‘A Great Effusion of Blood’?: Interpreting Medieval Violence. Ed. Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery, and Oren Falk. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. 319 pp. ISBN 0-8020-8774-4.

REVIEWED BY: Eileen A. Joy, Coastal Carolina University (forthcoming in Sixteenth Century Journal)

In her beautiful essay on the Iliad, “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” written in 1940, Simone Weil wrote that, from violence’s

first property (the ability to turn a human being into a thing by the simple method of killing him) flows another, quite prodigious too in its own way, the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive. He is alive; he has a soul; and yet—he is a thing. (trans. Mary McCarthy, in Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Miles [New York: Grove Press, 1986], 165)

Earlier, in 1916, in his little-known essay Zur Kritik der Gewalt (“Toward a Critique of Violence”), Walter Benjamin argued that “a cause, however effective, becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, only when it enters into moral relations” (trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1: 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996], 236).  Both Weil and Benjamin understood that violence is always bound up with social relations and ethics, as well as with justice and the law, and indeed, Benjamin ultimately concluded that law itself is a kind of violence that constitutes and maintains social relations by creating a monopoly on force and coercion, an insight that Robert Gibbs has concluded “marks a vital and dark moment in any Continental philosophy of law” (“Philosophy and Law: Questioning Justice,” in The Ethical, ed. Edith Wyschogrod and Gerald P. McKenny [Oxford: Blackwell, 2003], 101).

In the post-September 11th landscape, the philosophy of violence and its connections to moral and social relations, and to the law, is not an academic subject only, but is a fiercely-contested political question, with possibly dire consequences for the future of democracy and international human rights. Given the recent arguments from the left regarding the “exceptional” necessity of using “lesser” violence to avoid greater violence—Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) and Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), for example—and the U.S. government’s use of torture in its “war on terror,” while at the same time claiming, paradoxically, that the U.S. doesn’t engage in torture, the time is more than ripe for scholarly studies of violence that take as long an historical view as possible. Luckily for all of us, books by scholars of the Middle Ages on what might be called violence or “conflict” studies, has been an especially productive area of late, notably including the book under review here, as well as Paul Hyams, Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England: Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), Daniel Baraz, Medieval Cruelty: Changing Perceptions, Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), Warren C. Brown and Piotr Gorecki, eds., Conflict in Medieval Europe: Changing Perspectives on Society and Culture (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2001), and Richard W. Kaueper, ed., Violence in Medieval Society (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2000), just to cite some prominent examples. We live in an age of great political anxiety and crisis, and these books show us, again and again, that this supposedly “new” state of crisis is not as new as we might believe. As the editors of ‘A Great Effusion of Blood’? point out in their Introduction,

Living in a post-modern era of fragmenting states, ethnic and sexual violence, and fiercely fought culture wars has moved medievalists increasingly to focus on the violence involved in the process of state formation and on the people excluded and the voices silenced in the rise of western culture. Whereas an earlier generation of historians tended to view medieval violence as a primitive and anarchic force of social dissolution, gradually superseded in the course of historical progress, violence is now seen not merely as a characteristic of a safely medieval and barbaric past but as integral to the historical processes that have brought us to our present condition, as foundational to what we have become. (4)

The editors of this collection, then, keep faith with the philosophy of the Annales School historians, which can be best summed up in the words of Lucien Febvre, Histoire, science du passé, science du present.

