Louise O. Fradenburg
There is nothing that permits one to define what is useful to man.
— Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess, 116
He lives in justice and sanctity who is an unprejudiced assessor of the
intrinsic value of things.
— Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine
We would rather have a gay time than work and still have nothing.
— Jean Gerson, citing one of the working poor of Paris
This essay explores the relevance of the concept of need to some of the questions that historians of medieval crime have posed for themselves. I will be interested in how the concept of need has structured thinking about the relation of crime to poverty, and about the relationship of crime and poverty, in turn, to discourses of charity. In considering the notion of the “needful thing,” I will also be addressing some issues about subjectivity in relation to the law: how the law both emanates from and structures desire, on the level of the subject and on the level of what Slavoj Zizek calls “communal enjoyment.”1
My theoretical starting point is a psychoanalytic one: law structures and is structured by desire.2 However, the concealment or management of this intimacy between law and desire is fundamental to what Zizek calls the “ideological operation,” including that of traditional ethics, which often posits the law (reason, natural law, divine law, ius gentium) as forming a different order from desire, hence as that which disciplines or purifies, rather than emanates from, concupiscence.3 The English jurist Henry de Bracton treats legal judgment as an activity resonant with long-established ethical concerns about prematurity and maturity, reason and passion, presumption and humility, care of the self and carelessness of the self, and proper and improper “gain”: even if “one is fit to judge and to be made a judge, let each one take care for himself lest, by judging perversely and against the laws, because of prayer or price, for the advantage of a temporary and insignificant gain, he dare to bring upon himself sorrow and lamentation everlasting.”4 The severance of desire from the law, such that the law becomes that to which our desire must submit it