Violence as Legal Argument in Eleventh-Century France

by guest contributor Matthew McHaffie

Eleventh-century France is often described as a feuding society, where social and cultural attitudes towards violence found their meanings in feud and vengeance. From tit-for-tat revenge killings, to conflicts between lords competing for resources, to violence against property, violent acts were all explicable within this cultural framework of feud.

Feud is, fortunately, no longer equated with disorder and outdated ideas of ‘feudal anarchy.’ Historians have demonstrated well the inherent limits upon feuding violence (the ‘peace in the feud’), and feud makes sense in the context of the broader political and social structures of the time. France during the eleventh century lacked centralized institutions or any attempt by a ‘State’ to monopolize the legitimate use of force. Instead it was these feuding practices that constituted the normal social approach to violence. But legal institutions did exist in this period, and explanations for the logic of social violence must take such institutions into account.

One way into the relationship between the violence of feud and medieval judicial institutions is through documents recording court cases and disputes. The region of Anjou, in northwestern France, provides more than 1,000 such records from the period c.1030 to c.1150. Angevin charters and notices (notitiae) were written by and preserved by ecclesiastical institutions and are justly famed for their unexpected narrative richness, a result of a revival of Latin culture combined with the appearance of novel legal situations as monastic communities came into ever-closer contact with an increasing range of laymen.

Let’s look at one case from the cartulary of Saint-Aubin d’Angers (Angers, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 829) in detail. In the early 1080s, Bouchard fitz Guérin and Eudes de Sermaise were summoned to the court of Roger de Montrevault in Jarzé – one of the decentralized seigneurial courts characterizing France of this period (cf. Bertrand de Broussillon, ed., Cartulaire de Saint-Aubin d’Angers [Angers, 1896-1903)], no. 270). Bouchard and Eudes entered woodland belonging the monks of Saint-Aubin, a prestigious Angevin monastic house, and chopped down two oak trees. They were confronted at the woodland by Adenor de Jarzé, who in the 1060s, along with her now late husband and son (also dead), had given this very woodland to the monastic community; during the ensuing scuffle, a number of Adenor’s men (homines), whom the widow had brought along to the woodland, were left either wounded or slain. In court, we are told that only Bouchard recognised his wrong (culpa), for which he was fined 30 solidi.

The Tower of Saint-Aubin is all that survives (in addition to part of the cloister, now part of the modern Préfecture de Maine-et-Loire) of the great Angevin abbey (© author)

The Tower of Saint-Aubin is all that survives (in addition to part of the cloister, now part of the modern Préfecture de Maine-et-Loire) of the great Angevin abbey (© author)

There is no doubt that violence was at issue in the case. The actions of the two men are violent – entering monastic land, chopping down trees, carting off wood, and, killing and wounding others. But, in drawing attention to the parti pris nature of monastic accounts of disputes whose authors were liable to misrepresent the actions of their lay adversaries, historians have interpreted violence like that committed by Bouchard and Eudes as feud. Violence against property also constituted a form of direct action – a means of symbolically expressing and making a claim, in this case of inheritance, upon property. We know that Bouchard (though not Eudes) had a proprietary claim upon this land: His father, Guérin, had held rights in the woodland in the 1060s, but was persuaded by the lord of Jarzé and his wife, Adenor, to relinquish his share.

Saint-Aubin’s charter scribe does not at all acknowledge this claim, however, and here the document becomes particularly interesting. The draftsman included in the account of the dispute a fictional speech ascribed to Adenor de Jarzé when she confronted Bouchard and Eudes at the woodland: ‘Do not violate the alms of Thibaud, my husband, and of myself and my son, for I shall have Lord Roger – your lord too! – hold a just judgment between you and the monks of Saint-Aubin as soon as he gets here. Indeed, it pertains to him to judge that which requires judgment.’ The speech contains two elements: an offer of settling the case in court, and an affirmation of the legitimacy of that court.

So, let’s take stock of what we have here: (i) a narrative silence on the substantive issue of the property dispute, namely Bouchard’s inheritance; (ii) a narrative emphasis on the ‘violent’ aspects of the dispute – especially violence against property; and (iii) a statement about the legitimacy of a seigneurial court to judge and provide legal redress. Might the three points be related? Almost certainly, and the interrelation between these three narrative points suggests the following interpretation. Bouchard sought to make a claim upon what he viewed as his inheritance, and did so through direct action; the monks, initially playing the role of defendants, cast themselves as the plaintiffs by isolating and emphasising the aspects of violence and wrongdoing in the case; and, this narrative strategy – or rather, this legal strategy – was designed to make sense within the framework of the court. The language of violence here seems to function as a legal fiction, but one with very real consequences in that it produced a judgment against Bouchard, defeating his proprietary claim.

Let’s draw out the broader significance of this for how historians have understood judicial notions of violence. Historians continue to emphasise two processes taking place in the twelfth century which supposedly brought about a transformation in how violence acquired legal meaning. First is the revival of categories and distinctions drawn from learned law – particularly the distinction between public/private, and criminal/civil. Second is the application of these concepts by royal governments keen to construct a superior, public jurisdiction, and begin the process of monopolizing the use of force. Such an explanation binds legal development – or rather, the development of legal thought and attitudes towards violence – almost exclusively to the State, and one feels the legacy of Max Weber here.

Now, Bouchard’s case complicates this model of the development of legal thought. Not only does it suggests that eleventh-century social and cultural approaches to violence cannot be explained solely in terms of feud, but neither can juridical conceptions of violence be explained solely in terms of the State. Not feud because explaining all social violence qua feud can only be half the story: regardless of whether Bouchard and Eudes felt their actions were just, the court patently viewed matters differently, implying alternative, non-feud meanings of violence. Likewise, not the state: the legal discourse of violence seems to derive its meaning from how contemporary courts – however decentralized and non state-like – understood it.

The determining factor here would be the dynamic of litigation itself: the searching out for advantageous forms of legal argument to aid one’s case. The monastic emphasis on violence was precisely that, a strategy, built on the distinction between proprietary questions and those centred on wrongdoing, and the implicit hierarchical relationship between these two substantive types of question where matters of violence seem to have held greater import in court. It is the seigneurial court which needs emphasis here as well: violence qua legal argument could only have had value if courts would accept the problem of violence as one meriting special treatment. Contrary to dominant views of eleventh-century France as a feuding society, Bouchard’s case suggests for us a much closer relationship between contemporary legal institutions and the meanings of violence.

Pursuing the implications of this relationship will provide an exciting avenue of research for the future, but here a couple of key questions emerge. One concerns the contribution made by seigneurial institutions – which remained the primary point of legal contact for most individuals in France to 1789 – to substantive categories of legal thought prior to the renaissance of learned law. A second question concerns the larger mechanics of what drives legal change, here centred on notions of violence. Juridical notions of violence have traditionally been explained in terms of crime and ‘public’ law. What the above case suggests is that the desire to avoid the proprietary questions of ‘private’ law is actually more important in giving juridical notions of violence shape. All this raises the possibility of multiple lines of legal development in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Legal thought branched out in myriad ways; some may have led to dead ends whereas others – like crime – would have long lives indeed. But what is most interesting is the attempt to uncover these hidden legal narratives, which make for a much more complex, but much richer legal history.

Matthew McHaffie completed his PhD in 2014 at the University of St Andrews. He is now a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at King’s College, London, and is currently preparing a monograph on seigneurial justice and the development of customary law in northwestern France, c.1000 to c.1200.

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