09.06.03, Lansing, Passion and Order

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Shona Kelly Wray

The Medieval Review baj9928.0906.003


Lansing, Carol. Passion and Order: Restraint of Grief in the Medieval Italian Communes. Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008. Pp. 264. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4062-5.

Reviewed by:
Shona Kelly Wray
University of Missouri, Kansas City

This is a remarkable study of the formation of the medieval political state. Carol Lansing examines the development of laws to establish peaceful and orderly community within the thirteenth-century Italian commune, beginning with the town and archives that she has previously examined to great effect, Orvieto. The impetus for her research was a surprising set of evidence in the legal records that she knows so well. Thirteenth-century Orvieto legislated against histrionic displays of grief with language aimed at women, but, Lansing discovered, in almost all cases men were prosecuted, not women. This seeming paradox prompted the question: Why would the political elite make laws which they themselves would break and for which they would be fined? Her central argument is that the laws on emotional display at funerals were part of the medieval Italian communes' attempts at creating an orderly urban environment: lawmakers were promoting and maintaining the vita civile by controlling emotion.

Her work begins with the town of Orvieto. Although this town does not garner as much attention from modern scholars and tourists, medieval Orvieto held a high degree of prominence in the region due to its strategic position on the road from Rome to the north and the fact that it played host to the papal court and was the site for a Dominican studium. More attention is merited also because Orvieto's modest size and political history reflects that of more Italian towns than heavily-studied Florence and Venice. Lansing's description of the political history of Orvieto is a masterful piece and great starting place for anyone wanting to understand the complexities of medieval Italian politics, such as the rise and composition of elites, relations between city and countryside, the rise of the popolo, how the rule of podestà and of Capitano del Popolo functioned, and how the civil courts worked. Chapter Two examines death rituals and funeral laws in medieval Italy. Laws, developed largely in thirteenth century, were most concerned with loud, public displays of grief and strong gesticulations, especially tearing of hair. Orvieto was unusual in that it actually enforced these funeral laws, while most other places were concerned with curfew, weapons, and gambling. Lansing argues that laments involved large groups of men. These men were fined, with the amount depending on how greatly they expressed their grief. Knights and the elite were prominent among those fined for mourning violations, but along with them were artisans, guildsmen, and notably government officials. The law, then, was not directed at a social class or political factions--it was directed at men of the commune, the lawmakers themselves. Having set up this surprising difference between law and practice, the following chapters move beyond Orvieto to find parallels and influences for this behavior.

Chapter Three looks at medieval funeral practices around Italy using all sorts of evidence from epic poems, romances, visual art, saints' lives, and finally homicide inquests. Traditional reaction to death was loud grief in which whole families and communities joined. Lansing finds that lamentation was not always a female role; it was expected that men showed their emotions. For male nobles this was a particularly strong trait; it was a way to honor the dead that was linked to their military culture. Commoners joined them, supporting and honoring the courtly culture that was so popular in the thirteenth-century Italian town.

The next three chapters look for the origins of the thirteenth-century Italian communes' restraint of grief. Chapter Four examines the history of ideas on lamentation and gender, by taking a series of historical and literary vignettes from the ancient world. Ancient Greek funeral laws and philosophical writers such as Plato shared the views of the medieval Italians. Lamentation was seen as emotional, cowardly, and shameful--essentially female. Death, instead, ought to be viewed with rationality and male, philosophic restraint. The case of Solon's Athens neatly mirrors that of thirteenth-century Orvieto where women's dress and excessive lamentation were restrained because they were disruptive. Similarly, offenders, including men, were punished for "indulging in unmanly and effeminate feelings and faults" (108). Stoic thought also saw grieving as feminine and weak, something to be controlled for the benefit of the journey of the soul to attain rational detachment from the emotions. The Church Fathers were concerned that mourning demonstrated denial of Christian belief in resurrection and was a return to Jewish or pagan practices. Most of them were concerned that lamentation weakened early Christianity's reputation in a competing world, but others, like John Chrysostom, were passionate about mourning for reasons of gender: he feminized mourning as an offensive and shameful act, verging towards the foul depths of female sexuality with the display of flesh. Lansing briefly examines early Islamic views to find the same kinds of association of lamentation, gender, and fears of political disorder.

Chapter Five explores medieval Christian ideas on lament. The clergy did not dwell on denouncing non-Christian methods of grief, but instead focused on urging intercession for the dead, especially through commemorative masses. Thirteenth-century preachers recognized the importance of sorrow for the Christian, for this was vital to contrition and penance. Lansing argues that powerful emotions portrayed in the art and laude or hymns of the thirteenth century served to move the viewer to sorrow for their sins, to inspire contrition. The individual should turn the attention away from mourning for those dead and gone to internal reflection on his or her own sin. The inspiration, then, for the commune's concern to maintain social order by controlling emotion came from elsewhere, from lay intellectuals, such as Boncompagno da Signa and Albertano of Brescia, whose works are analyzed in Chapter Six.

