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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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).
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.
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.