19.09.03 Tracy, Medieval and Early Modern Murder

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Valerie Schutte

The Medieval Review 19.09.03

Tracy, Larissa, ed. Medieval and Early Modern Murder: Legal, Literary and Historical Contexts. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2018. pp. xiv, 486. ISBN: 978-1-78327-311-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Valerie Schutte
Independent Scholar
veschutte@gmail.com

In Medieval and Early Modern Murder, Larissa Tracy gathers an impressive collection of nineteen essays plus introductory and concluding articles to examine murder through "law, literature, punishments, justifications, and prohibitions" (8). Murder existed in all medieval and early modern societies, and each essay here defines and identifies it for their particular case study, as different cultures and countries defined murder differently. As Tracy notes, studies on medieval crimes exist, but this volume fills a gap by focusing solely on murder, not murder as one among many social transgressions. Moreover, it takes a global (or at least pan-European) approach offering case studies from France, England, Venice, Valencia, Ireland, Iceland, and Georgia, as well as case studies on Malory, Chaucer, and an epic poetry.

It is divided into three sections, the first of which addresses legal aspects of murder, as represented in trial documents, legal treatises, and literary texts. The five essays in this part tend to be very descriptive, as most give lengthy exegesis on medieval law codes and books, meant to introduce readers to how murder was defined in different cultures. These chapters are all well-done, yet hard to critique because they are straightforward accounts of how laws worked. Separately, this appears to be a weakness, yet taken together in this large collection on concepts of murder, they allow for comparison among legal traditions more so than more micro-case studies might have done.

Bridgette Slavin describes early medieval Irish religious regulations, including duineth√°ide, or secret murder with connotations of magic. She suggests that early medieval Irish ecclesiastical law was concerned with the supernatural, but Irish law did not consider magic murder as distinct from other forms of murder. This aligns with the Church's desire to eradicate non-Christian practices. Jay Paul Gates begins his look into Anglo-Saxon legal concepts of murder through the St Brice's Day massacre in 1002, in which the king called for the slaughter of all Danes living in England in response to a murder plot against him and his councilors. Like many of the essays in the collection, Gates uses a specific murder to tease out larger cultural issues of obedience, reputation, xenophobia, or gender. Gates suggests that with hindsight the order to kill all Danes is viewed horrifically as genocide, but viewed alongside other contemporary sources, it was an acceptable political response, and may not have meant all Danes, but those who were considered to be rebellious. Like Slavin, Pinchas Roth examines how Jewish law dealt with murderers within and outside of Gentile courts. It is very descriptive of medieval Jewish customs, although he usefully compares Jewish customs in different countries. Jolanta M. Komornicka scrutinizes medieval French murder trials from 1254 to 1320, and finds that within this time period murder is closely associated with treason. She ties this to turn-of-the-fourteenth-century regnal concerns over social order and how murder overturned cultural norms. The editor, Larissa Tracy, concludes this first section with an essay on murder as written about by Chaucer. She uses Chaucer as a lens to explore late-fourteenth century murder laws and finds that while English law describes where torture could be used, Chaucer addresses whether it should be used. This is a very interesting chapter, yet seems out of place in this section, where all of the other chapters are more straightforward about laws regarding killing, types of killing, and punishment, and perhaps would have better fit in the second section on interpretations and contexts of murder.

The seven chapters in this section part begin with Ilse Schweitzer VanDonkelaar's examination of Icelandic sagas composed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries alongside the adoption of a highly complex legal code. She argues that together they "offer glimpses of the gaps between theory and practice" (139). Killers were expected to publish, or publicly acknowledge their crimes, and this played into a person's reputation to determine the nature of the killing. Anne Latowsky explores old French murder Fabliaux, which feature a murder, but only so as to satirize its aftermath. In them, the murder victims tend to be priests or monks (often accused of adultery) and Latowsky ties this to the rise of revenant monk stories in sermons. In this chapter, Latowsky explains how fabliaux work, with tropes, a narrator, confusion, and failed dialogue, generally refusing to acknowledge a murder took place, even though there is a dead body. Lucas Wood also discusses a tale in which the main character refuses to grasp the severity of murder. In the Queste del Saint Graal, Gauvain needlessly kills many men because his quest for the Grail lacks adventure. In doing so, it rejects all killing as violent and reckless, even when presented as justifiable. In another chivalric adventure, Le Morte Darthur, King Arthur's knights often resort to murder, yet are rarely tried for it. Dwayne C. Coleman explores each act of murder in Morte and why it happened (usually jealousy or rivalry) to show how Malory condemns some acts, while mitigating others.

