Note: As part of the book I am writing provisionally subtitled: A Medievalist’s Guide to the 21st Century, I have a chapter on honor-shame culture. The following is an excerpt from it looking closely at one particularly revealing example of what went on in post-imperial Europe. -rl
NB. One commenter noted that I use the word feud loosely here. I have added the Latin term everytime the translater (O. Dalton, Penguin edition) used feud.
In order to understand the dynamics of honor-shame warrior values, there are few better passages than Gregory of Tours’ description of a feud that occurred in his own bishopric towards the end of the 6th century. I’ll present it with running comments:
[Historia francorum, VII, 47] A cruel feud [bella civilia] now arose between citizens of Tours. While Sichar, the son of one John, deceased, was celebrating the feast of Christmas in the village of Manthelan, with Austregisel and other people of the district, the local priest sent a servant [puer = lad] to invite several persons to drink wine with him at his house. When the servant came, one of the invited drew his sword and did not hesitate to strike, so that the lad fell dead upon the spot.
Note the near randomness (and anonymity) of the violence. Gregory does not even try to explain it or identify the killer. Probably the slayer was drunk; perhaps the servant was insolent; perhaps he resisted advances. His companions may well have thought his “prank” hilarious. In any case, the difference in social status meant that killing him seemed like a matter of little consequence (which, it turns out, was a mistaken/drunken assessment). Such – to us, random – violence from weapons-bearers meant that warriors dominated public space, and their unarmed social inferiors had to tread very carefully, showing all the necessary deference not to provoke their sudden wrath.
Sichar was bound by ties of friendship [amicitia] to the priest; and as soon as he heard of the servant’s murder he seized his weapons and went to the church to wait for Austregisel. He in his turn, hearing of this, took up his arms and equipment and went out against him. There was an encounter between the two parties; in the general confusion Sichar was brought safely away by some clerics, and escaped to his country estate, leaving behind in the priest’s house money and raiment, with four wounded servants. After his flight, Austregisel burst into the house, slew the servants, and carried off the gold and silver and other property.
Sichar’s ties of amicitia to the priest meant that he was/felt obligated to revenge an attack on his “friend’s” servant, and the fact that Austregisel is his foe suggests that either Austregisel killed the servant or one of his men did. Gregory does not tell us any detail of the battle, but apparently it went badly for Sichar, whose loss inspires Austregisel to bloodlust and he breaks into a priest’s house, kills his foe’s wounded servants and steels his goods. Plunder or be plundered. Losers, continue to lose.
The two parties afterwards appeared before a tribunal of citizens, who found Austregisel guilty as a homicide who had murdered the servants, and without any right or sanction seized the property.
Things having gotten out of hand, a tribunal tries to resolve the problem. They find Austregisel guilty of homicide (and presumably fine him accordingly). Since he only killed servants, whose wergeld is low, the costs were probably not serious, but the tribunal probably also ordered the return of the stolen goods, whose theft was not justified by the battle over the dead lad.
A few days after the case had been before the court, Sichar heard that the stolen effects were in the hands of Auno, his son, and his brother Eberulf. He set the tribunal at naught, and taking Audinus with him, lawlessly attacked these men by night with an armed party. The house where they were sleeping was forced open, the father, brother, and son were slain, the slaves murdered, and the movable property and herds carried off.
If the tribunal had commanded Austregisel to return what he had stolen, Sichar felt he was procrastinating. He impatiently dismisses the (impotent) tribunal, takes an ally and attacks a man of substance, at night, kills him and his family, all their servants, and plunders everything. Bloodlust and the thirst for revenge lead to deeds that Gregory considers “lawless” and, by most warrior standards, would be considered cowardly (nighttime attack). And the circle of injured parties seeking revenge widens.
The matter coming to my ears, I was sore troubled, and acting in conjunction with the judge, sent messengers bidding them come before us to see if the matter could be reasonably settled so that the parties might separate in amity and the quarrel go no farther. They came, and the citizens assembled, whereupon I said: ‘Desist, O men, from further crime, lest the evil spread more widely. We have already lost sons of the Church, and now we fear that by this same feud [intencio] we may be bereft of others. Be ye peacemakers, I beseech you; let him who did the wrong make composition for the sake of brotherly love, that ye be children of peace, and worthy, by the Lord’s grace, to possess the kingdom of heaven. For He Himself hath said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” And behold, now, if he who is liable to the penalty have not the means of paying, the Church shall redeem the debt from her own moneys; meanwhile let no man’s soul perish. Saying thus, I offered money belonging to the Church. But the party of Chramnesind, who demanded justice for the death of his father and his uncle, refused to accept it.
Now even the Bishop intervenes. We get an excerpt from a sermon of exhortation that probably went on for considerably longer. It clearly marks off the immense distance between what the Church preached and what (real) men did and felt — “blessed are the peacemakers… let no man perish…” Gregory tries to sweeten the pot by offering to give the guilty party the means to pay the blood money. But the injured party, Chramnesind rejects it. Obviously. To accept blood money for the vicious death of his father and uncle (and brother) would be bad enough, to have it supplied to Sichar by the Church, so that he didn’t even pay from his own estate would be unbearable. (One can well imagine the sneer on Sichar’s face as he hands over money that is not even his.) Gregory is not engaged in rendering justice here; he’s merely offering a(n ineffective) bribe.
