Castillo de Zafra / Photo by Borjaanimal, Wikimedia Commons
Medieval men and women were caught up in a Hobbesian pre-state society where violence was unrestrained and regularly went unpunished. Just how accurate is this perception?
NOTE: This article was originally published in 2017 as the new season of Game of Thrones had begun.
Game of Thrones (GoT) season is here again, and along with it comes the perpetuation of an image of the Middle Ages as a lawless society in which violence is ubiquitous and bears no consequences. Watching the show leaves this medieval history professor squirming while thinking about the upcoming year of damage control in a classroom chockfull of students who trust that GoTis an accurate representation of the Wars of the Roses (although, thankfully, there is some skepticism about the dragons). Of course, it is too easy to heap blame on Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino was certainly not the first to equate “medieval” with “barbaric.” Accusations of medieval savagery crop up on a fairly regular basis in the academic world, and date as far back as the nineteenth-century. The most memorable can be traced to scholars of impressive stature, such as: Henry Charles Lea (1866), Johan Huizinga (1924), Marc Bloch (1961), Norbert Elias (1969), and more recently Michel Foucault (1977). Just when we thought we’d finally tossed off the mantle of barbarity fashioned so eloquently and skillfully by Foucault, we find ourselves confronted with one of the most damning portraits of the Middle Ages yet. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (2011) concocts a medieval fantasy world so frightening and horrific it is hard to imagine anyone left their homes without expecting to be murdered. Armed with charts and tables in gleeful abundance – yet furnishing no explanation whatsoever about where these trustworthy medieval statistics come from – Pinker finds a receptive audience. His book has been hailed by Bill Gates as his “favorite book of the last decade” and landed Mark Zuckerberg’s “Year of Books” pick.
Kunigunde and trial by ordeal / Wikimedia Commons
As with GoT, Pinker’s perception of the Middle Ages is most credible if viewed in the reflection of a funhouse mirror. That is to say, he is not wrong that the medieval era was violent: of course, it was. Continental Europeans employed a whole range of painful and gruesome implements of torture to extract confessions. Across Europe, death was prescribed as punishment for a wide variety of serious crimes, and people were encouraged to attend executions because of the moral benefits. Even money and rank failed to act as bar to violence as the occasional slandered queen was compelled to redeem her reputation by walking across a bed of hot ploughshares. Yet, Pinker’s view is gravely distorted. To suggest that the medieval world was hyper-violent in comparison with the century of genocide is simply at odds with the history. Comparing medieval and modern “rates of violence” is a mammoth task with its own challenges to be left for another day. Here, I intend to address the ostensible cause of that violence. Both Pinker and the writers of GoT see lawlessness as a defining feature of the medieval period. Medieval men and women were caught up in a Hobbesian pre-state society where violence was unrestrained and regularly went unpunished. Just how accurate is this perception?
In reality, the medieval world was far from lawless. To be sure, many of those living in medieval England complained that they were needlessly over-regulated. Law came into being to curb the senseless violence of vendetta and bloodfeud that plagued the early Middle Ages, but once the crown grasped just how useful the law can be as a tool of state formation, its growing tentacles slunk into every facet of society. The High and Late Middle Ages are a story of continuously multiplying legislation on various fronts (royal, ecclesiastical and local courts). Of course, it needs to be recognized that law is not merely handed down from on high: rather, it derives from the relationship of give and take that exists between crown and community. Many of the laws that came into existence did so in part because communities and individuals petitioned for peaceful resolutions to everyday problems. Thus, Englishmen and women tolerated the proliferation of legislated behavior because it was what a vocal group of people in society wanted. The crown ceded to their wishes because it was profitable and it was the king’s job to keep the peace. The end result was a society that placed far more restrictions on the lives of medieval men and women than we today would ever tolerate.
The medieval English had to consider the law and its strictures from the first moment they awoke. The apparel laws dictated what you were permitted to wear according to rank and income, from the color of your clothes (natural wool, gold, silver), the nature of the fabric (wool, linen, silk, embroidered) as well as its value and trim (fur, ermine, budge, lamb, cony, cat, fox), to the acceptability of wearing jewelry, ribbons, girdles, veils, and mantles. Violating the law risked having one’s costly but socially inappropriate apparel confiscated to the king. Dressing in clothing that did not conform to your biological sex would also end in arrest: Joan of Arc was not the only cross-dresser on English soil to discover this the hard way. Apparel laws not only reinforced the class and gender hierarchies, they imposed protectionist policies. Most peasants were resigned to wearing wool no matter how abrasive it was on the skin because it was necessary to stimulate the economy. England was awash in sheep. While today the government might fund a campaign to “buy local,” the medieval crown simply forbid people from wearing anything else. And although many Americans might believe that their Second Amendment rights hark back to a golden age when men arose and immediately strapped on their swords, wandering about perpetually armed, doing so in medieval England was a blatant infraction of the Statute of Northampton, unless you happened to be one of the king’s officers, or a cry for arms to defend one’s village had been issued.
