-imposed limits are of course understandable and necessary when any one scholar frames a project. But without an attempt to trace structural and poetic affinities between literary genres for one thing, or between different modes of symbolic production for another, claims about the abstraction we call culture-- nothing more and nothing less than the symbolic relationships that lend diverse social practices conceptual coherence-- will not be sufficiently grounded. Reading Medieval Cruelty we learn a lot about how philosophers, hagiographers, chroniclers and (to a lesser degree) legal scholars forged into culture their particular concerns about violence, but little about how singers, poets, preachers, stage-directors, painters, woodcutters and popular publishers did the same. Baraz tries to remedy this imbalance by invoking reception theory, arguing that texts, as reliable indicators of a "horizon of expectations" shared by author and audience, betoken collective perceptions within the culture at large. Strictly speaking a single author and his audience do form a collectivity, but the social narrowness of literary audiences before the printing press means that a larger net is needed if one wants to make claims about cultural paradigms of thought and feeling.

That elite perceptions of cruelty are to serve in Baraz's account as privileged indicators of mentalities becomes clear early in the book, when the author makes clear his two principle criteria for classifying sources: whether a given text treats cruelty "as an issue per se" (4, 13, 14, 15, 22, etc.), and the relative explicitness or implicitness of a text's semantic references to the concept. Baraz also maintains the distinction between invocations of cruelty and theoretical discussions of it; the latter requires "a full conceptual construct of cruelty" and the former does not (13). From this he extrapolates: "the presence or absence of these discussions in different historical periods is indicative of the level of cultural preoccupation with cruelty" (13). But because the "scarcity of texts obliges us to examine sources that represent cruelty but do not directly reflect on the concept" (4), Baraz must broaden his taxonomy to encompass the "lexical field" in which cruelty might be merely connoted, invoked in everything but name. Baraz is highly adept at teasing out nuances of meaning within each textual tradition he studies, but problems flare when a single lexical choice is made to stand as the primary indicator of changing cultural preoccupations. The insistence on classifying texts by the presence or absence of direct invocations of the word crudelitas leads to circular reasoning and foregone conclusions. To take one example, Baraz considers that Arabic chroniclers made no explicit references to their cruelty because no exact Arabic equivalent for the word exists: so despite the fact that there existed "a semantic field for expressing the general meaning" (113), that the Mongols seem to have inspired the same terror in Muslims as in Christians, and that one word-- qazwa-- was routinely rendered as "cruelty" in Latin (crudelitas) and Hebrew (akhzariut) translations, Baraz still concludes, "cruelty is a cultural issue only in the medieval west" (180). It is as if the author was consistency-bound to treat certain terms in the "secondary" field of reference as weak or negative indicators of cultural interest. Odd, because here as elsewhere the author shows himself willing and able to offer substantive reasons for why writers in different contexts and different cultural traditions treated the problem of "cruelty" in the special way they did. The stubborn determination to note the presence or absence of a single word in each text will, I suspect, strike other readers as a conceptual hobgoblin in an otherwise diverse set of considerations.

Does Medieval Cruelty fulfill Lucien Febvre's impassioned call for a history of cruelty to be written alongside histories of joy, love, pity, hate and death? Certainly in Baraz's accomplished study we have a convincing set of explanations for the elite uses and abuses of a crucial literary trope-- the center of gravity of an entire semantic field-- with a matchless power to stigmatize, marginalize, de- legitimate and persecute. But a more integrated treatment still waits on the horizon. I was frustrated with the cursory treatment given the judicial and legal contexts on the premise that "cruelty is almost never an issue in legal sources" (26); with the author's non-engagement with the large and diverse literature on the history of the body -- despite a claim that the "perceived relation between body and soul" (7) should be regarded as a crucial explanatory factor in the changing preoccupations with cruelty; with his corollary neglect of the large literature on attitudes toward death; and with the tepid acknowledgement of the strong cultural current-- from Aristotle and Aeschylus to the medieval dramatists, from Nietzsche, de Sade and Freud to Artaud-- connecting cruelty's unique moral transgressiveness to aesthetic and erotic pleasure.[[5]] Absent this kind of integrative approach, pioneered incidentally by the Annalistes, we are still left wondering about medieval people's historical experience of those forms of violence-- excessive, unjust, repugnant, exotic-- that in certain circles went under the rubric crudelitas. "What in fact," asked Febvre in the same essay that inspired Baraz, "can we get from a study of vocabulary? Not very much as far as sentiments are concerned."[[6]]

In the end Baraz might have preferred to have inverted commas placed around the central phrase of his title to express his apparent skepticism that the adjective "cruel" might convey anything of the historical reality of "medieval" violence or medieval people's acculturation to it. And given the current epidemic of susceptibility to self-valorizing rationales for aggression, we need to be as suspicious of the discourses condemning cruelty as Tertullian (c. 160-225) was when he wrote in his De spectaculis: "If these tragedies and comedies, bloody and lustful, impious and prodigal, teach outrage and lust, the study of what is cruel or vile is no better than itself. What in action is rejected, is not in word to be accepted."[[7]] But inquiring into medieval culture's violent experiences and tendencies-- for example the violent quality of medieval piety studied by Caroline Walker Bynum, Thomas Bestul, Timothy Mitchell, Lionel Rothkrug and many others [[8]]-- is not the same thing as asking whether the Middle Ages, or any period, was objectively a "cruel" age. In his zeal to reveal the anachronism behind such notions, Baraz has glossed over some important issues that would have lent greater depth to his survey. Nevertheless, Medieval Cruelty will undoubtedly hold a key place among future efforts to lay bare the social and mental structures that governed not only human aggressiveness, destructiveness, terrorism and atrocity, but also those forms of life, politics and culture devoted to their mitigation and transcendence.

[[1]] Febvre enunciated this program in his manifesto of 1941, translated as "Sensibility and History: How to Reconstitute the Emotional Life of the Past", in A New Kind of History and Other Essays, trans. K. Folca, ed. Peter Burke (New York: Harper, 1973), which Baraz invokes in his preface (ix).

[[2]] "Seneca, Ethics, and the Body--the Treatment of Cruelty in Medieval Thought," Journal of the History of Ideas 59, no. 2 (1998): 195-215.

[[3]] Clifford Geertz, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," in The Interpretation of Culture: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 449.

[[4]] I noted this remark since it was appended to a citation (p. 141, n. 48) of my The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (London and Chicago, 1999), but I took no special umbrage with it. Elsewhere (175) Baraz contradicts this stated position by noting the motif of smiling executioners in some Passion scenes.

[[5]] Baraz writes inconclusively of "the subversive pleasure of dealing with the subject [of cruelty]" (176). Though one can hardly fault him for taking real cruelty itself so seriously-- Montaigne himself insisted that "what we hate we take seriously"-- the aesthetic and erotic discourses of cruelty certainly deserve a place in any overall treatment. For a dazzling introduction to these issues, see Jody Enders, The Medieval Theatre of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

[[6]] Febvre, "Sensibility and History," 20.

[[7]] Quoted in Enders, The Medieval Theatre of Cruelty, 9.

[[8]] For an overview of these issues, see Caroline Walker Bynum, "Violent Imagery in Late Medieval Piety," Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 30 (Spring 2002): 3-36, and my "Reverberations of Guilt and Violence, Resonances of Peace: A Comment on Caroline Walker Bynum's Lecture" in the same issue, pages 37-50, with further references.

Article Details

Author Biography

Mitchell Merback

Depauw University