In one of three chapters about poison, Matthew Lubin contextualizes events of state-sanctioned poison with medieval and early modern poison laws in Venice. From the fourteenth to the eighteen centuries, Venice saw an unprecedented documentation of state-sanctioned murders by poison because it was difficult to detect making it difficult to punish. Also a murder of state concern was the killing of Louis, Duke of Orleans (d. 1407). He was killed by John, Duke of Burgundy, who first confessed, but later declared it was a lawful tyrannicide, for which he was later pardoned. Orleans's family's only option for justice was to publicly counter the narrative that Orleans was guilty of treason and therefore Burgundy lied and the killing was murder. The family called Burgundy's claims defamation and a second murder. As in VanDonkelaar's chapter about Iceland, Emily J. Hutchison shows that reputation had everything to do with the crime and restoring Orleans's reputation was good enough justice. The final chapter in the second section diverges from the rest in the volume, in that it is not focused on murder within a geographical area, but as written about a specific group. Andrew McKenzie-McHarg investigates conspiracy theories around the Society of Jesus in the early modern period. He explores how the Jesuits were thought to be at the center of subverting European monarchies, as a group with proclivity to commit conspiratorial acts. These theories are evidence that the Jesuits were quickly successful in becoming a prominent religious order, as they were only papal sanctioned in 1540. McKenzie-McHarg gives examples of crimes in which Jesuits were accused of participating in, if no more than by hearing the confession of a would-be criminal conflated with orchestrating the crime (usually assassination of a secular authority).

The final seven chapters explore how murder was dealt with within communities, with chapters spanning poison, infanticide, spousal killing, and killer children. Jeffrey Doolittle examines the work of Gregory of Tours, specifically "illegitimate killing and their purpose within his text" (312). Doolittle concludes that Gregory wrote of homicida and parricida as evidence of a sinful society. Thomas Gobbitt offers a corrective for perceptions of poison as written about in seventh-century Lombard. He argues that the main concern within the law was gender and class; he wants to break the assumption that poison was equated to murder in the Lombard legal tradition. Likewise, G. Koolemans Beynen examines the Georgian epic poem, The Man in the Panther Skin, to show that it does not consider all murder to be wrong. Rather, it employs an ends-justify-the-means approach, in that if the outcome of the murder was good, then the murder is not condemned. In this poem, murder was a tool, not good or bad inherently. In the final essay on poison, Carmel Ferragud examines a specific crime of poisoning in fifteenth-century Valencia. Sanxo Calbó poisoned his family out of greed, yet with the entire trial record surviving, this case shows larger societal concerns of arsenic and its availability, medical practices used to counteract poison, and the processes of investigation and punishment of such crimes. In another micro-case study Patricia Turning relates the case of Clare de Portet, who committed adultery, helped her lover kill her husband, and then hid her dead husband under the stairs in her house. Portet's case connects gender, murder, and public spectacle, in that she was convicted and ordered to do a walk of shame in the city, have her goods confiscated, and be decapitated, but there was a four-year legal battle over who could decapitate her, royal officials or municipal ones. Turning argues that this exceptional case demonstrates a criminal "who needed to die in a spectacular fashion" (396); the execution was not so much related to her crime as it was competing jurisdictions. Importantly, she offers several other cases that complicate accepted understanding of gender, criminality, and punishment. In each, the woman is punished in a way regardless of her gender and there is no mention of her being of a weak or feeble sex.

The final two chapters of the volume deal with children, one with murdered children and the other with killer children. Dianne Berg discusses the case of Margaret Vincent, who killed two of her children so they would not be raised as Protestants, as she was a recent Catholic convert. More broadly, this case highlights public and private roles of men and women, and how this private act was seen to upset society. By committing infanticide, Vincent destroyed her children, "her husband's patrimony and the domestic commonwealth she was entrusted to maintain" (421). Berg argues that infanticide by a mother undermines motherhood as unnatural and was (and still is) written about as destabilizing patriarchal authority. Ben Parsons turns to killings carried out by children as represented in the press. He argues against the current tendency for crime pamphlets of the early modern period to be compared to modern crime reporting. Parsons suggests that this is problematic because in early modern pamphlets many details are fictionalized and representations of child killers were not sensationalized, but simply treated as any other type of killer. To conclude the volume, Hannah Skoda offers a succinct summary of each chapter and ties together the main themes of the volume to show why it is so timely and necessary to move forward the conversation of murder in the premodern period.

If one is looking for faults, one perhaps is that the volume is skewed very heavily toward the medieval period, which was evident immediately in the introduction, as not until the concluding paragraph does Tracy address early modern murder, and then, only as "continuity" from the medieval period (15). Additionally, the organization is problematic as many of the chapter themes overlap, yet are in different sections, such as Tracy's own chapter on Chaucer being in the first section on legal definitions and traditions. Finally, many of the chapters are descriptive in order to simply introduce the medieval concept of murder in various areas, yet this is what opens the possibilities for further research, by allowing scholars to explore murder laws and see how they were actually applied.

Skoda is correct in her assessment that these essays offer "a powerful corrective to lazy stereotypes of the Middle Ages as horrifically and unthinkingly brutal" (456). The included chapters deal with how to define murder, how murder was punished, how societies dealt with murder and mourned for murderers, and even wrote about murderers. It is especially useful for its pan-European approach, as several themes and similarities are immediately apparent, such as the importance of reputation, and provides much thought for ways to expand each topic, from state-sponsored murder in other countries to how literature reflected laws or perceived deficits in the law.

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