Boncompagno's Antiqua rhetorica surveys mourning customs from around the world beginning with the Romans. While he noted that customs change by culture, Boncompagno often ridiculed histrionic laments and always held up the proper lament as a dignified, Latin elegy. In his Liber consolationis, Albertano da Brescia was concerned with the proper behavior of noblemen whose honor has been violently attacked. Instead of responding with extreme grief, which he viewed as womanly and weak, or with anger, Albertano counsels rationality and calm fortitude. Men have to restrain passion in order that retaliatory violence does not take hold and wreck society. In Chapter Seven Lansing looks at ideas of sin and concupiscence, "the sensual appetite that is a source of violent conflict" (174). Thirteenth and fourteenth century theologians and preachers discussed sin in gendered terms: concupiscence and the passionate was feminine, rationality was male. This coded terminology was shared by political theorists who associated political disorder with irrational female passion. These ideas were commonplace among ruling men and expressed in political art, such as the fantastic Penis Tree fresco of Massa Maritima, which shows women who harvest penises, fight over them, and accept sodomy, thus equating imperial or misrule with sexual disorder, and the well-known Sienese frescoes of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti that depicts Tyranny as the Whore of Babylon, thus equating tyrannical power or disordered rule with lust for sex.

The penultimate chapter reads more like a diversion as it moves beyond the political developments of the thirteenth century to discuss Petrarch's views on grief. He uses similar gendered terminology as the thirteenth-century thinkers previously noted, but there is greater focus on the interior self, the effects of grief on the individual psyche. Nevertheless, for Petrarch too grief has its public side and here he tows the political line that noisy mourning is dishonorable and disorderly.

Discussion returns to Orvieto in Chapter Nine with broad examination of its political history and regulations on funerals in the fourteenth century. In the early 1300s Orvieto succumbed to factional violence and signorie (the rule of a despot or lord), then after mid century submitted to papal rule. Tranquility was short-lived as the armies involved in the Great Schism fought in the area, decimating the population and land. Funerals, at this time--at least those of the great nobles and mercenaries she discusses--were marked by pomp, and lamentation was given over to crowds of the deserving poor and weeping women, marking a striking change from the male participation Lansing documented for the thirteenth century.

In her Epilogue, Lansing engages the topic of state formation and, utilizing the theoretical approaches of Linzi Manicom and Joan Scott, she emphasizes the gendered nature of this process. Thirteenth-century efforts at regulating grief, she concludes, offer a glimpse at the crucial association of gender, emotion, and governance or political order. A gendered theory of state enables us, rightly, to focus on "not who rules and who is victimized, but rather how rule is achieved" (218) and thus provides answers for the initial paradox that Lansing found in the records that legislation aimed against women was enforced against men. In order to achieve proper rule, men's emotions had to be controlled, and women are the purported target of control because, Lansing repeats Claude Lévi-Strauss's phrase, men "used women to think with" (7 and 161).

Let's think about that more. It seems that female emotion is not the only thing useful to political men: women's clothes and jewelry and the property they brought to marriage also fit this picture. For the statement "[i]t was effectively the same men who wrote the laws, then broke them at funerals, then fined themselves" (15) one could replace "funerals" with the phrases "marriage negotiations that arranged for sky-rocketing dowries" or "as their wives and daughters wore the dresses bought by them." Grief is one part of the equation, women and property are another, but neither are the final product; what we really are talking about is men, the men of the commune and their relations to each other. I wonder if we could examine these subjects more closely through the lens of the field of medieval masculinities some important features may emerge more clearly. The medieval Italian commune seems to be a homosocial society, as set out by Eve Sedgwick and further developed with profit by authors such as Ruth Mazo Karras. [1] Certainly, at the heart of communal politics lay gender and gender relations, as Lansing emphasizes, but not relations between the sexes, because the relations that these men have to figure out are among themselves. Women serve as the sounding board for men to work out their political ideas of a good society among men. I agree with Lansing's arguments against the view of scholars who see these laws simply as ways to control women. Elite men's relations with themselves have to be controlled, because ultimately they compose the homosocial commune. Figures of women are dispersed through out Lorenzetti's fresco of Good and Bad Government that Lansing analyzes, but they are only allegories or representations of issues that the lawmakers are trying to work out through law. The real subjects are standing below together in a tightly-packed group, viz., the men of the commune. These remarks are not meant as criticisms, but as a way to urge the conversation on medieval Italian social and political history to move forwards in the relatively new field of medieval masculinities that so far has been dominated by northern European and literary scholars. As evidence in this book demonstrates, it seems that Italianists could have much to contribute.

Lansing has produced a thought-provoking book. Students at the undergraduate and graduate level will profit from this deeply researched project, written with sagacity and sensitivity. As a master of the sources, Lansing has offered a rare gem to instructors, a place where students can learn about the breadth of sources available for study from legal records to artistic, cultural, theological, political and moral treatises, and letters. Students also will benefit from her careful analysis and continued emphasis on the error of assuming that normative texts, such as statutes, provide accurate pictures of practice. All readers will enjoy the wealth of fascinating information, such as the spies who are paid to attend funerals and report violators and the computatrices, professional mourners hired to lead funeral chants. She draws the reader deep into the thoughts, sounds, and sights of the medieval world with her sensitive discussions of art, poetry, liturgical drama, political tracts, rhetorical manuals, court sentences, and sermons. Lansing reveals gripping cases of human pathos and brings us close to the lived experience of medieval Italy.


[1] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) and Ruth Mazo Karras, From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

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Author Biography

Shona Kelly Wray

University of Missouri, Kansas City