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17.11.13, Kumhera, The Benefits of Peace

17.11.13, Kumhera, The Benefits of Peace

The question of violence in its myriad forms has long engrossed scholars of medieval and renaissance Italy. This is most true of that most famous form of private violence, the vendetta, which emerges vividly in some of our most famous narrative sources and to which immense importance was attributed by contemporaries. Associated with some of the most important developments of the late medieval period--mendicant piety, civic religion, and the expanding power of communal governments to name a few--private peacemaking as an answer to private violence of this kind has also been an important subject of study. Enduring questions in this field are many. How do we, or can we, parse political and private violence? How does the endurance of so-called private violence reflect on the power of political regimes and their institutions of governance? Above all, did peacemaking actually work? Glenn Kumhera's book takes up these questions, focusing, as the book's title implies, on an effort to identify the benefits of peace and peacemaking for all involved.

The book is based on a combination of archival research and careful consideration of the legal evidence, especially communal statutes and legal consilia. Kumhera's insightful, nuanced reading of such material places him in the tradition of scholars like Julius Kirshner and Tom Kuehn. His archival evidence comes primarily from Siena, with a significant amount also drawn from Rome, and ranges from court documents to private notarial acts. While evidence from these two cities constitutes the core of the book, it is contextualized by comparison to important scholarship on major centers like Florence and Bologna, as well as smaller ones like Macerata. In this sense, although the most important work is done in two cities, this is a book that makes a serious effort to think broadly about late medieval Italy. The result is a technically sound, and carefully nuanced comparative investigation of peacemaking. In a field dominated by single-city studies, that alone makes the book a valuable contribution.

After an introduction that concisely lays out the state of the field, there are eight chapters, mainly devoted to the locations of and participants in peacemaking. The first chapter defines private peacemaking, setting the terms and approach of the book. Kumhera makes very clear that neither the violence nor the peace were "private" in the modern sense. Instead, they simply did not formally involve public entities. That this was only formally the case is key; ties to communal politics are often easy to uncover. Furthermore, the idea of peace itself is not as simple as it seems. The term was as polyvalent for medieval people as it is for us. The Christian theology of peace, legal and notarial definitions of peace, and the sense of it held by the laity were all distinct and yet overlapped with one another in various ways. Unsurprisingly, then, peacemaking itself was more complex than it seems at first glance. Historians of peacemaking usually focus on documents, especially the typical instrumentum pacis, but Kumhera reminds us that peacemaking was a process rather than a simple matter of making a document. In this, peacemaking and the challenges of its source-base present similar challenges to those associated with the study of inheritance, pious giving, and the testament. Kumhera's attentiveness here to both semantic and procedural complexity are indicative of his approach throughout the book.

Kumhera devotes two chapters to the role of the commune as seen in legislation and the actions of criminal courts. In the first, Kumhera notes a shift in the role of criminal courts over the course of the thirteenth century, as the benefits of peacemaking became more circumscribed. Where once making peace might have enabled a case to be dismissed, increasingly it only served to reduce penalties. He takes a middle way between arguments for either a weak communal government or an aggressive, centralizing one. The communes may well have been too weak to enforce their rules everywhere, but that was not their goal. Instead we see a trade-off: communal jurisdiction is consistently reinforced and gradually expanded but local power players and the people at large exercise considerable control over particular outcomes. The book's third chapter focuses on peacemaking and the criminal ban. Here Kumhera sees another shift over the thirteenth century, from use of the ban to punish all manner of crimes to use of it mainly as a response to contumacy, often in cases of violent crime. He argues that the commune increasingly sought to retain the benefits of the ban as a coercive measure while reducing the large number of banned individuals. He argues persuasively that the banned population represented a resource the commune was keen to tap into by means of well-timed amnesties. These banniti were potential participants in communal militias as well as a financial opportunity; when fines were reduced, people were eager to pay to have their bans lifted. Overall, the commune steadily increased and refined its power by reimaging its role in peacemaking rather than trying to pit itself against any and all private violence. In the case of Siena, for example, Kumhera demonstrates clearly that peacemaking was an important means by which the commune extended its reach into the countryside.

