Wednesday, 27 August 2014


As we gear ourselves up to greet the new academic year, now seems an appropriate moment to post something about the misbehaving students of the past...

You can find a podcast of a lecture about this here.

I'm happy to say that the students whom I teach are a million miles removed from the stuff I study in the fifteenth century.  But the message that the derogatory labels and stereotypes can stimulate and exacerbate the kind of behaviour they apparently condemn is still relevant I think.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Last week, I visited the beautiful little Church of Inglesham with my dad and my son.  It's a tiny and charming early thirteenth-century Church nestling in the fields near the river Thames.  Medieval wall-paintings in now muted colours give a sense of faded sweetness, and remind us that medieval religion must have been such a vivid and colourful experience.  William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, was very much taken with the Church, and campaigned for its sympathetic restoration in the 1880s.

My little boy was particularly taken with the box pews, which date from the Commonwealth era - their dinky little doors and enclosed spaces make wonderful little play-houses.  

They also remind us that religion became, from the thirteenth (when the congregation would usually have had to stand) to the seventeenth centuries, more, rather than less, hierarchical.

Here is the pew which presumably housed the lord of the manor and his family, keeping them separate, grand and noteworthy.  There's even a separate door beside this pew, so that they could go straight from the manor house into their pew, without having to rub shoulders with too many hoi polloi.  Space is such a powerful and loaded way of organising reality...

Friday, 22 August 2014


Yesterday, I tried to show that violent law enforcement exacerbates, rather than diminishes popular violence.

There's another logic to the Ferguson riot violence - which now seems to be abating - and it's horrifyingly simple.  If you have no other way to make your voice heard - if you are part of a marginalised group, if the law offers you little redress, if you do not have the financial means to fund your political preferences - violence can seem like the only way.  And it's striking that this should be the case in what is lauded as the world's greatest democracy.

I've been working on an article on the St Scholastica's Day riots in Oxford in 1355.  On 10th February 1355, two students named Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield went out together for a drink at a tavern.  Angry at the poor quality of the wine they were served, they complained, quarrelled with the tavern-keeper, and threw their drinks in his face.  The students proceeded to beat the tavern-keeper, and the brawl swiftly widened.  The chancellor refused to arrest the students, who instead rang the bell of the University Church, summoning 200 others who joined in the violence against the tavern-keeper, his friends, family, and even the mayor.  On the second day, the students continued their violent rampage through the town, burning houses, robbing the townspeople, and closing the gates of the city.  At this point, the townspeople gathered themselves to retaliate in the most brutal terms.  They attacked the students with bows and arrows, beating and killing any scholars they could find; on the following day, the townspeople were joined by people from the countryside in ever more brutal attacks on students, killing, maiming, scalping any they could find.

Oxford University Church (image from wikicommons): the bells of this Church were rung at the start of the riots.

The violence was clearly started by the students, but the violent retaliation of the townspeople was brutal and horrific (and the town continued to pay, literally and metaphorically, for its misdeeds for years afterwards).  

Why did the townspeople behave quite so violently?  Clearly it was partly because students were a pain in the neck.  But more than this, it was because the townspeople had effectively been deprived of any other means of redress.  The king had been anxious to secure every possible privilege for the students, and to protect them from economic exploitation by the townspeople, with the result that the townspeople felt marginalised and excluded.  And this was felt in a very concrete sense in the jurisdictional status of the townspeople.  Whereas the students were exempt from any but the university Chancellor's court, the townspeople were obliged to appear in this court for any case where a student was also involved: it seemed clear that they would always therefore lose out, as this court was clearly heavily weighted in the University's interest.  Decades of scholarly privileges had marginalised and excluded the townspeople, and violence was pretty much their only remaining means of expression.  Incidentally, the motif of scalping students wasn't just mindlessly brutal: the jurisdictional privileges of students came from their clerical status, status which was signified by their tonsured heads: so the scalping was a brutal protest against the total judicial disenfranchisement of the townspeople.

