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22.09.12 Zanetti Domingues, Confession and Criminal Justice in Late Medieval Italy

22.09.12 Zanetti Domingues, Confession and Criminal Justice in Late Medieval Italy

Interpretations of criminal justice in late medieval Italy have been dominated since the late twentieth century by an expansive concept of revenge, which has minimised the real impact of state institutions. Such interpretation was inspired by insights from legal anthropology in which recourse to the lawcourts is seen as a mere tactical stage, an instrument, in a broader conflict, settled if at all at the “infra-judicial” level by private compositions and pacifications. In a long series of publications, Andrea Zorzi has argued that citizens were schooled in revenge, that revenge was regarded as legitimate by the law and by lawyers, that a range of secular texts expressed this legitimacy, and that public justice was equivalent to revenge. [1] Revenge and the infra-judicial conduct and settlement of dispute were thus not a parallel system of justice, but were primary phenomena, occupying notions of justice. The “culture of revenge” has thus carried all before it, dismissing the few dissenting voices, such as mine, for persisting in a negative view of vendetta, or for misunderstanding practices of conflict.

Into this field now steps Lidia Zanetti Domingues, with an innovative, closely-argued, and convincing study that should change the terms of the debate. The opening introduction sketches the two dominant historiographical models for interpreting violence and criminal justice: the “culture of revenge” and the “ideology of public order.” The author then indicates her new approach, drawing on the key thirteenth-century developments in penitential spirituality, thus adding a “penitential model” to the existing duo. She finds justification for her choice of Siena for trying out this approach in the “exceptional liveliness” (17) of its spiritual life and the textual sources it generated (saints’ lives and sermons), and in the presence of a range of rich government records, from legislation to minutes of council discussions and petitions for pardon. Chapter 1 (“Competing models”) presents in more detail the penitential model, and uses Sienese saints’ lives and sermons to highlight episodes and passages where actors were conflicted between the demands of the “culture of revenge” and the Christian injunction to forgive, with repentance and peace as the proposed solution. The useful summary (40-2) sets out the characteristics of each model: the culture of revenge saw violence as a restoration of honour; the ideology of public order spoke of combatting crime through punishment; and the penitential model saw revenge as a problem, remedied through repentance and pacification. The differing vocabularies associated with each model are then explored. Chapters 2 and 3 examine the emotions and emotionality of each of the three models: the anger-fuelled revenge that brought a form of happiness; the emotional restraint and pacific values promoted by lawmakers; the humility, patience, and mercy, opposites of pride, anger, and enmity, that were urged by religious writers and preachers. And it was not only the spiritual benefits arising from these virtues that religious authors emphasised, as Zanetti Domingues argues that they also focused on the social benefits: avoiding death and injury, forging new friendships, attaining moral victory. Chapter 4 tackles a major question: “How far was public justice conceived as a form of revenge?” (101). Given the widespread usage in legal texts of the term vindicta to signify public justice, many have concluded that they were the same, but Zanetti Domingues shows how in religious texts they were differentiated: while ideas of divine justice did include an element of revenge (“Vengeance is mine..says the Lord”: Romans 12:19), ideas of human justice stressed punishment and deterrence. Chapter 5 explores the same question, this time using Sienese legal sources, and a second, equally important question, “Was vendetta legal?” (127). The surprising finding from legal sources is that Sienese statutes did conceive of justice as retributive, and tried, as if following the biblical lex talionis, to set appropriately retaliative punishments, on an eye-for-eye principle (penalty of burning for the crime of arson, tongue-amputation for blasphemy, etc). On the question of the legality of vendetta, Zanetti Domingues’ negative answer rests on three arguments: that convoluted statute laws on revenge cannot be read as legitimating it; that the law courts did condemn people for taking revenge; and that other statutes did discourage actions associated with the culture of revenge, such as a particular form of insult (taunting for not taking revenge), and the public display of enmity. So how to reconcile these two findings, the retributive conception of public justice and the de-legitimation of private revenge? Zanetti Domingues’ compelling answer is that the communal government saw itself as having the legitimate function of exercising God’s revenge (which the penitential model denied to private individuals and families), while at the same time also exercising Christian mercy. It is mercy and “the politics of forgiveness” (164) which are then explored in Chapter 6, focused on two separate governmental practices: amnesties or pardons in response to petitions, and ritual releases of groups of prisoners on the more significant religious feast days. On petitions, already a crowded historiographical field, Zanetti Domingues shows how supplicants variously drew on and mixed the three discourses of justice: pleading revenge as a mitigating factor; declaring fidelity to the commune and its institutions; showing repentance and religious conversion. And on ritual releases, previously studied in Siena by Koenig, she significantly expands our knowledge of the practice (antedating its inception from Koenig’s 1297--though to be fair to Koenig he did say from “at least 1297”) and connecting it to Sienese penitential figures and penitential discourse. The book is clearly written and well structured, and reaches both into the detail of Sienese history and into recent scholarship on themes such as shame, guilt, emotionality and identity.

How will this book be received? To defenders of the ideology of public order, its critique of the culture of revenge will be welcome, and its proposal of a new model for understanding attitudes to violence will help to expand and modify the terms of the debate. Proponents of the culture of revenge might seek a two-pronged attack: claiming that the method of using sermons and pastoral literature is not new (Paolo Broggio did something similar in 2015, though for a later period, and in support of Zorzi’s “prevalent narrative” of vendetta), [2] or arguing that the culture of revenge already contains the element of pacification as one of its infra-judicial modes of conflict resolution. However, Zanetti Domingues’ model is not so easily collapsed: the early-modern homiletic sources examined by Broggio harmonise much more easily with the penitential model, of which they seem to be a continuation; and though they might overlap, there is substantial difference between pacification as a mode of conflict resolution (social settlement) and peace as the outcome of penitence (spiritual conversion).



1. For Zorzi’s argument in English, see his essay “Legitimation and legal sanction of vendetta in Italian cities from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries,” in The Culture of Violence in Renaissance Italy, ed. S. K. Cohn and F. Ricciardelli (Florence, 2012).

2. P. Broggio, “Narrazioni della vendetta e della giustizia: articolazioni di potere, cultura politica e acculturazione religiosa nell’Europa della prima età moderna,” Krypton 5-6 (2015): 41-56.