14.04.43, Skoda, Medieval Violence

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Oren Falk

The Medieval Review 14.04.43

Skoda, Hannah. Medieval Violence: Physical Brutality in Northern France, 1270-1330 . Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. xiii, 282. ISBN: 978-0-19-967083-3 | (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Oren Falk
Cornell University

The ghost of Norbert Elias walks, revivified in the persons not only of prominent popularizers like Stephen Pinker and Jared Diamond but also in those of sober historians like Eric Monkkonen, Robert Muchembled, Pieter Spierenburg, and Yuval Noah Harari. The historical trajectory of violence, they insist (fortifying their claims with turrets of impregnable social-scientific theory and unscalable walls of data), is downward; the last few centuries, the most recent few decades especially, have been sunny--the occasional cloud in the form of a World War or two, a genocide or three, and other spikes in atrocity notwithstanding--with good prospects for an even balmier future ahead. We moderns should, they tell us, count ourselves lucky to have been born in this best of all possible eras.

This fresh retelling of the grand narrative of progress has, of course, a historical underbelly, a victim who must toil in darkness to fuel our own era's luminosity: the Middle Ages (and other times and places deemed inconsequential or superannuated in this mythology, such as indigenous societies, even if they have the misfortune of being contemporary; cf. Stephen Corry, "Savaging Primitives," at TheDailyBeast.com, 30 January 2013) are inevitably branded as a Dark Age, brutal and bloodstained by contrast. Historians of medieval violence, cowed, perhaps, by apparent corroborations of the progress thesis from such esteemed medievalists as Thomas Bisson, have been slow to challenge this account. Hannah Skoda's new monograph, tracing manifestations of quotidian violence in Paris and Artois in the decades preceding the Hundred Years' War, is a shot over the bow in this overdue battle. With a dismissive nod to Elias (242), Skoda aligns herself with a view of "all violence [a]s socially contingent, driven by deep-rooted cultural prerogatives and profoundly expressive" (89). She regards violence as an integrated feature of every society, in other words, with which it is best to come to grips through textured, qualitative analysis of specific historical fabrics rather than through sweeping, quantitative generalizations. By examining some of the less flashy manifestations of medieval violence--in order of her chapters: street brawls, tavern affrays, student mischief, popular unrest, and domestic abuse--Skoda hopes to chart the cultural topography that made north-eastern France in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries not necessarily more or less brutal than the modern world, but differently so.

At its best, her book does just that. Skoda convincingly reads urban uprisings as theatrical violence, ignited by the frictions of living in the economically booming, socially diverse, and politically divisive cities of the late 1200s. She confidently constructs this interpretation from archival and chronicle materials, usefully shifting our gaze from stage-hogging events like the Jacquerie, Ciompi, and other riots of the fourteenth century (and later) to lesser-known, preceding tremors on the edges of the Flemish world. The nuanced unpacking of a 1311 revolt in Abbeville, where Skoda traces the crisscrossing interests of local feuding gentry, ecclesiastical structures, and the crown, is especially impressive (171-173). Naturally, such discerning analysis provokes additional questions. It would have been interesting to learn whether further continuities with earlier medieval practices surrounding communal dissent, such as the Carolingian use of pejorative coniuratio to condemn gatherings as seditious, could be detected. Nor does Skoda expend much effort on analysing the disjuncture between the locally embedded, rational affairs she reveals and the militantly outraged tones chroniclers adopted in labeling them as outbreaks of communal madness; she seems to take it for granted that the agents of hegemony routinely chose to misrepresent (or perhaps themselves misunderstood) as heinous disruptions what were in fact complex negotiations among competing nodes of legitimate influence.

Such illuminating discussion--with its careful balancing of empirical evidence, described in detail, and judicious analysis, informed by theory--is overshadowed, however, by serious and widespread concerns. I focus on flaws in three major areas: language, conceptual framework, and evidence. Fractures on each level radiate, moreover, to crack other bricks in the edifice Skoda constructs.