None of this justifies violence: far from it.  But again and again, it is clear that everyone must be given a chance to speak and a chance to be represented.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014


Ferguson, August 2014, source wikicommons

I dedicated my book on violence to: 'all victims of violence and for those who grow up believing violence to be acceptable or inevitable'. I would include in this the people of Ferguson, Missouri.

I'm shocked by the violence of the initial shooting (six times, twice in the head), the second shooting yesterday, and the rapid spiralling of the situation. The racism underlying these events, the implicit social differentiation, and the extreme violence of the police are horrifying.

Essentially, I'd like to reiterate here the points made by Gary Younge in his article here, but drawing on my research on fourteenth-century violence.

Younge makes the point that 'the violence of the state and the violence of the people are connected'. The usual grand narrative from the Middle Ages to the present-day is that the interpersonal violence of the people has gradually been replaced by the monopolisation of violence by ever more powerful states. In other words, that states and state-led justice takes upon itself the exercise of violence, reducing levels of violence between ordinary people. It's a powerful argument, and one which makes sense in lots of ways.

But Younge's comment, and what we're seeing in Ferguson suggests that a violent state does not straightforwardly replace other kinds of violence - indeed, it can exacerbate them. And this is true also for the fourteenth century. In many ways, the later Middle Ages are quite a transitional period in terms of the development of what we might loosely term state justice - the picture is obviously actually far more nuanced, but it does look as though states were increasingly taken the role of punitive violence upon themselves in order to reduce levels of interpersonal violence.

But this didn't seem to reduce levels of violence. In fact, state violence in many ways just reiterates the logic of violence as vengeance and communication. State violence doesn't manage to disassociate itself from interpersonal violence entirely, but rather confirms the sense that violence is indeed an appropriate response and a way of making one's voice heard. The only way state violence can succeed is through raw power - but in cultural terms, it will surely only underline the appeal of violence as an apparently meaningful response.

In the late Middle Ages, the violence of the law drew on almost exactly the same logic as the violence of 'the people' - it was about vengeance. So it didn't undermine the meaningfulness of vengeance violence - it gave it an added boost. The historian of late medieval justice, Claude Gauvard, has demonstrated that the late medieval motif of forgiving one's executioner was actually driven not so much by Christian piety, as by the sense that execution was part of a cycle of vengeance: this cycle could only be stopped by the victim sending a clear signal to his or her family to say that they were released from the obligation of seeking vengeance themselves upon their executioner. The point is that the violence of the law was clearly operating within the same framework as the violence of interpersonal vengeance. The two were not, and are not, clearly distinct - and, in this sense, the two encourage each other. In 1304 in Lens (northern France), the hangman was indeed vengefully murdered by one Jakemon Platel.

We can show this rather dramatically in 1300 in Aire (northern France), when a woman claimed the right to marry a condemned man (custom said that someone could be saved from the gallows by a last minute offer of marriage). The legal official was dismayed, but irate members of the community rushed to save a man, shouting 'Commons: it would be awful if you allowed a son of one of your people to be thus disposed of'. The would-be wife, Jehane li candelliere, was admonished by one compatriot, ‘Since you’ve started something, finish it; hurry up, go ahead and save your chattel’. There's lots to analyse here, and it tells us all kinds of fascinating things about the relationship between community and justice - but my point here is that the violence of the law didn't replace other forms of violence, but unwittingly encouraged this violent communal response, because it all seemed part of the same framework.

Levels of violence are only really likely to diminish when we find other ways to communicate, other ways to negotiate - rather than just hoping that we have the bigger gun.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014


As I said in a previous post, I shall be spending September in the archives in Dubrovnik, looking for cases of late medieval slavery (and I hope to post regularly on the blog during my time there).  
Dubrovnik: image wikicommons

My interest in this arises out of a collaborative project on the subject of ‘LEGALISM’.  Anthropologists and historians have been getting together at St John's to think about the implications of law as the explicit use of generalising concepts as a way of thinking about human life and social relations.  We’re now beginning to address the question of property and ownership and have heard wonderful papers on ownership of water, of scientific ideas, and of labour.  My contribution to the Legalism project at this stage will (I hope) be an examination of the legalistic implications, and legal culture surrounding and underpinning, late medieval slavery in Dubrovnik.  

