15.02.11, McDonough, Witnesses, Neighbors,. and Community in Late Medieval Marseille

Main Article Content

Jan K. Bulman

The Medieval Review 15.02.11

McDonough, Susan Alice. Witnesses, Neighbors, and Community in Late Medieval Marseille. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Pp. xv, 234. ISBN: 9780230391994 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jan K. Bulman
Auburn University at Montgomery

In this book, Susan Alice McDonough draws on the court records of late medieval Marseille to analyze how testimonies of witnesses conferred power on them to formulate a normative community structure. Although somewhat constrained by law and tradition, McDonough argues that by elaboration, contraction, or simply by refusing to answer questions that judges asked of them, witnesses conveyed their expectations and judgments of neighbors, friends, and family members. Influenced by Daniel Lord Smail's investigation into the motives of medieval litigants, McDonough turns her attention away from litigants and directs it toward witnesses. She convincingly argues that witnesses were much more than tools of the litigants; they had agency, not only because they shaped community values, but also because they asserted judgments on the litigants themselves through the omissions or inclusions in their testimonies, sometimes beyond what litigants clearly desired.

Following an introductory first chapter, McDonough presents in chapter 2 the political and legal landscape of Marseille during the period 1380-1430 as destabilized by an economy in decline due to the ongoing threats posed by pirates who interrupted the sea trade of the port city. Moreover, people of Marseille lived with near-constant warfare due to waning Angevin influence and Aragonese invasion. Marseille's three syndics, members of the city's oligarchy, exercised real power in the city's government. Even as social and political disorder affected the way in which litigants framed their causes in the court, witnesses maneuvered around the law to give testimonies that did not always follow the litigants' leads. For example, witnesses "departed from the script" in the case of Margarida de Altu who sought to recover proceeds that she claimed Caton, a Jewish auctioneer, had withheld from her after he sold some of her household goods. Margarida attempted to invoke assumed prejudices against Jews as she presented herself as an honest widow who had been taken advantage of by a greedy Jew. Yet, witnesses called for both sides of the case were reluctant to uphold these prejudices. Despite the influence of touring preachers that may have underscored such prejudices, witnesses resisted the easy portrayal of the virtuous Christian widow versus the avaricious Jew, failing to support her characterization. Witnesses for Caton endorsed his claim that he was an honest and skillful auctioneer who had returned all unauctioned goods to Margarida's house. These independent-minded witnesses arbitrated social norms by departing from the script Margarida expected them to follow.

Chapter 3 explores expectations and normative behaviors by examining two cases. In the first case, a woman claimed that her poverty and indebtedness had resulted from her caring for her daughter and her grandchildren as they were dying. The second concerned a disputed inheritance between a daughter and her male cousin, both of whom claimed that they had cared for the women's wealthy father as he lay dying. In the testimonies of witnesses from these cases, McDonough explores issues of community standards concerning gender and class, as well as proper standards of familial conduct. She argues that community standards marked the poor as a burden on their neighborhoods who taxed their capacity for charity and goodwill demanded of them by Christian tradition. She finds that both men and women undertook care of sick and dying family members. In these cases, the testimonies of witnesses helped to monetize that care, similar to the dotal regime in which a women's family agreed to provide for their daughter to ease the "burdens of matrimony." Familial care, the laboring and providing for the sick and dying, had a quantitative value and witnesses played important roles in assuring that courts recognized that value. Collectively, witnesses upheld communal opinions that care required remuneration. Death in the late Middle Ages was often a public event, with many people participating in the deathwatch and witnesses drawn from the community. Notaries, apothecaries, wet nurses, cooks, and servants interpreted deathbed scenes for litigants, thereby defining the importance of providing care.

One of McDonough's central arguments is that witnesses' testimonies present an indication of how community standards were at variance with the requirements of governmental authority. In chapter 4, her analysis of the case of Moneta Mede shows community standards and civic authority did not always coincide. Moneta suffered from bouts of madness, readily affirmed by witnesses from her neighborhood. For her protection and the preservation of public order in their community, the de las Cortes family restrained and confined Moneta in their home, taking from Moneta's house some of her possessions in violation of the civic statutes. For their restraint of Moneta and the acquisition of her property, members of the de las Cortes family were prosecuted, convicted, and then appealed their conviction. Through her nuanced interpretation of the testimonies of witnesses, McDonough demonstrates that the community found in these actions an appropriate response to the disorder that madness had brought to their neighborhood, irrespective of municipal prescriptions.

In her final chapter, McDonough explores how witnesses' narratives demonstrate the imposition of normative behaviors and morals in the aftermath of the Aragonese sack and burning of Marseille in 1423. The law courts had to accommodate the new reality brought by the incursion, relocating from the public sphere of the marketplace--where citizens of Marseille had had easy, familiar access to the legal proceedings of their community--to the hall of the Hospital of Saint Esprit, where proceedings were held indoors. In the months following the attack, McDonough finds that the horrible violence deeply scarred the memories of witnesses. The citizens who survived had to decide collectively which transgressions committed during the period of disorder would be forgiven, as neighbors charged each other with thievery and blamed one another for the unprecedented loss of property. Once again, McDonough's close reading of the court records points to the role of witnesses, who through their narratives shaped and interpreted acceptable societal norms.

Witnesses, Neighbors, and Community in Late Medieval Marseille takes a creative approach to legal history that considers witnesses' narratives and how they conveyed communal judgments in a judicial context, perhaps with some irony, since the judicial resolutions to most cases were not recorded or did not survive. Through her interpretation of the testimonies, McDonough has illuminated the social history of late medieval Marseille, shedding light on gender roles, attitudes toward Jews, class distinctions, and interactions among families and neighbors. Solidly researched and well argued, this book offers a fascinating peek into the lives of the men and women of medieval Marseille.

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Author Biography

Jan K. Bulman

Auburn University at Montgomery