When they were gone, Sichar made preparations for a journey, intending to proceed to the king, and with this in mind set out for Poitiers to see his wife first. But while he was there admonishing a slave to work, he struck him several times with a rod, whereupon the man drew the sword from his master’s baldric and did not fear to wound him with it. He fell to the ground; but friends ran up and caught the slave, whom they first beat cruelly; then they cut off his hands and feet and condemned him to the gibbet.
Sichar goes to the king to get protection. That alone can keep Chramnesind, now clearly bent on revenge, from striking him. The incident in Poitiers gives us further insight into Sichar’s character. On the run from a deadly enemy, he beats a slave to the point where the slave tries to kill him. The slave’s predictable fate — mutilation then execution — illustrates what desperation he must have felt so to act.
Meanwhile the rumour reached Tours that Sichar was dead. As soon as Chramnesind heard it, he warned his relations and friends, and went with all speed to Sichar’s house. He plundered it and slew some of the slaves, burned down all the houses, not only that of Sichar, but also those belonging to other landholders on the estate. He then took off with him the cattle, and all the movable effects.
As we already saw with Austregisel’s attack on the priest’s house, weakness invites aggression. Chramnesind takes his family and friends to avenge his father’s death by plundering his (and his neighbors’) cattle, burning their buildings, killing their slaves. Chramnesind and his party had at least drawn blood. Was it enough?
The parties were now summoned by the count to the city, and pleaded their own causes. The judges decided that he who had already refused a composition and then burned houses down should forfeit half of the sum formerly awarded to him, wherein they acted illegally, to ensure the restoration of peace; they further ordered that Sichar should pay the other half of the composition. The Church then provided the sum named in the judgement; the parties gave security, and the composition was paid, both sides promising each other upon oath that they would never make further trouble against each other. So the feud [altercatio] came to an end.
Apparently, the thirst for blood revenge had been slacked by the raid. Granted, it cost Chramnesind and his clan half of the blood money awarded to them in the earlier settlement, but a small price to pay for honor. The church supplies Sichar with the money; the two parties swear oaths to put an end to the spiraling violence, thus restoring peace… or so Gregory thought.
There is, after all, something unsettling about taking money provided by a third party from the murderer of one’s father, uncle and brother… Two books later (about five years later), Gregory returns to the unfinished tale.
[IX, 19] The feud [bellum] between the citizens of Tours, which I above described as ended, broke out afresh with revived fury. After the murder of the kinsfolk of Chramnesind, Sichar formed a great friendship with him; so fond of one another did they grow that often they shared each other’s meals and slept in the same bed.
It’s not clear how seriously to take this account of reconciliation. Gregory would probably like us to think that his mediation and earnest exhortations, and the men’s love of Christ brought them together. But he doesn’t even mention that they exchanged a kiss of peace. It may, on the other hand, have been the wealth – and boozy lifestyle it supported – that overrode the code of a warrior’s honor. As the Arab poetess commented derisively: “You have been diverted from avenging your brother by a bite of minced meat, a lick of meager milk.” That they shared meals together, and collapsed in a drunken stupor on occasion, perhaps (not even John Boswell suggested a homosexual relationship). It is hard to imagine them becoming devoted and affectionate friends, but even that may have happened. In any case, they were close enough so that, with the help of some heavy drinking, Sichar let his guard down.
One evening Chramnesind made ready a supper, and invited Sichar. His friend, came, and they sat down together to the feast. But Sichar, letting the, wine go to his head, kept making boastful remarks against Chramnesind, and is reported at last to have said: ‘Sweet brother, you owe me great thanks for the slaying of thy relations; for the composition made to you for their death has caused gold and sliver to abound in your house. But for this cause, which established you not a little, you, would this day be poor and destitute.’
Sichar didn’t just drop that bombshell, he was needling Chramnesind for a while. Was he trying to humiliate Chramnesind… to complete his mastery over the man whose father, uncle and brother he had killed and who, inebriated with sudden wealth and its attendant wine, was behaving shamelessly? (As we know from other details, Sichar has a mean character.) In any case, in vino veritas [truth is in wine], this remark brings to the surface the unspoken tension of the feud’s “resolution.” In taking blood money, Chramnesind had dishonored himself, especially by sharing it with the murderer of his kin who didn’t even take the money from his own resources.
Chramnesind heard these words with bitterness of heart, and said within himself: ‘If I avenge not the death of my kinsmen, I deserve to lose the name of man, and to be called weak woman.’ And straightway he put out the lights and cleft the head of Sichar with his dagger. The man fell and died, uttering but a faint sound as the last breath left him. The servants who had accompanied him fled away. Chramnesind stripped the body of its garments, and hung it from a post of his fence; he then rode away to the king.
The comment breaks the spell of the negotiated resolution and the feasting it had allowed. All of a sudden, inside his head, Chramnesind hears the voices of his fellow citizens of Tours, imagines their contemptuous remarks behind his back about his behavior – not taking vengeance, indeed befriending his family’s murderer, makes him a woman! In a flash, Chramnesind realizes that, in the eyes of his peers, he has lost all honor. So he cleaves Sichar’s head with his dagger, strips his body and hangs it on the fence for all to see, and goes to seek protection from the king. In a moment, the laborious efforts to get men to transcend the blood feud and resolve disputes in a spirit of fairness and mutuality, vanishes. Honor trumps all.