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A Great Effusion of Blood'?

A Great Effusion of Blood'?: Interpreting Medieval Violence

Mark D. Meyerson
Daniel Thiery
Oren Falk
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    A Great Effusion of Blood'?
    Book Description:

    'A great effusion of blood' was a phrase used frequently throughout medieval Europe as shorthand to describe the effects of immoderate interpersonal violence. Yet the ambiguity of this phrase poses numerous problems for modern readers and scholars in interpreting violence in medieval society and culture and its effect on medieval people. Understanding medieval violence is made even more complex by the multiplicity of views that need to be reconciled: those of modern scholars regarding the psychology and comportment of medieval people, those of the medieval persons themselves as perpetrators or victims of violence, those of medieval writers describing the acts, and those of medieval readers, the audience for these accounts. Using historical records, artistic representation, and theoretical articulation, the contributors to this volume attempt to bring together these views and fashion a comprehensive understanding of medieval conceptions of violence.

    Exploring the issue from both historical and literary perspectives, the contributors examine violence in a broad variety of genres, places, and times, such as the Late Antique lives of the martyrs, Islamic historiography, Anglo-Saxon poetry and Norse sagas, canon law and chronicles, English and Scottish ballads, the criminal records of fifteenth-century Spain, and more. Taken together, the essays offer fresh ways of analysing medieval violence and its representations, and bring us closer to an understanding of how it was experienced by the people who lived it.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7033-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-16)

    ‘A great effusion of blood’ was the shorthand often used throughout medieval Europe to describe the effects of immoderate interpersonal violence. Scribes working in criminal courts, for example, employed this phrase when recording the accusations which plaintiffs levelled against individuals who had allegedly assaulted them or their loved ones. Revelling in descriptions of battles, blood-baths, and mayhem, medieval chroniclers lionized the heroes and demonized the villains responsible for such effusions of blood.Effusio, which in classical Latin had meant simply a ‘pouring forth,’ came to mean in the Middle Ages primarily a ‘shedding of blood’; in the vernaculars, too, derivatives...


    • 1 Violence and the Making of Wiglaf
      (pp. 19-33)
      JOHN M. HILL

      In the last third ofBeowulf, as Wiglaf rushes into combat to help his lord, Beowulf, against an ancient, fiery dragon, the extraordinary violence he faces is not in itself repugnant. We do not read the violent scenes in which Wiglaf acts alongside Beowulf, protected by Beowulf’s iron shield, as nasty or brutish. Their activity is combat after all, even defensive warfare in their case (in that the dragon attacked devastatingly the night before); therefore, we can see their actions as a good kind of violence, the retributive and supportive violence of those who have been attacked, assuming we identify...

    • 2 Defending Their Mastersʼ Honour: Slaves as Violent Offenders in Fifteenth-Century Valencia
      (pp. 34-56)

      Few historians have investigated the social and human dimensions of the institution of slavery in the later medieval period, particularly for the Iberian peninsula. The slave-holding of this period seems to be of a markedly different character from the rural slavery of the early Middle Ages or the plantation slavery of the modern period. Slave-holding in the later Middle Ages was predominantly urban, artisanal, and domestic. As a result, a number of scholars, most notably Jacques Heers, have tended to consider it a kinder, gentler form of slavery. As Stephen Bensch has noted, ‘recent scholarship has looked upon urban slavery,...

    • 3 The Murder of Pau de Sant Martí: Jews, Conversos, and the Feud in Fifteenth-Century Valencia
      (pp. 57-78)

      Just before sundown on 12 July 1430, theconversoPau de Sant Martí, then travelling on the royal road from Morvedre to his home in Valencia, approached the town of Puçol. Suddenly Mossé Maymó, a Jew from Morvedre, along with three Muslims and a Christian pimp, emerged from a roadside vineyard firing crossbows and brandishing lances and swords. A Muslim slave accompanying Pau heard Mossé growl, as he charged Pau with shield and lance, ‘so you will die.’ While the slave fell to his knees begging to be spared, the pimp unhorsed Pau. Mossé then pounced and dealt Pau the...

    • 4 Violence and the Sacred City: London, Gower, and the Rising of 1381
      (pp. 79-97)

      As one of medieval England’s most vocal urban poets, John Gower raises his voice to condemn the desecration of urban life by those in power and by those seeking power. Like Chaucer, who explores the destructive tensions of ancient Troy inTroilus and Criseyde, Gower’s concerns, vocalized most stridently in book 1 of theVox clamantis, focus on the questionable integrity of London’s citizenry and the vulnerability of the city to outside attacks. Gower’s response to the invasion of London by protesting rebels is provoked not only by the violence done inside the city, including the executions of Simon Sudbury,...

    • 5 Bystanders and Hearsayers First: Reassessing the Role of the Audience in Duelling
      (pp. 98-130)

      On a brisk midwinter morning early in the eleventh century, two men in eastern Iceland went up a hill to fight a duel. In some respects, this encounter between thegoði[chieftain] Bjarni of Hof and hisbóndi[free farmer] neighbour þorsteinn of Sunnudalr, recounted inþorsteins þáttr stangarhǫggs,² resembled most duels in medieval Iceland. The hillock on which they fought served as an impromptu duelling ring; they took turns taking swings at each other; shattered shields were discarded and replaced; and even a new, sharp blade could be substituted for a blunted one – all features that students of...

