Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

Violence and Predation in Late Medieval Mediterranean Europe

Daniel Lord Smaila1 c1

a1 Department of History, Harvard University

In the full-text databases of Latin sources from Europe from the period between 400 and 1500, the Latin word for violence crops up around two thousand times, about as often as “justice” (2,400) though not as often as other interesting words like “envy” (6,000) or “vengeance” (3,800). The frequency of use of the word, adjusted for the vagaries of survival, reveals an interesting trend. From the tenth to the eleventh centuries, an age of predatory castellans and violent territorial expansion, the frequency nearly doubles in the extant literature, and remains high for several centuries to come. The word often appears in texts alongside nauseating tales of violence, of hands lopped off and eyes plucked out and intestines dragged from their hidden recesses. There is the story told by Guibert of Nogent about the predatory castellan Thomas de Marle, who hung his captives by their testicles until the weight of their own bodies tore them off. These were exempla. They painted verbal pictures of the behavior of those who were surely doomed to hell. In the hands of clerical authors like Guibert, they served as a goad to kings and princes who, in their indolence, might allow this stuff to go unavenged.

(Online publication January 05 2012)




Acknowledgments: I have presented these and related arguments at workshops and talks at Denison College, the University of Minnesota, the University of Ottawa, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Michigan, the University of Toronto, Yale University, Harvard University, Stanford University, the Université de Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Dumbarton Oaks, the Universität Bielefeld, Auxerre, Venice, and the 2011 American Historical Association convention. I am immensely grateful to my hosts for their invitations and to many friends and colleagues for their feedback, and also wish to express my profound thanks to Christine Meek and Dott. Sergio Nelli for guiding me through the Lucchese archives.

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