The subject of dispute/conflict resolution in medieval societies has attracted increasing attention in recent years and has led to a number of studies focused on individual cases in restricted regions and time periods. In this book on Violence, Order, and Peace. Resolving Conflicts in Gascony from the 11th to the early 13th Century, Hélène Couderc argues persuasively that the ways used in this province to solve conflicts at that time had a more than purely legal or judicial significance. In the broadest sense these amounted to nothing less than that society's attempt to maintain the social and political equilibrium on which it depended for its survival. This is what she calls "la regulation sociale" (9). To understand how this worked in eleventh and twelfth century Gascony--today southern France from the lower Bordeaux region south to the northern Pyrenees, Bigorre and Bearn--she takes into account all kinds of conflicts at all levels of society lay as well as ecclesiastical. In other words she is seeking to give a comprehensive view of "social regulation". For evidence she relies almost exclusively on charters (from cartularies), most of them monastic or episcopal. A lesser source is collections of Gascon fors (customs).
The book begins (Part I, pp. 9-138) with a description and discussion of the various legal authorities and judicial systems in place in the eleventh century, having survived from the Carolingian period--institutions of public justice--the province nominally coming under the rule of the Duke of Aquitaine after 1062. Chapter 2 deals with the judicial authority held by lay aristocracy at the next level down, and Chapter 3 treats legal power in ecclesiastical hands--bishops and monasteries. In the second part of the book (141-91) the author turns to the people subject to the justice of those who held power. Chapter 4, "Peasants," and Chapter 5, "Village and Urban communities". The rest of the book (Part 3, "Entre procéssus et procedures," pp. 195-347), and the core of her argument, examines the means by which Gascons sought to resolve conflicts among themselves. She begins (Chapter 6) with the phenomenon of violence in all its forms. Just what constituted violence to the Gascons, what forms did it take, and how did people at all social levels attempt to deal with it? Her search is not limited to court cases, to legal judgments pronounced against those convicted of crimes of violence, but looks into all kinds of conflicts and the ways people sought to deal with them, privately as well as publicly. She then passes to the procedures used to resolve them, preceding this with a look (Chapter 7, "Les mots du procés") at the formal terminology used in contemporary documents such as Placitum (trial), Lis (lawsuit), etc. In Chapter 8 she examines trial procedures, presentation of the different kinds of evidence, and techniques for establishing innocence or guilt. Particularly interesting to me is her treatment (281-93) of the feud in Gascony at this time: a "mise en scene d'une guerre ritualisée et judiciarisée" (293). Finally what can be learned about the outcome of these trials, about how conflicts were resolved. Her findings: most conflicts, at least between lay lords and monasteries, ended in compromise as a way of avoiding the risks of a formal trial, and disputing parties often reached agreement through negotiation during the course of the trial for the same reason. Furthermore those in dispute sometimes agreed to submit their cases to a third party arbitrator in order to reach a settlement. The reestablishment of peace and maintenance of order after conflictual violence was as important as the administration of justice.
Over the two-century period of her study the author notes a basic change in the ways Gascon society confronted problems of social regulation. At the outset in the early eleventh century this was largely in the hands of "les seigneurs (princes) de la terre," but the later eleventh through the twelfth centuries saw the gradual introduction of a new approach to legal procedures associated with the introduction of Roman law but above all of canon law. This latter stemmed from the penetration of papal influence starting with the Gregorian reform movement and was carried out by legates and prelates closely tied to Rome. By the thirteenth century the legal authority of the aristocracy had declined in favor of that of higher clergy and also of urban communities.
This would appear to be the first comprehensive inquiry into dispute settlement and social regulation in a large region over an extended period of time, and as such it is an important book.