When you begin to break down deep-rooted assumptions about property, its logic begins to seem really pretty bizarre.  If the credibility of positive law usually rests on its supposed closeness to natural law – to what seems logically, instinctively, morally right – property is quite difficult to justify.

Aristotle had a go, and came up with four main justifications (and I apologise for the wild simplification): first, private property encourages productiveness and incentivises; second, its rewards sustain a sense of fairness; third, it is deep-rooted in man’s nature; and fourth, it provides an opportunity for generosity and benevolent behaviour.
Aristotle: image from wikicommons

I’m not convinced of the universality of these arguments: they are certainly foundational in our culture, but that may just be another indication of their contingency.

Whilst many of us accept quite unquestioningly the type of logic Aristotle comes up with for private property, assuming that it refers to land, houses or goods, we do not view the ownership of other human beings in such terms – indeed, we know that it is abhorrent, and more than that, we feel that it is bizarre.

Aristotle addresses the issue of slavery in the same sorts of terms as we saw above.  His first question relates precisely to the issue of whether slavery is merely conventional, contingent, a matter of positive law; or whether the positive law underpinning slavery maps onto natural law, to what is instinctively, morally, naturally right.

And yes, Aristotle claims that slavery is justified by natural law.  Because, he tells us, some people are naturally marked out for slavery; slavery is a critical element of the well-being of the political community; whilst distinctions exist between man and beast, so natural distinctions exist between slave and master.

There are many more subtle distinctions in Aristotle’s approach, but you get the gist.  The point is, at this stage, that if we feel his assumptions regarding slavery to be so problematic, we need to re-interrogate his assumptions regarding property more generally – assumptions with which we have all been implicitly brought up.

So, I hope that my research trip will provide some useful insights into the legalism of late medieval slavery, but more than this, will suggest ways of challenging and understanding our assumptions about property more generally.

(nb.  See Book I, Chapters iii to vii of the Politics and Book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics)

Thursday, 14 August 2014


I'm currently preparing for a long-ish research trip to the archives in Dubrovnik in September.  I'm extremely excited!  I shall be looking for evidence of medieval slavery, on which more soon...

photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilopovic, copied from

I've never visited these archives before, so I was looking online to find some examples of the kind of script to expect and to practice my paleaographical skills before leaving Oxford.  I came across this famous document from fifteenth-century Dubrovnik:

This is a paleaography tutorial from the ENS in Lyon, so you might have fun deciphering it.  But it's famous for the cat paw-prints which make their way cheekily across the parchment:

There's a wonderful blog-post about this here:

I particularly love the story of the cat urinating on a manuscript...  I remember when I was 11, and had just started at a new school, my tabby cat, Pansy, climbed into my school bag, and urinated all over my school books - I think she was trying to tell me something about the quality of my work.  Admitting to what had happened, and attempting to cover the smell with lots and lots of room-spray was pretty humiliating!   It's somehow reassuring all these years later to find that a fifteenth-century scribe had the same problem: 

'Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum': 'Cursed be the wicked cat that urinated over this book' writes the scribe from Deventer.

And the moral?: 'Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt': 'take care not to leave open books at night where cats can come'.

(Translations adapted by those by Thijs Porck)

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

I was on the radio yesterday.  If you're interested in violence  - from Scottish bandits, to eighteenth-century boxing, Gothic horror, and murderous abbesses - then you can listen here:

It was a really interesting experience - I've always been curious about how these programmes are put together, and was impressed by the careful and interesting connections drawn between different kinds of subject matter. Thanks to Helen Castor for suggesting me.