Labors of the Months, Tres Riches Heures, Limbourg Brothers, Duc de Berry, Books of Hours X, Musee Conde, Wikipedia Commons
The laws also spelled out just what you were allowed to eat. Servants could consume meat once a day, and partake in meager quantities of milk, cheese, and butter, appropriate to their rank. Of course, for most peasants in England eating meat was a challenge at the best of times. By the thirteenth century, roughly a third of the land in England had been reclassified as royal forestland, despite the fact that much of that land was not actually forested. “Forest” was a legal designation with little to no bearing on the nature of the landscape it described. Animals (including fish) inhabiting forestland belonged to the king. As a result, hunting game was synonymous with poaching, an offence punishable by death. Hunting was not the only illegal activity in royal forests. Henceforth, so too, were “clearing of land, cutting or burning of wood … the carrying of bow and spears in the forest, the ‘wretched’ hambling of dogs, failure to perform the duty of ‘stabilitio’, that is, of driving deer, letting animals loose, building in the forest, neglecting summonses, not reporting those whom one met in the forest with dogs, or discoveries of hide or ﬂesh.” Apparently, King Rufus even commanded all Englishmen to declaw their dogs so that they couldn’t chase the king’s deer, a suggestion met by some resistance.
The church’s laws of fasting were superimposed on the king’s dietary restrictions. The church designated Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday as regular fasting days, meaning no food was to be consumed until after nones (that is 3:00 p.m.). This was in addition to ember days and Lent. Of course, breaking the church’s laws on fasting was not going to result in a prison sentence — although it should be underscored that bishops did run prisons and church courts sometimes handed down life sentences –the more likely punishment was even more fasting, or being whipped in procession around the parish church three Sundays in a row. For particularly stubborn sinners, persistent and public infraction might eventually result in excommunication. Being ousted from the Christian community was a serious disability. Interaction with an excommunicate was considered a venial sin, although at least one canonist argued it was a mortal sin, therefore the community was required to avoid interaction with an excommunicate altogether. Excommunication had civil consequences: any contracts (including loans) a person had with an excommunicate were null and void. Tenacious excommunication led to prison time, as an excommunicate was only allowed to remain unreconciled to the church for forty days until the secular arm of the law took over and arrested and imprisoned the excommunicate until he or she agreed to return to the church. Legislation promulgated at Lateran IV in 1215 declared that anyone excommunicate for an entire year was to be considered a heretic: continued refusal to return to the church at this point risked burning at the stake.
Talk of excommunication leads us to religious affiliation: if you were born Christian, by law you had to remain Christian. Leaving the Christian faith was a crime punishable by death. It was also not enough to be Christian in name only. Weekly attendance at mass was obligatory, and because Sabbath-breaking might be associated with heresy, the consequences were meaningful. This was just one more way that the law shaped a person’s daily living.
“Cantigas de Santa Maria.” By Ilustrador anónimo / ‘Códice Rico’ da biblioteca do mosteiro de El Escorial, Wikimedia Commons
The law also circumscribed one’s leisure activities. Sports and games were out of the question. The Statute of Cambridge forbid “games involving throwing or kicking a ball, and other games called quoits, dice, casting stones, keyless, and other such importune games.” Englishmen instead were encouraged to practice the more useful skill of archery, so that they might be better prepared to defend England in the event of a foreign attack. Sex was also out of the question, unless it was with your spouse, while fully clothed, on the correct days of the liturgical calendar, in the correct position, while thinking about God and the joys of procreation. Policing of canon law was mostly left up to communities to rat each other out, so we can suppose many infractions went unpunished (surely, God was not at the top of everyone’s minds when having sex). However, this was certainly not true after the Black Death. Because your neighbor’s degenerate morals might provoke God’s wrath in the form of another plague outbreak, it was not unheard of for the local constable to burst into homes unannounced in the middle of the night to make sure that nothing untoward was happening.