From here, Kumhera turns to the participants in private peacemaking. He begins, in chapter four, with the role of the public in general. Although ostensibly private peacemaking concerned individuals rather than communes, the reality is that the state, various peacemakers, and the community as a whole were all frequently involved. Obviously, the public could and often did serve as an audience, but Kumhera reminds us that this is not a simple thing. Who exactly comprised the audience that bore witness to peacemaking depended on where it was done, which we cannot always know. Furthermore, although there was always a performative element to peacemaking, this is complicated by the fact that at least one party was often absent, their role being taken up by a procurator. Sometimes people depended on their friends (amici) to make peace, a practice less binding than using a procurator but still useful. Importantly, Kumhera insists that we cannot cry "faction" whenever we see groups making peace with one another. Sometimes groups of amici might make peace in order to coerce particular parties, the true kernel of the dispute, to do the same. The question of performance and audience is explored in detail in chapter six, which focuses on Rome. Romans drew both on standard peacemaking processes and, more rarely, on an elaborately ritualized version that played out in the city's streets. Kumhera focuses especially on the latter and uses them to demonstrate the polyvalence and general utility of the practice. Romans slapped, bludgeoned, and even sliced into one another over the course of these rituals, and all these things could be acts of penance and acts of honorable vengeance at the same time. It was possible for all involved parties, the original combatants and the arbiters they selected, to come out more respected than they had been going in. Romans participated in private peacemaking, in other words, for a host of reasons that become clear only if we consider the details of local practice and context. The importance of doing that is further reinforced by Kumhera's consideration of specific participant groups across Italy--among them women, minors, and the clergy.

Having laid out all his evidence, Kumhera turns in chapter eight to the question of how it should be assessed as a whole. He focuses on two main questions. Why did people make peace and did peacemaking effectively end conflicts? There are many answers to the first question. We often think of pious motivations but Kumhera points out financial ones too, along with concern for personal security and pressure from the community. Gauging success or failure is harder. Peacemaking documents do not tell us about their aftermaths, though they often contain penalty clauses for breaking the peace. Furthermore, it is not clear how long peace needs to have held for us to consider an incident of peacemaking a success. Any answer feels arbitrary. Kumhera rightly points out that the efficacy of peacemaking was tied not the creation of a lasting peace but to the many purposes the process could serve for the various parties involved, the many benefits of peace. If the people involved in the original conflict (or their friends) gained political or social capital of some kind, as in Rome, peacemaking was working. If the commune's jurisdiction was gradually expanded and its reshaping of the culture of conflict was making headway, as in Siena, peacemaking was working.

Ultimately, even if peacemaking didn't always work precisely as intended, Kumhera convincingly argues that it must have been considered worthwhile given the number of people who turned to the practice over long periods of time. Peace had many benefits, among them stability, personal honor, and overall security. He demonstrates clearly that both the state and the broader society were keen to encourage peace and this shared interest is precisely what made being a peacemaker desirable. Ultimately, peace and concord were powerful signifiers of a rightly ordered Christian world. Peacemaking was thus an important means of accessing the legitimizing potential of that right order, and the social and political capital gained by association with it. The ends such capital was used to pursue, the particular institutions or power legitimized, varied based on local circumstance.

By attempting to consider his questions on an Italian rather than local scale, Kumhera has taken on a challenging task. His commitment to precision and acknowledgement of complexity prevents his book from becoming simply a general meditation on how strong communal governments were or weren't, or how violent communal societies may or may not have been. This is to the good. Instead, the book makes important, specific arguments about the nature of private peacemaking in general, and its benefits in both Siena and Rome. Comparison with material from other cities makes it clear that when it comes to peacemaking Italy was, as in so many things, a patchwork quilt of diverse localities, each of which has to be considered on its own. Yet for all that diversity, peacemaking took place within an Italy characterized by a great many common structures and dynamics. Growing communal power, status-seeking elites, and a complex, multifaceted ideology of peace were common everywhere. Kumhera's book is an excellent guide to thinking about peacemaking in light of such things and any scholar who seeks to understand the phenomenon as encountered in their own research would do well to look to it as a guide. The wealth of information provided, and its careful contextualization, make this book a welcome tool for anyone interested in peacemaking, then, but also for those working in late medieval Italian legal culture, the relationship between cities and countryside, and the development of late medieval states and their institutions.