Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Medieval Violence and Criminology: Using the Middle Ages to Understand Contemporary 'Motiveless' Crime

Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

Medieval Violence and Criminology: Using the Middle Ages to Understand Contemporary 'Motiveless' Crime

Article excerpt

In medieval Europe, torture was not just a form of punishment or a deterrent for serious crimes like treason, sexual violence, homicide and arson, but also a sanguinary, collective experience: ordinary people would gather together in order to witness the torments inflicted upon the criminal. The delinquent's abdomen could be sawed when s/he was still alive, the body could be dismembered, eyes excavated, the agonizing body stabbed with incandescent pokers. A thrilled public would take part to this physical and psychological humiliation by insulting the condemned or cheering at the violence... a form of attraction for a society whose social life was based on mainly feudal and religious duties and where entertainment mainly occurred during restricted periods (e.g. festivals). In contemporary Europe, physical violence is no longer a form of 'lawful' control: oppression, segregation or social cleansing have all replaced violence, giving rise, at times, to violent forms of resistance. Society attempts to find motivations for that type of brutal crime that does not emerge as a consequence of unemployment, social inequality, political extremism or poverty; these are, in fact, not only regarded as the cardinal pillars of criminological discussions, but also the main crime explanations that Power finds it easy to engage with. Crime for crime's sake is dismissed as 'motiveless'. Is this really so? The aim of this essay is to explore how an investigation of violence in the Middle Ages can inform our understanding of 'motiveless' violence today. Has society moved away from the bi-dimensional relationship between deviance and entertainment?

Using a hermeneutic interpretation framework (Gadamer, 2011, Betti, 1955), this essay will explore descriptions of medieval brutality (in both primary and secondary sources, and art), along with contemporary accounts of seemingly 'motiveless' crime. Arguing the importance of language as a mediated means to understand our historical culture, and ourselves, Gadamer (2011) suggested that it is not possible to assess how contemporaries understood a particular historical work. Decades and centuries of interpretation give us a more complex vision of history. This is, however, an opportunity rather than a deficiency: Gardamer claimed this allows us to develop what he defined as truth of self-understanding. Betti (1955) argued that texts are objectified representations of human intentions and to interpret them is to give them life. As interpreters, we may overcome our personal views so that we can ensure our understanding of the text. Finally, this work has considered Lorde's concept of biomythography (Lorde, 1982) in its interpretation of sources: our accounts and interpretations are not simply factual, but are rather shaped by our emotions, culture and imagination. In other words, they are subject to what Du Bose Brunner (1998) calls human resignification, an inevitable reinterpretation of events.

Theoretically, the work will attempt to establish a bridge between medievalism and cultural criminology by discussing the elements of spectacle/carnival, pain and excitement. These elements (as my examples will emphasize) are common features of both medieval and contemporary violence. The essay will raise the question of whether these elements can help us decode the seemingly 'motivelessness' of some contemporary crimes.

Contributions to the study of criminology have emphasized the need to move away from a static administrative approach to the study of crime (Presdee, 2004) to an approach that sets humankind and human emotions at the center of a criminological discourse. Cultural criminology evolved as a response to this need: it looks at criminal behavior and the bodies involved with the criminal justice system in terms of culture. Ferrell (1999) discussed the processes by which crime becomes a form of culture and culture becomes criminalized. Questions about whether graffiti art is 'proper' art or a simple criminal activity are an example of the processes discussed by Ferrell. …

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