05.06.04, Meyerson, Thiery, and Falk, eds., 'A Great Effusion of Blood'

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Anna Klosowska

The Medieval Review baj9928.0506.004


Meyerson, Mark D., Daniel Thiery, and Oren Falk, eds.. 'A Great Effusion of Blood'?: Interpreting Medieval Violence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 319. ISBN: 0-8020-8774-4.

Reviewed by:
Anna Klosowska
Miami University

Reading this collection reminded me of a recent song: "There's no sex in your violence." Partly because, at 319 pages, this very, very fine, traditional offering from Toronto should have been culled. To give one example, on p. 181, there is a half-page diagram that illustrates the difference between cruelty as a subset of violence vs. a category separate from violence. Excellent idea when targeting a lay audience, but shouldn't the authors also consider the more learned reader?

If many articles take Rene Girard's work on sacrifice, if any at all, as the sole theoretical referent--an impoverished way to speak about violence, considering its central place in philosophy and literary and historical criticism--others do engage a dialogue with current research and theory. John Carmi Parsons' discussion of aristocratic women who successfully leveraged their public and private assets to fend off repudiation, establishes connections with the rich literature on Chaucer's Clerk's Tale and with the work of Peggy McCracken, Jane Burns, Lynn Hunt, and Louise Fradenburg on intersections of the "body politic" with the queen's body. Parsons' close reading is not only subtle, it also sets a standard of what can be tactfully sustained in a book chapter. Richard Firth Green's contribution, on the other hand, opens up a vast field. Green cites Robin Hood ballads, May Robin plays, riots and executions, to propose an alternative ("occlusive" regime) to both Foucault's Discipline and Punish (specular vs. carceral) and Peter Stallybrass' and Thomas Laqueur's readings of popular revolt as a carnivalesque reversal of state-related power.

John M. Hill's chapter on social rise of Wiglaf and Beowulf through violence opens the collection, followed by two articles addressing the role played by slaves and conversos in family vendettas in late medieval Iberia, by Debra Blumenthal and Mark D. Meyerson, a particularly valuable contribution considering the current alignment of medieval and postcolonial studies. Of the two, Meyerson's chapter tackles a more complex set of issues, and draws a richer set of conclusions. I particularly appreciated Meyerson's focus on drastic changes in social fabric that did not happen at but resulted from conversion, through subsequent spatial separation of families and lack of intermarriage between Jews and conversos. Both propose important corrections to our understanding of the role of slaves and conversos, drawing convincing arguments from formidably few sources. Eve Salisbury analyzes Gower's narrative of the Rising of 1381, and Oren Falk gives a jaunty (stylistically) argument for considering the witnesses, not the combatants, as the authors of violence (or pacification) in Norse duels. Anne McKim's chapter struck me as particularly tightly argued. Through the reading of Scottish historical accounts, McKim shows that, without exception, justified and excessive violence is a construct that directly depends on whose side the protagonist fights, and concludes: "historical writing in medieval Scotland was a symbolic practice, 'a form of violence in its own right'" (140).

Beth Cracchiolo shows the gender division (men as active subjects, women as passive objects) in the representation of violence in martyrdom in the South English Legendary . Daniel Baraz shows that the difference between legitimate violence and its excess, cruelty, is culturally constructed, through the analysis of documents related to the Viking and Mongol raids in the West and hagiography ("Coptic Martyrdoms of Byzantine Egypt"), concluding that "a conscious move to distinguish between violence and cruelty seems to have existed in the medieval West, but not in most Eastern societies" (179). This could be very interesting, if borne out by further study. Dawn Marie Hayes argues that there was a projection of the "body politic" of the Church of which Beckett was the head as archbishop of Canterbury, on Beckett's body, in the accounts of his assassination, by attending to the charged representation of the wounds to the martyr's head. M. C. Bodden discusses Chaucer's Clerk's Tale in the light of Girard and others on sacrifice and torture (Scarry, Bailie, Thapar, and others), as well as engaging other recent contributions on martyrdom and Chaucer, including Karen Winstead, Mark Ledbetter, and others.

In the last chapter, David Hay synthesizes his doctoral dissertation on Matilda of Canossa in an essay that contextualizes misogyny. Providing links to current research on women in warfare, he seeks to correct the perception that female landowners were rarely involved in or praised for the military protection of their assets. In his history-of-the-canon study, Hay traces the legitimating (by political supporters) and delegitimating (by political opponents, the patristic tradition and, later, Gratian) of Matilda's military leadership in particular and women's participation in public office (legitimized violence, jurisdiction and government) in general.

The Editors provide an Introduction and a Conclusion. The book is divided into two parts, "Identity Formation" and "The Body," although (as must be apparent from the description of the chapters), this division is practical rather than functional.

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Anna Klosowska

Miami University