Breaking bread with a friend is a time-honored tradition, but even this rite was hedged in by the law. What if that friend was Jewish? Dining with Jews had been forbidden for Christians since the Council of Orleans in 538. What if that friend was an excommunicate? This might lead to one’s own excommunication. The host also had to make sure that dinner did not run over time, as the medieval English enforced a curfew, and curfew breaking as well as nightwalking were petty crimes. Gossiping was also a dicey proposition. As early as 1275, anyone caught repeating false news or scandal regarding “great men of the realm” was to be thrown in prison until the originator of the tale could be discovered. If you were not caught by an agent of the king, by the late middle ages most municipalities also classified rampant gossiping as a misdemeanor, punished with a fine, or if recurrent in nature, time spent in the pillory or tumbrel (a dung cart). If that gossip involved imagining the death of the king, you were also guilty of treason.
What else did the law regulate that might come as a surprise to a modern audience?
- having a disorderly home
- living alone while single
- living with the wrong people while single
- being overly vocal while also being female (better known as “scolding”)
- being litigious
- selling underweight bread
- selling foul-smelling fish
- disposing of dung in the wrong place
- breaking hedges
- being “common.”
All of this sounds much more 1984 than 1384. Moreover, the absence of Big Brother (or some other like entity) from the medieval picture is a powerful reminder that enforcing all of these laws was well beyond the capacity of the medieval crown, which relied heavily on communities to police themselves with barebones support from self-funded representatives of the king. The medieval English were also well known for their high acquittal rates and a distinct reluctance to apply the death penalty. Moreover, unlike what Foucault or Pinker have argued, the courts were significantly more inclined to punish a perpetrator’s purse than his body in the pursuit of a peaceful and harmonious society. None of this means that the laws were ineffective as a deterrent so that violence reigned supreme. Joan Thakham’s presentation before the bishop of Lincoln in 1418-19 offers the clearest evidence of the potential of such rampant over-regulation. Joan stood accused of myriad offences, among others: being a common whore, having a relationship with the rector, running a common tavern, and being a common scold. One accusation stands out from the rest: “the woman is too proud and speaks haughtily to the parishioners there.”  While some of England’s overly zealous laws relating to the mundane aspects of daily life were surely only enforced sporadically (or not at all), their very existence always meant that they could be enforced, especially against communal troublemakers like Joan.
Medieval England – a lawless land? For a medieval historian, quite frankly that’s hard to imagine.
- Henry Charles Lea, Superstition and Force: Essays on the Wager of Law, the Wager of Battle, the Ordeal, Torture (Philadelphia: Henry Charles Lea, 1866).
- Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the Dawn of the Renaissance (London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1924)
- Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, trans. L.A. Manyon, v. II (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961)
- Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, v. I. The History of Manners (Oxford: OUP, 1969), and v. II. State Formation and Civilization (Oxford: OUP, 1982).
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1977)
- For a less violent view of the Middle Ages, see Claude Gauvard, “Justification and Theory of the Death Penalty at the Parlement of Paris in the Late Middle Ages,” in Christopher Allmand (ed.), War, Government and Power in Late Medieval France, 190-209, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000); Daniel Lord Smail, “Violence and Predation in Late Medieval Mediterranean Europe,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54 (2012): 1-28; Henry Summerson, “Attitudes to Capital Punishment in England, 1200-1500,” in Michael Prestwich, Richard Britnell, and Robin Frame (eds), Thirteenth Century England VIII, 123-34 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001).
- Statutes of the Realm, I:280-81: 11 Edw. III, c. 4 (1363).
- Statutes of the Realm, I: 258, “Statute of Northampton,” 2 Edw. III, c. iii (1328).
- Statutes of the Realm, I: 80, 37 Edw. III, c. viii (1363).
- Judith A. Green, “Forest Laws in England and Normandy in the Twelfth Century,” Historical Research 86.233 (2013), 420-1.
- “Ember days” refers to any of a number of days reserved for fasting and prayer in the Catholic Church. Ember days traditionally comprise the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following St. Lucy’s Day (December 13), the first Sunday in Lent, Pentecost (Whitsun), and Holy Cross Day (September 14).
- For a good discussion of these rules, see Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group).
- For more on excommunication, see Elisabeth Vodala, Excommunication in the Middle Ages (Oakland: University of California Press, 1986).
- The Statutes of the Realm, IV: 57, “Statute of Cambridge,” (1377-1504).
- Shannon McSheffrey, Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 150-151.
- Statutes of the Realm, I: 97, “Statutum Wynton,” 13 Edw. I, ch. 4 (1285).
- Statutes of the Realm, I: 35, “Scandalam Magnatum” in “Statute of Westminster,” 3 Edw. I, c. 34 (1275).
- P.J.P. Goldberg, ed., Women in England c. 1275-1525 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 223.
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