The book's prose is often crimped and awkward (e.g., 146, where a four-line-long sentence struggles to make the simple point, if I've understood it correctly, that complaints about students' abuse of women were sometimes justified). Chapters are divided into notionally helpful sub-sections, but in practice, divisions are not observed, exacerbating already frequent looping and repetitions (a tiny example: "Debates concerning jurisdiction were centred on more complex disputes about the right to regulate everyday life which were more complex than polarized struggles between abbey and town," 171). But the most serious effect of disregard for linguistic clarity and precision is an indifference towards terms of art. "Strategic" violence, a rubric frequently invoked but never defined (nor indexed), evidently serves Skoda as a synonym for "instrumental"--just about the diametric opposite of what other historians (notably Guy Halsall in Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West [Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998], 18) have taken it to mean. Denotational apathy reaches its unhappiest nadir in the consistent conflation of violent acts' polyvalence and contestability with "uncertainty" and "hesitancy" about their signification, even their "incomprehensib[ility]" (46-48, 242, and frequently passim). That you and I might disagree need not make either of us hesitant; and ambiguity, ambivalence, even indeterminacy (all of which can imply a potentially constructive tension between competing views) should all be disentangled from uncertainty, let alone from a default of meaning.

Terminological imprecision bleeds over into conceptual murk. Skoda's first chapter lays out her overarching thesis of violence as "a kind of language" (18) with a primary communicative function, seeking to clarify this language's many "grammars" (18-49). This reader, alas, could find here no explications of the internal logics that structure violence. (These do sometimes occur elsewhere, as when Skoda notes the tendency of "semiotically loaded communication" to target victims' faces, 112 [cf. 73].) Instead, the discussion enumerates contexts in which violence might come under discussion (medical, legal, etc.), and provides an interesting primer (not capitalized on in the rest of the book) in the relevant medieval French lexicon (29-31; cf. 70-72, 221).

The closest Skoda comes to crystallizing her theoretical intervention is in the conclusion (232-244). She maps violence along three main axes: ordering (i.e., legitimate) vs. disordering; instrumental (also called "strategic" or "functional") vs. expressive (i.e., emotive); and public vs. private (though she prefers terms like "collective" vs. "interpersonal"). This framework aims to explain, for instance, divergent attitudes towards the role of anger in violence: theological and canonical discourses tended to focus on individuals' private sinfulness, thus painting untrammeled emotion as disordering in the highest degree; in contrast, secular authorities' primary concern was the common good, which led them to minimize blows struck in anger as mere crimes of passion, less serious than premeditated disruptions of the social order (236-237).

There is much to ponder in this model, leading to both potential insights and possible reservations; I have already mentioned, for example, the unwillingness of secular authorities' mouthpieces to set aside deleterious expressiveness (in Skoda's terms) when it came to assessing popular revolts. But the test of the model--any model--is in its utility in interpreting concrete evidence, and here, arguments repeatedly get their foot caught in the gap between theoretical claims and historical data. Skoda has conducted substantial archival research (mainly unearthing jurisdictional disputes into which recollections of violence were hovered up). She reveals some striking vignettes: an official emissary carrying unwelcome documents, made to eat the letters he bore (41 n. 141; cf. 78-79), three thieves who act out the exemplum commonplace and turn on each other when it comes time to divide their loot (103), or a murderous husband who obtained remission for improbably killing his wife by throwing a billiard stick at her (217-218; apparently, her wound festered, 222). Skoda acknowledges being stymied at times by her sources: ecclesiastical court records for her period contain practically no traces of domestic violence (218 n. 100--and nothing at all on the disciplining of children, p. 193 n. 3), nor do any records allow meaningful diachronic analysis (I think; Skoda says "synchronic," 17). She meets such challenges with entrepreneurial ingenuity, drawing on fabliaux, miracle plays, coutumiers, and so on. But all too often, when such make-do sources still yield little or no usable evidence, she opts to soldier on empty-handed; in the nearly forty-page-long chapter entitled "Domestic Violence in Paris and Artois" (193-231, emphasis mine), for example, the first reference to materials specific to the region under discussion only occurs twenty-one pages in (213 n. 83).

