August 2, 2004

Summer course takes violent look at Middle Ages


By Eric Rangus

Times were tough in 13th century Europe. Take, for instance, the legal system. When people were accused of major crimes, such as murder, they might undergo trials by ordeal. The most common forms of these ordeals were hot iron, hot water and cold water.

Exactly how these grim proceedings played out is one of the subjects being explored by students in Medieval Violence (487WSR), a writing-intensive history colloquium for juniors and seniors this summer.

"There was a prevalence of violence in medieval Europe," said Stephen White, Asa G. Candler Professor of Medieval History and former director of the Medieval Studies Program. He has taught the class several times as well as similar courses on medieval law. "And it's not as if this was a function of a lack of controls--psychological, social, governmental. It was more a function of violence being legitimized."

The concept of violence lies at the center of subject matter, White said. If violence is legitimate, no matter how barbaric it may seem to a modern audience, is it really violent? Torture, for example, was a widely accepted practice in Europe after c.1200, and by this definition may not constitute violence.

How much of an ordeal was a trial by ordeal? White des-cribed it during his July 27 class. An ordeal by hot water would require the accused to fish a ring or a stone out of a cauldron of boiling water using his unprotected arm. That arm would then be wrapped; after three days it was unwrapped, and if his arm was deemed to have healed cleanly (the accusation, ordeal and unwrapping were all done in a public forum where all those in attendance, not just the judges, might have input), he was considered protected by God and declared innocent.

If the arm had not healed cleanly, the accused was declared guilty and punishment would be inflicted. If the offense was serious enough, that punishment would be death.

The above example is a simplification--all sorts of variables could be involved, and the system was easily manipulated. (If the accused had clergy on his side there very well could be an "ordeal of lukewarm water," White said.) But there is no question that medieval justice was not for the squeamish.

The class, however, is for the open minded. "One of the purposes of the class was to ask students to wonder a bit about the distinctions between what seems like an arbitrary, superstitious practice of using an ordeal and the practice of using juries," White said. He added that there are records of accused persons who survived the ordeals by hot water relatively unscathed.

"If you think about it in the abstract, it seems kind of crazy," White continued. "On the other hand, if you think of it as part of a political process in which various people--judges, witness, people in the community--have some ability to shape the case, then the ordeal can be used essentially to confirm the kind of judgment that might be the verdict of a jury."

As it was a legitimate way of doing business, violence was, in a way, regulated, especially among the noble class. Feuds (or "guerres," in French) had to be declared. Revenge was accepted and sometimes called for, depending on the transgression. But violence also had its time and place. Killing could not be done in secret, and there was some violence--against innocent family members, for instance--that was off limits. Pillaging of property also was an accepted practice.

Trials by ordeal and medieval codes of honor were just two subjects explored by the class, which meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30-4:45 p.m. The session began June 29 and final papers are due Aug. 6. Others included holy wars, chivalry, and violence against Jews and heretics.

Classroom materials include some primary materials that have been translated, books and articles on the time period written by modern historians, and works of literature based in medieval times (generally, medieval times are considered to be the years 300-1400, but the classwork focuses on 1000-1400).

Outside class, White is finishing two books that will both be published by early 2005. Feuding and Peacemaking in Eleventh Century France (Ashgate Press) is a collection of papers that are directly relevant to the subject matter of the class. Rethinking Kinship and Feudalism in Early Medieval Europe (Ashgate Press) isn't specifically about violence but rather is a collection of papers drawn from White's long career in researching medieval Europe.

This summer's course is the last White will be teaching for a while. In 2004-05 he will be a senior fellow at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry. He will use his fellowship time to complete another book on the representation of trials in Old French literature.