Most of the essays in Meyerson, Thiery and Falk’s collection originated at the “Violence in Medieval Society” conference organized by the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto in 1998, so the book as a whole was six years in the making. Although the book is divided into two discrete sections, “Violence and Identity Formation” and “Violence and the Testament of the Body,” the individual essays themselves are far more diverse and wide-ranging than these sub-divisions imply, covering subjects as various as slaves as “violent offenders” in fifteenth-century Valencia (Debra Blumenthal), John Gower’s response to the 1381 Uprising in Book I of his Vox clamantis (Eve Salisbury), the tortured bodies of female and male martyrs in the South English Legendary (Beth Crachiolo), the consecrated body of the murdered Thomas Becket (Dawn Marie Hayes), virtue and violence in Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale” (M.C. Bodden), violence in the early Robin Hood poems (Richard Firth Green), and canon laws regarding female military commanders (David Hay), among others. Written primarily by literature and history scholars, the essays alternate between the concerns of violence in literary and more historical texts, as well as between specific historical episodes and how those episodes are reflected upon in diverse textual sources. Therefore, in his essay “Violence, the Queen’s Body, and the Medieval Body Politic,” John Carmi Parsons considers King Philip II’s attempt to divorce his fourteen-year-old wife, Isabelle of Hainaut, in 1184 and the public riot that ensued when Isabelle put on a penitential shift and walked barefoot to every church in Senlis, France in order to beg God for mercy. Parsons initially looks at this episode through three medieval chronicle accounts, but also brings in Chaucer’s Griselda, Lady Godiva, courtly romance, and exempla, among other medieval narratives—both literary and historical—in order to “suggest something of medieval understandings of male rulers’ consorts, their relationships to government, the means (not excluding violence) by which those relationships could express themselves, the images and actions by which they manifested those connections, and how observers might interpret such actions” (243). Ultimately, as the editors themselves point out in their Conclusion, Parsons’ essay shows how “The uncontrolled female body is both metaphor and instrument for violent disorder” (317). Daniel Baraz’s contribution, “Violence or Cruelty? An Intercultural Perspective,” makes the provocative argument that, whereas “physical violence is, to a considerable extent, objective and quantifiable,” cruelty, on the other hand, “much more than violence, is related to specific cultural conventions and traditions, and hence is less ‘objective’” (164). To this end, Baraz is most interested in, not actual acts of violence in the Middle Ages, per se, but in medieval “perceptions” of cruelty, particularly as those perceptions are represented in the textual accounts of “external ‘others’ who threatened the medieval West,” such as the Vikings, Mongols, Turks and Muslims (167). Baraz’s essay, then, provides a much-needed cultural analysis of the socio-historically marked (i.e., written) distinction between violence and cruelty in the medieval West, which naturally leads to considerations of how this distinction was utilized in medieval political spheres. Equally compelling for its “cultural analysis” approach is Anne McKim’s “Scottish National Heroes and the Limits of Violence,” in which she argues, with reference to the accounts of Edward I of England’s massacre of the inhabitants of Berwick, Scotland on Good Friday 1296, that the determination of “excessive violence” is culturally constructed, and “historical writing in medieval Scotland was a symbolic practice, a ‘form of violence in its own right’” (140). Although many of the essays rely a bit too heavily, perhaps, on the philosophical work on violence of Rene Girard (Violence and the Sacred, mainly, but also The Scapegoat) and Michel Foucault (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, primarily, but also Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason and The History of Sexuality, Volume 1)—works of scholarship that, however erudite and insightful, cannot carry the whole ground of the cultural analysis of violence in either past or present societies—the volume’s authors are nevertheless to be commended, for the most part, for the broad range of philosophical and historical work on violence that they do bring in to their essays’ arguments. Oren Falk, in his essay on dueling in medieval Icelandic literature (“Bystanders and Hearsayers First: Reassessing the Role of the Audience in Duelling”), in addition to incorporating vast amounts of scholarship on Icelandic saga, medieval warfare, and dueling, also refers to the cultural anthropological work of Victor Turner, J.K. Campbell, Christopher Boehm and Julian Pitt-Rivers, various works on violence and honor in the antebellum American South, and also to cultural studies of masculinity, making for a very rich analysis of violence, kinship, and community. John Hill’s “Violence and the Making of Wiglaf” likewise draws upon important comparative anthropological studies, such as Marcel Mauss’s The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economies, and Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanasia. For his essay “Jews, Conversos, and the Feud in Fifteenth-Century Valencia,” Meyerson also reads widely in the cultural anthropological literature, and I was happy to see Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985) and Edward Peters’ Torture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985) cited in more than one chapter, as these authors are essential reading for any scholar undertaking a cultural analysis of torture and tortured bodies in any time period. At the same time, I was somewhat dismayed, in a book on violence, that so little of the extensive literature on the history and philosophy of the body was included, but this is perhaps a too-niggling point.

As the editors themselves write in their Conclusion, “by taking into account both specific acts of violence and the institutional, social, and ideological contexts in which they were enmeshed, the essays in this volume vault ambitiously across the interpretive chasm” and it is hoped that “these ventures into the past can repay the loan of modern theoretical constructs by offering their own bridgeheads into interpreting modern violence” (319). At a time when the concerns of humanitarianism are increasingly viewed as separable, in supposedly “exceptional” cases, from the concerns of global politics, and violence against individual persons, and groups of persons, is seen as a “necessary” and “justified” evil, collections like ‘A Great Effusion of Blood’? help us to better understand the historical and often inextricably tragic connections between violence and the state, between violence and the law, and between violence and moral relations.