Thursday, 16 October 2014


Last weekend, I went to a conference in Strasbourg at their centre for English Studies.  I was asked to talk about student friction and violence in late medieval Oxford.  It was the first time I'd been to Strasbourg - what a beautiful city! - it's a lovely combination of the elegant and the picturesque - I loved it, and it was a little tough sitting indoors in such beautiful sunny surroundings!

By Jonathan Martz (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The conference connected rather nicely with the kinds of issues we were thinking about at the German Historical Institute two weeks ago.  We tend to think of conflict as an absolute term - but it was useful to have an opportunity to think about the frictions and entanglements (the term of Wendy Harding) which it involves.  Conflict needn't be a single event, so much as an entangled web of antagonisms, and, as historians, we miss much of this, if we're too focused on the big set-piece battles.  If we really want to understand violent hostility, we need to think carefully about the dynamics of ongoing antagonisms, to think about the relationship between 'diplomacy' and military activity, and to question the distinction between the frictions of everyday life and the outbreaks of cataclysmic violence which go down in the history books.

It certainly made me think about the misbehaving students of the fourteenth century in new ways. The St Scholastica's Day massacre of 1355 is often spoken  of as the inevitable outcome of inevitable town-gown tensions - it was a devastating three day event involving horrific violence on both sides (scalping, mutilating, etc).  But how can it have been inevitable when the tensions which generated it dated back at least half a century?  Was it just the cumulative effect of those tensions, like a volcano building up and finally bursting? What was the relationship between the everyday quarrels (frictions) between townspeople and students and the catastrophic and brutal violence of 1355?

Asking why tension quite suddenly took such a violent form leads us into complex entanglements of cultures of violence, economic tensions, legislative responses, personal and collective animosities. And entering that complex web seems to me far more important, to any student of conflict and change, than simply noting the dates of the great battles.

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