Wednesday, 20 August 2014


Ferguson, August 2014, source wikicommons

I dedicated my book on violence to: 'all victims of violence and for those who grow up believing violence to be acceptable or inevitable'. I would include in this the people of Ferguson, Missouri.

I'm shocked by the violence of the initial shooting (six times, twice in the head), the second shooting yesterday, and the rapid spiralling of the situation. The racism underlying these events, the implicit social differentiation, and the extreme violence of the police are horrifying.

Essentially, I'd like to reiterate here the points made by Gary Younge in his article here, but drawing on my research on fourteenth-century violence.

Younge makes the point that 'the violence of the state and the violence of the people are connected'. The usual grand narrative from the Middle Ages to the present-day is that the interpersonal violence of the people has gradually been replaced by the monopolisation of violence by ever more powerful states. In other words, that states and state-led justice takes upon itself the exercise of violence, reducing levels of violence between ordinary people. It's a powerful argument, and one which makes sense in lots of ways.

But Younge's comment, and what we're seeing in Ferguson suggests that a violent state does not straightforwardly replace other kinds of violence - indeed, it can exacerbate them. And this is true also for the fourteenth century. In many ways, the later Middle Ages are quite a transitional period in terms of the development of what we might loosely term state justice - the picture is obviously actually far more nuanced, but it does look as though states were increasingly taken the role of punitive violence upon themselves in order to reduce levels of interpersonal violence.

But this didn't seem to reduce levels of violence. In fact, state violence in many ways just reiterates the logic of violence as vengeance and communication. State violence doesn't manage to disassociate itself from interpersonal violence entirely, but rather confirms the sense that violence is indeed an appropriate response and a way of making one's voice heard. The only way state violence can succeed is through raw power - but in cultural terms, it will surely only underline the appeal of violence as an apparently meaningful response.

In the late Middle Ages, the violence of the law drew on almost exactly the same logic as the violence of 'the people' - it was about vengeance. So it didn't undermine the meaningfulness of vengeance violence - it gave it an added boost. The historian of late medieval justice, Claude Gauvard, has demonstrated that the late medieval motif of forgiving one's executioner was actually driven not so much by Christian piety, as by the sense that execution was part of a cycle of vengeance: this cycle could only be stopped by the victim sending a clear signal to his or her family to say that they were released from the obligation of seeking vengeance themselves upon their executioner. The point is that the violence of the law was clearly operating within the same framework as the violence of interpersonal vengeance. The two were not, and are not, clearly distinct - and, in this sense, the two encourage each other. In 1304 in Lens (northern France), the hangman was indeed vengefully murdered by one Jakemon Platel.

We can show this rather dramatically in 1300 in Aire (northern France), when a woman claimed the right to marry a condemned man (custom said that someone could be saved from the gallows by a last minute offer of marriage). The legal official was dismayed, but irate members of the community rushed to save a man, shouting 'Commons: it would be awful if you allowed a son of one of your people to be thus disposed of'. The would-be wife, Jehane li candelliere, was admonished by one compatriot, ‘Since you’ve started something, finish it; hurry up, go ahead and save your chattel’. There's lots to analyse here, and it tells us all kinds of fascinating things about the relationship between community and justice - but my point here is that the violence of the law didn't replace other forms of violence, but unwittingly encouraged this violent communal response, because it all seemed part of the same framework.

Levels of violence are only really likely to diminish when we find other ways to communicate, other ways to negotiate - rather than just hoping that we have the bigger gun.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your thought-provoking post. As a follow up thought: doesn't modern state violence now shift the focus away from vengeance by imposing legal universality (reducing the importance of the feelings of individual victims and communities) and using incarceration partly to rehabilitate and keep the public safe - explicitly focussing on future crime?

    If people are released from prison when they are viewed as unlikely to reoffend then this makes the rationale about future crime rather than vengeance for previous crimes - state violence is about reducing overall crime in the future therefore, not seeking vengeance for crimes committed now. Does this now change the framework in a way medieval violence did not?

    I also recognised this is a stylised and idealised presentation of the current legal system which in many cases may lack equality before the law, actively reduce the effectiveness of rehabilitation in prison etc. but even so, stated aims and ideals must impact upon societal frameworks.