    • 6 Scottish National Heroes and the Limits of Violence
      (pp. 131-144)
      ANNE McKIM

      [Thus all day they were killing so quickly, until at last this King Edward saw at that time a woman slain, and from her side he saw a child had fallen out, and lay sprawling beside that slain woman. ‘Laissez! Laissez!’ then he cried. ‘Leave off! Leave off!’ that is to say.]

      So, according to the early fifteenth-century Scottish chronicler, Andrew of Wyntoun, is Edward I of England prompted to call a halt to the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of the town of Berwick on Good Friday 1296. The sight of the mutilated corpse of a pregnant woman provides...


    • 7 Seeing the Gendering of Violence: Female and Male Martyrs in the South English Legendary
      (pp. 147-163)

      The tortured body in medieval Christian hagiography is, for the hagiographer and his Christian audience, a testimony to the power of God and the church, and the tale of a martyred saint is an important way to illustrate that power – often by providing details of horrific torture, the failure of which functions as proof that steadfast spiritual faith can overcome physical suffering. Particularly graphic in its torture descriptions is theSouth English Legendary.¹ TheSELnarratives of martyrs’ Lives are structured around a pattern of represented violence that constructs vivid pictures of torn limbs, rent bellies, and blood that...

    • 8 Violence or Cruelty? An Intercultural Perspective
      (pp. 164-189)

      Violence and cruelty are close but not identical concepts. Both involve primarily, though not exclusively, the application of physical force. By modern standards burning heretics at the stake would undoubtedly be a violent act. Yet is it also a cruel act? A modern answer would most likely be again ‘yes.’ But in other periods and in other cultures the answer would be different. Violence and cruelty are both cultural constructs, but that does not entail that they are objective or subjective to the same extent. What I would like to argue in this paper is that cruelty, much more than...

    • 9 Body as Champion of Church Authority and Sacred Place: The Murder of Thomas Becket
      (pp. 190-215)

      In the late afternoon of Tuesday, 29 December 1170, four barons of the English king, Henry II, perpetrated what quickly became one of the most notorious violent acts of the Middle Ages when they murdered Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in his cathedral.¹ Thomas’s murder is one of the best-documented events of the Middle Ages; the sources, particularly the accounts of the five eyewitnesses to the murder, are well known for the information they provide regarding the political conflict between Thomas and Henry over the rights ofsacerdotiumandregnum. These documents, however, are more than testimonies to the political...

    • 10 Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale: Interrogating ‘Virtue’ through Violence
      (pp. 216-240)
      M.C. BODDEN

      A recent infamous program of torture expressed its dynamics in this way: ‘Procrastination is ... one of the essential dimensions of the tragedy; in [this] torture the murder was forever imminent but forever postponed. Should the victim have begun to die under torture, there was an attending physician to “revive and resuscitate” him so that the process of his prolonged destruction could continue.’¹ This strategy describes the Argentine junta’s war of torture against thedesaparecidos(the ‘disappeared’). Interestingly enough, it also describes a cultural aspect of the Christian tradition in which such patterns of violence were desirable. The site where...

    • 11 Violence, the Queen’s Body, and the Medieval Body Politic
      (pp. 241-267)

      In March 1184, a teenaged queen of France incited an outbreak of civic violence in the town of Senlis that left an indelible mark on Capetian dynastic and diplomatic history. Not yet fourteen,² Isabelle of Hainaut heard in that month that her husband, King Philip II, had called his barons to Senlis to announce a divorce after four years of marriage. Modern historians surmise that Philip hoped a threatened divorce would shock his father-in-law, Baldwin V of Hainaut, into readier compliance with his wishes.³ Medieval writers, however, ignore any such diplomatic motives and focus instead on Isabelle’s reactions to the...

    • 12 Violence in the Early Robin Hood Poems
      (pp. 268-286)

      There are several ways in which those Robin Hood ballads that can claim to have been composed before 1500 (theGest of Robyn Hode, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, andRobin Hood’s Death) are liable to frustrate the expectations of modern first-time readers.¹ Such readers will encounter barely a hint of Friar Tuck and, more importantly, no Maid Marian – indeed, hardly any women at all, apart from the treacherous Abbess of Kirklees and the cupidinous Sheriff of Nottingham’s wife. (If romantic liaisons are what they’re looking for they...

    • 13 Canon Laws regarding Female Military Commanders up to the Time of Gratian: Some Texts and Their Historical Contexts
      (pp. 287-314)

      Warfare is the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart. Women look to men to protect them from danger ... women, however, do not fight. They rarely fight among themselves and they never, in any military sense, fight men. If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.¹

      The preceding quote, taken from the distinguished military historian John Keegan’s 1993 monograph,A History of Warfare, serves to illustrate the extent to which...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 315-319)

    The problem of interpreting violence is inextricably tied to the problem of evaluating it. Today, the use of force, coercive and destructive, persuasive and constructive, never appears quite straightforward, nor can it be discussed in value-neutral terms. Instances of violence – for private or public purposes, to entertain or to educate – immediately provoke debate, cause anxiety, and call for elaborate explanation, even apologetics. What contemporary society construes as violent rarely accords with what it regards as legitimate behaviour; numerous labels have been devised to recast certain forms of violence into morally unobjectionable endeavours – peacekeeping, national liberation, self defence...