The Myth of A “Golden Age”: Medieval European Violence and Modern Religious Social Conservatism

February 16, 2016 in General

Most historians would concede that medieval Europe was indisputably a violent, sadistic society- although even then, there were limits to what medieval inhabitants would consider ‘appropriate’ or ‘proportionate’ levels of violence within those societies. According to British historian Laurence Stone, even given its reduced population, medieval English occurred at levels an estimated ten times their current prevalence. Hannah Skoda notes that there are several contextual factors to consider in this scenario- the overabundance of alcohol, absence of organised police forces and primitive medical standards increased the likelihood of permanent disfigurement or fatalities within that context. Violence was viewed as a ‘legitimate’ means of nonverbal communication, dependent on its circumstances.

It also provided an opportunity for displays of pathological masculinity and interpersonal relationships in that context. Women could be mutilated if they took an active role in extramarital sex (adultery)- their husbands could slit their noses. Given the relative powerlessness of all but elite noble and royal women, rape and domestic violence occurred at levels of intensity and brutality that modern sensibilities would consider monstrous and unacceptable. It is easy to forget that spousal rape was only recently criminalised in the seventies and eighties throughout the western world, thanks to feminist anti-violence campaigner intervention and consequent legal reforms. Most notoriously, it was ‘permissible’ to beat a woman with a certain width or length of stick. While we would consider the latter utterly unacceptable and repugnant in our own context, even medieval Europeans had their limits. If rape or domestic violence became homicidal or resulted in permanent disfigurement, culpable men were executed as a consequence.

Apart from violence against women, criminal justice had its own problems. Violent theft and brigandage were met with weak central authority at times, and resulted in retaliatory institutional violence. Religious persecution was rife, especially against non-Catholic (and later non-Protestant) ‘heretics’ or ‘recusants’ and Jews. Capital punishment was performed for as little as minor crimes of theft and tended toward spectacle and gore. An offender could be torn apart by horses or broken on a torturers rack or wheel. However, even though torture was tolerated and admissible in courts of law, it was only permitted under close scrutiny. Violence and cruelty also produced reflective responses, such as within Dante’s fourteenth century Inferno.

All of the above leads one to entertain some reflection on the tolerance of institutional and interpersonal violence that one witnesses on the Christian Right. Although New Zealand finally abolished capital punishment back in 1961, the Christian Heritage Party still campaigned for its restoration for fifteen years. During the seventies and eighties, the Christian Right campaigned against criminalisation of spousal rape, attacked feminist warnings about the prevalence and extent of incest and other forms of child sexual abuse, and accused domestic violence refuge operators of being ‘lesbian manhaters.’ And more recently, Family First and the precursors of the Conservative Party campaigned for toleration of parental corporal punishment against children. Coupled with extremes like anti-abortion terrorism and calls for execution of lesbians and gay men from the theocratic “Christian Reconstructionist” activists, one is forced to conclude that in romanticising and idealising the actual gore, bloodlust and savagery of our medieval past, religious social conservatives are becoming desensitised to how prevalent and acceptable institutional and interpersonal violence actually were, with chilling political and ideological consequences.

Recommended:

Hannah Skoda: “How Bloody was Medieval Europe?” BBC History: January 2016: 22-27.

Warren Brown: Violence in Medieval Europe: London: Routledge: 2010.

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