Wednesday, 8 October 2014


Last week I went to a rather wonderful workshop at the German Historical Institute in London.  I was talking about my misbehaving students in Oxford and Heidelberg in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but the conference as a whole was about 'Dynamics of Social Change and Perceptions of Threat', and part of a much larger interdisciplinary research project based at the University of Tuebingen.

The conference organisers had big questions for everyone: 'Under what conditions and in what manner threats may lead to a reconfiguration of values, structures of authority, responsibilities and resources.  Under which circumstances and in which way will an initially short-term reconfiguration of values, competencies and resources cause in wake of a perceived threat accelerate social change - or: under what conditions and in which manner will the old order be re-affirmed and restored, assuming that this is possible?'

I'm not sure that there exist answers to these questions in quite that form - but they are important questions to ask.  Conflict studies is a burgeoning field, and it's clearly very important to ask why conflict happens.  But one of the puzzles for students of the Middle Ages (and I imagine for modern historians also) is that conflict usually achieves *so* little - it's hard to see why people are prepared to risk so much.  When I was working on late medieval revolts in northern France, I was struck by how many of them achieved precisely nothing - and yet, nearby towns would quickly follow their example, only to be greeted with violent and horrible retribution.

The St Scholastica's Day Massacre in fourteenth century Oxford was horrifically violent, and, interestingly enough, it was pretty much the last event of its kind.  For the students (or at least for those who survived) it was rather a successful episode.  The revolt began when two students hit a tavern-keeper over the head with a tankard, accusing him of watering down the wine.  Three days of violence and mutilation followed - in which townspeople gave as good as they got from the students - and the townspeople found themselves facing utterly disempowering repression.  They never really dared challenge the student body again.  But social change wasn't just brought about by the violence of the students - it happened because that violence was backed up by a web of royal support, legislative power and clever rhetoric.  In other words, the university authorities provided accounts of what had happened which effectively exonerated the students, explaining how they were victimised by the brutal and bestial townspeople, without actually denying that the students had been violent themselves.  It was a clever piece of rhetoric, which managed to maintain the sense that students could be violent and powerful, whilst also portraying them as wronged victims.  And it was that rhetoric which ensured that the town was punished, and the students empowered.

In the fifteenth century, the picture changed significantly, but that's another story.  What most struck me at this stage, was that the possibility of change doesn't depend only on the violence itself, but on the ways in which it is described, narrativised, appropriated rhetorically, later.  And if there's any lesson here, it's that we need to read accounts of conflicts against the grain, and to remember that the act of representation, of making a story of it, is itself a form of violence and certainly a form of power.

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