Title: Britannia et Panem
Purple with rage, the king lashed out, a vicious backhand blow to the side of the head. She stumbled against the table and fell hard, yet Cersei Lannister did not cry out. Her slender fingers brushed her cheek, where the pale smooth skin was already reddening. On the morrow the bruise would cover half her face.
Cersei, Sansa, Jeyne Poole, and others are victims of violence perpetrated by the men to whom they are engaged or married. GRRM is accused in some quarters of fetishizing violence, particularly violence against women. This might be construed, however, as merely reflective of the era that inspires much of ASOIAF. Since violence is endemic to Westerosi society and perhaps to the Middle Ages as well, we will revisit violence in upcoming weeks, but today’s topic will focus on domestic violence. Was violence of this sort the accepted norm in medieval society?
Ever heard of the rule of thumb? Some claim that the origin of this phrase refers to pre-modern English common law, which allowed a husband to correct his wife with a switch no wider than the thickness of his thumb. But no such law ever existed. This folklore is representative of a picture of pre-modern familial relations popularized by books and movies that is disturbing to modern sensibilities.
The comic figure of the Wife of Bath is one of the most memorable characters from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1475), and yet the description of the domestic violence leveled at and by Allison falls somewhere short of humorous for a modern audience. We are told that she was “somewhat deaf” from the blow dealt to her by her husband and he gave her other blows that “still ache along [her] row of ribs, and will until [her] dying day.” It’s supposed to amuse us is that Allison gives as good as she gets, but is a bawdy comedy our best source on domestic life in the Middle Ages?
The picture is much less grim if we examine additional sources. Contemporary literature, exempla, law codes, court rolls, and coroner’s reports all shed light on domestic violence and the reaction of the community to instances of abuse. As a result, historians over the past few decades have increasingly concluded that domestic violence was not tolerated practice in medieval Europe. Instead, it was discouraged by the community, disapproved of by the Church, and punishable by law.
Barbara Hanawalt, a historian of the family, uses statistical analysis of court documents from medieval England to conclude that families acted as a criminal unit, enacting violence on others, more than they acted against their own members. Sounds rather like Westerosi houses, which generally put family first—Family, Duty, Honor and all that—even if that means acting more like a gang than a family.
But how do we know that violence within the family merely went unreported? Hanawalt suggests that the community didn’t tolerate domestic abuse and self-regulated, ensuring that few cases of abuse ever found their way into the courts. For example, a woman’s father and brothers would step in to stop abuse. Unlike in the modern suburbs, where people are isolated from kin, it would have been hard to hide abuse from kin in the Middle Ages. But why would they care? Quite simply, in tightly knit villages, the community discouraged abuse, because violence in one household disturbed the village’s peace.
It’s those cases where abuse does appear in the court documents and how the community reacted to it that perhaps is most telling. In spousal abuse cases, the husband was typically the aggressor and more often than not sexual jealousy sparked the argument that resulted in the act of violence. Cersei and Robert’s relationship certainly fits the bill here. Cersei has few avenues for protection, but in England, when a community’s attempt to restrain a man failed and a man was brought to trial, medieval jurors were more likely to convict than in any other cases involving violence. Compelling proof that villagers were intolerant of domestic violence.
What about the Church’s viewpoint? With daughters of Eve considered weak willed, easily corrupted creatures, might the Church have felt differently about a man’s right to physically punish his wife? James Brundage’s work on canon law reveals the following. Canon law punished husbands for grievous injury to their wives with fines and excommunication. It allowed for separation in cases of continual spousal abuse and issued restraining orders to protect abused wives. Furthermore, sermons and advice literature all advised spouses to maintain marital harmony. They reminded men that violence against their wives was unmanly and they would be better off showing patience.
Medieval society did not give husbands free rein to beat their wives, but expressed, through its moral literature and its courts, disapproval of spousal violence to the extent that the costs were greater than the rewards for the batterer. Instead of a bleak family life of a tyrannical husband, who ruled through cuffs and commands, all family members were expected to work to prevent violence within the family and husbands were restrained by society’s laws and customs from using violence against their wives.
And before we conclude that peasants were enjoined to pursue harmony, while perhaps lords were judged differently and given greater liberties with their wives, let’s consider the court record once more. Domestic violence in its most extreme form—domestic homicide—was the least tolerated crime with the highest rate of conviction, and class standing did not save you from punishment, since jurors convicted their superiors in these cases just as much as they did their inferiors.
We could use some of that intolerance in Westeros. Are you listening Ramsay? Judgment, just like winter, is coming.
Did domestic violence occur in medieval Europe? Certainly. There is evidence for it in the records and no doubt more that left no historical trail. However, that does not mean that it was shrugged off, actively encouraged, or the norm, as we have sometimes been led to believe. After all, we actively discourage abuse today and it still takes place. But, it seems fair to say that the actions of many of the husbands of Westeros, when judged by medieval standards, would have been considered unmanly, unsupportable, and even punishable by law.
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