'A Great Effusion of Blood'? Interpreting Medieval Violence

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MARK D. MEYERSON, DANIEL THIERY, and OREN FRANK, eds., 'A Great Effusion of Blood? Interpreting Medieval Violence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. 319. ISBN: 0-8028-8774-4. $65.

These thirteen essays from historians and literary critics of varying medieval specialties scrutinize the meaning and practice of medieval violence. The volume has a genuinely interesting table of contents for most medievalists, and the essays are for the most part engaging. Topics such as Beowulf, dueling, twelfth-century queens' bodies as sites of political strife, Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, Robin Hood poems, saints' lives, Thomas Becket's murder, Jews in fifteenth-century Valencia, and canon law on female military commanders comprise some of the wide swath cut by the collection. The editors, who also provide an introduction and afterword, divide the contributions into two sections: 'Violence and Identity Formation' and 'Violence and the Testament of the Body' making only shaky connections among the essays in each group; a reader might see more affiliation between those investigating historical documents and those decoding literary texts. The publisher's failure to include an index and a bibliography detracts from the usefulness of the book and contributes to isolating the essays from each other. One of the volume's achievements within the abundant current critical conversation about medieval violence lies in the reiteration, from whatever historical and literary evidence the authors present, of the notion that what constitutes violence is a matter of perspective. Victims, victimizers, and observers may have contradictory explanations of such brutal acts-justifications or abhorrence. The volume demonstrates that 'violence' is a vexed term for medievalists. The editors also claim that, contrary to Norbert Elias's thesis of a 'civilizing process" taming violence as the Middle Ages evolved towards court societies, violence changes in its perpetrators or in its interpretations, but not in quantity and kind. We are not far removed from any 'alterity' one might claim for the Middle Ages. Many of the authors show violence linked to the cultural capital of honor and explore the justifications of infliction of violence by those in power. Some essayists use the theories of René Girard, Victor Turner, and Elainc Scarry, yet I would like to have seen more engagement with the work of Jody Enders (Rhetoric, Memory, Violence: The Medieval Theater of Cruelty) and her important discussion of the aesthetics of medieval violence and the critical response to it.

John Hill's essay on Beowulf provides a close reading of gestures of kinship of Beowulf towards Wiglaf that reinforce mutually supportive violence in the poem, granting Wiglaf a 'new nobility' changing his status and identity as a warrior. Debra Blumenthal's investigation of municipal documents of feuds in Valencia discloses that slaves often participated in the honor-feuds of their masters, or were forced actually to perpetrate the blows on their masters' enemies, a cause of especial dishonor to those enemies; to be killed by a slave is a shameful death. Yet masters could and did repudiate such actions of their slaves, thereby evading culpability, and perhaps easing the rift between feuding families by alleging the violence was instigated by an outsider. Mark Meyerson, also studying Valencian feuds, discovers that fifteenth-century conversos felt their Jewish blood ties diminishing since the evidence points to the kinship/honor group becoming, over time, other conversos and Old Christians, not Jews.

Eve Salisbury turns to the Rising of 1381 in England and its literary expression in John Gower's Vox Clamantis that discloses, she argues, the symbolic meaning of violence for the city of London and the larger English community. Criticizing all levels of fourteenth-century English society, Gower describes Wat Tyler and the Flemings as scapegoats for the problems of that society, and depicts the 'diachronic nature of sacrificial violence' (93) as well as acting as a kind of social conscience. …