A complementary strategy involves peeling away from the subject of violence altogether: an erudite survey of the theological and metaphorical connotations of medieval thinking about viae (drawing on a range of authorities diverse in time, space, and orientation; 52-54) does little to shed light on street violence, for instance. Skoda might have been better served by secondary literature more specifically pertinent to her topic, such as John Corbin's keen analysis of the casa-calle opposition in "Insurrections in Spain," in The Anthropology of Violence, ed. David Riches (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 28-49. Likewise, a discussion of students' engagement in (or at least fantasies of) illicit sex, as in Middle High German Studentenabenteuer, establishes a pattern of (imagined) misbehavior, but is not intrinsically relevant to violence (147-148). Skoda even goes so far as to gratuitously insert violent qualifiers into accounts of what, at least on the evidence she presents, seems entirely pacific (e.g., "[students] used their chosen routes and haunts violently to validate their adherence to a particular group," 141, when describing the spatial proximity of colleges and taverns in Paris).

There is much learning here; it seems, however, to have been imperfectly digested. Theory sometimes dictates an analysis untethered from the information the sources yield--or, worse, running counter to it. The tavern, for example, is unhelpfully characterized as a space within which violence offered social "commentary" or "critique" (e.g., 89, 94-105, 243). Quite what was being commented on, or what and how critiques sought to convey, remains a mystery. Student violence is uniformly read under the sign of stereotype theory, so that students' every act and statement becomes an engagement with "generalizations in order to explore their own social and gendered identities" (158). Yet, while it is certainly possible that a youth who beat, humiliated, and raped a Parisian woman, exchanging blows with her husband to boot, "angrily contested models of young clerics as emasculated, but simultaneously perverted the model of [a] merely lustful student" (148), such interpretation is sheer speculation. We simply know too little (nothing?) about prior relationships among the three participants (and perhaps others) to say what was at stake in this incident; and indeed, the evidence Skoda herself produces may cautiously gainsay her reading: the youth in question, she concedes in a footnote, may not have been a student at all. Readers' inability to monitor most of the materials she treats further erodes faith in Skoda's analysis. Even sensible generalizations (e.g., "Violence on the street was dependent on forms of social structure as it negotiated the position of the individual within that structure," 75; "The effectiveness of belonging to a group is typically strengthened by acts of exclusion. Thus, the practice of disturbing the studies of more conscientious students was a potent one," 143) are vitiated by the fact that the reader cannot see them play out in the empirical record.

Skoda, her book, and indeed Oxford University Press are perhaps all casualties of a current academic climate (especially harsh where the gales of RAE/REF blow), which privileges production speed over engagement depth. In an ideal world, less chilled by considerations of the financial bottom-line, careful copy-editing might have caught instances of missing translation (e.g., 24, 57, 94 [two competing translations given, without the original], 103, 178, 182 n. 98 [missing preposition], 209, 217-218), and warded off such affronts to the English language as "unsubmission" (199). The book's scanty visual aids--a single map, which fails to indicate Artois, and a photograph of an eighteenth-century model of Arras (10-11)--might have been enhanced by reproductions of images Skoda discusses (e.g., 52, 141- 142, 146-147, 161 n. 9); its three tables (76, 82) should have been glossed, at least to inform the reader of N values (cf. incidental disclosures at 63 and 69). The author herself would surely have benefited from time to think through her materials more thoroughly, drawing on a broader bibliography (including such classic stand-bys as Natalie Zemon Davis's Fiction in the Archives [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987], James Scott's Weapons of the Weak [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987], or William Ian Miller's Humiliation [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993]). In our less-than-ideal and perennially brutal world, Medieval Violence is to be commended for tackling an important topic, even if its treatment of this topic falls rather short of the goals it has set itself.

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