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Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature

Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature: Negotiations of National Identity

Larissa Tracy
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 336
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt3fgnmw
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  • Book Info
    Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature
    Book Description:

    An ugly subject, but one that needs to be treated thoroughly and comprehensively, with a discreet wit and no excessive relish. These needs are richly satisfied in Larissa Tracy's bold and important book. DEREK PEARSALL, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University. Torture - that most notorious aspect of medieval culture and society - has evolved into a dominant mythology, suggesting that the Middle Ages was a period during which sadistic torment was inflicted on citizens with impunity and without provocation: popular museums displaying such gruesome implements as the rack, the strappado, the gridiron, the wheel, and the Iron Maiden can be found in many modern European cities. These lurid images of medieval torture have re-emerged within recent discussions on American foreign policy and the introduction of torture legislation as a weapon in the "War on Terror", and raised questions about its history and reality, particularly given its proliferation in some literary genres and its relative absence in others. This book challenges preconceived ideas about the prevalence of torture and judicial brutality in medieval society by arguing that their portryal in literature is not mimetic. Instead, it argues that the depictions of torture and brutality represent satire, critique and dissent; they have didactic and political functions in opposing the status quo. Torture and brutality are intertextual literary motifs that negotiate cultural anxieties of national identity; by situating these practices outside their own boundaries in the realm of the barbarian "Other", medieval and early-modern authors define themselves and their nations in opposition to them. Works examined range from Chaucer to the Scandinavian sagas to Shakespeare, enabling a true comparative approach to be taken. Larissa Tracy is Associate Professor, Longwood University.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-820-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-30)

    Torture – that most notorious aspect of medieval culture and society – has evolved into a dominant mythology, suggesting that the Middle Ages was a period during which sadistic torment was inflicted on citizens with impunity and without provocation. Figures like Bernard Gui, presented to the twentieth century as the evil inquisitor of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose employing his toys of torture with monstrous delight masked by righteous authority, have imprinted this evil institution on the modern mind. Popular museums of medieval torture displaying barbarous implements like the rack, the strappado, the gridiron, the wheel, and the Iron Maiden...

  6. 1 Rending the Flesh: The Orthodoxy of Torture in Hagiography
    (pp. 31-69)

    One of the enduring literary motifs of medieval hagiography is the array of vicious tortures to which saints, particularly virgin martyrs, are subjected in their steadfast defiance of pagan authorities. In Christian terms, the tortured body of the saint is, for the hagiographer and his audience, ‘a testimony to the power of God and the Church’ and the failure of these horrific tortures ‘functions as proof that steadfast spiritual faith can overcome physical suffering’.² The monstrous actions of the tormentors are juxtaposed against the righteous stance of the saints; and in their resistance to torture, which rarely has a permanent...

  7. 2 Resisting the Rod: Torture and the Anxieties of Continental Identity
    (pp. 70-107)

    As nations sought to define themselves through legal and literary means, the spectre of torture encouraged by secular and ecclesiastical institutions loomed large and was cast as a weapon of tyranny. As Caroline Smith points out, the thirteenth century was ‘a vital one in the formation of France and its literary culture’.¹ This formation is evident in the implicit resistance in literary sources to the legal application of torture, the perception of which is rooted in the proliferation of inquisitorial tribunals, particularly in Languedoc, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.² James Given explains that the work of inquisitors in Languedoc...

  8. 3 The Matter of the North: Icelandic Sagas and Cultural Autonomy
    (pp. 108-131)

    While continental societies struggled to establish their place in the shadow of the growing powers of France and England and continuing dynastic disputes, Scandinavia was engaged in a similar discourse on identity. Icelandic saga authors attempted to define themselves in opposition to both Norwegian encroachment and a Viking past notable for savage atrocities. There was an ‘extraordinary explosion of Icelandic literature in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries’ when three distinct saga genres were composed, connecting the culture of Iceland to its own heritage and to the shared traditions with medieval western Europe.¹ The legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur), chivalric or ‘knights’...

  9. 4 The Matter of Britain: Defining English Identity in Opposition to Torture
    (pp. 132-190)

    As continental legal practice developed sophisticated mechanisms for extracting confessions or facilitating ‘discovery’, and as Scandinavian outposts like Iceland resisted that corrupting influence in sagas, often by allying themselves with the good rule of Anglo-Saxon kings,¹ few medieval societies had such an uneasy relationship with torture as England. Balanced on the edge of the medieval world, England could resist the cultural and legal developments on the Continent. But by the thirteenth century, it was in danger of succumbing to political pressures as Angevin kings pressed their claims in France and the two cultures seemed destined to meld into one. Matthew...

  10. 5 Laughing at Pain: The Comic Uses of Torture and Brutality
    (pp. 191-242)

    Medieval comedy is often the refuge for gratuitous violence where pain is inflicted without any consequences, where an audience can laugh at the discomfort or dysfunction of a person or an institution without the implications of suffering. Medieval folk humour developed outside the official sphere of high ideology and literature, and ‘in this unofficial existence medieval comedy was marked by exceptional radicalism, freedom, and ruthlessness’.¹ Since laughter was often frowned upon in official and religious spheres, exceptional privilege of licence and lawlessness was bestowed outside these arenas: ‘in the marketplace, on feast days, in festive recreational literature. And medieval laughter...

  11. 6 Medieval Torture and Early-Modern Identity
    (pp. 243-291)

    The condemnation of excessive brutality and judicial torture prevalent in medieval literature is among the lasting legacies of the Middle Ages. As European society progressed through the tumultuous fifteenth century and into the early-modern period, the image of brutality as a signifier of medieval barbarity was reimagined in literature and on stage as torture gained a foothold in English jurisprudence. What many early-modern audiences perceived as a ‘medieval’ practice actually climaxed in the religious and political struggles of the sixteenth century. In the Preface to his History of the World (1614), Sir Walter Ralegh commented that ‘whosoever in writing a...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 292-298)

    In the modern mind, torture has become inextricably linked to the medieval world. As modern civilization grapples with reports of abuses that include interrogatory torture from powers great and small, the concerns of medieval authors regarding judicial practices in their own time become particularly relevant. We look back on the medieval world armed with assumptions of alterity and Otherness, qualifying and defining a world of which we have only glimpses. In these circumstances, the wide range of medieval literary sources become invaluable tools for evaluating cultural responses to societal and judicial practice. Torture is notorious now, but it was also...

  13. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 299-318)
  14. Index
    (pp. 319-326)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 327-327)