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Lateral Medieval Relationships

by Greg Bryant

RAIN Magazine, Vol. XIV Number 2, Winter/Spring 1992

Review of Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300, Susan Reynolds, Oxford University Press, 1984, $19.95

Reynolds is a superb social historian whose thesis, that collective behavior among medieval commoners was quite sophisticated, wasn’t given much academic attention before her book made a splash in the mid-1980’s. In law studies, for example, the tendency was to see the 12th century's discovery of Greek and Roman classics as a rebirth of intelligent, fair judiciary amidst a barbarous and rigid court system. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Medieval King
Rigid laws and summary executions were the hallmark of the age after the classics took hold, since their spread corresponds to a time of state expansion, when Lords shirked their local responsibilities and feudalism began to solidify. The supposedly advanced legal distinction between evidence and law grew sharper as power behind law grew, making fairness less of a concern than legal obedience. This inflexibility is our inheritance, seen today when judges incorrectly instruct jurors -- whose role is a remnant of the older communal trials -- that they cannot decide the law.

From 900-1300 people's involvement in politics or law, for there was no distinction, was ruled by community responsibility, flexible local customs and common sense. It was widely recognized that communities take care of their own, and the right to be tried in your own town was a pervasive principle. Trial ordeals, such as the scalding of a hand, with acquittal if it healed properly, were uncommon procedures that would be carried out only with consensus, always accompanied by lengthy debate over substantial issues. Importantly, accepting ordeals as arbiters did not necessarily imply belief in divine intervention, any more than accepting a jury’s verdict implies belief in juror infallibility. Sentences were not often harsh, or even carried out: the trial itself was in many instances considered sanction enough. Rule by custom aimed at equity, justice, and reconciliation, in equal parts.

Reynolds demonstrates that this was not the Christian age most people imagine, and the evidence that it was peculiarly superstitious is poor. The church’s influence was concentrated on leadership, and in the few cities. Parishes were created through lay initiative, attested to by the extent to which rural custom shapes modern Christian celebration.

Quod omnes similiter tangit ab omnibus comprobetur, [“what touches all should be approved by all”] was a principle that penetrated the economic and political lives of peasants in this age. Villages managed their harvests and could determine their wages, prices and barter arrangements. They negotiated collectively, held lands, funds and parish in common, and were flexible in regards to ideas of ownership and collective responsibility. Together they negotiated or fought for independence from arbitrary or unfair treatment from lords, bishops and Kings. Such community independence was considered normal, not revolutionary in the modern historical sense.

Everyone considered it a right and duty to participate in governing the community. The citizens often participated through loose collective social groups, early guilds, that didn’t have any legal definition, despite the search for one by modern legal scholars. When a group didn’t have a seal it didn’t mean it wasn’t legitimate, just that it had no seal. There is record of a group of prisoners in a large city who had a seal, an unlikely candidate for legal corporate status in the modern sense.

Guilds in this period were loose groups of men and women who often had dinner together, kept the peace, might have religious affinity, and took oaths of mutual support. The first town governments were often pre-existing guilds. Like mutual support societies of 19th century, guilds flourished throughout Europe in times of migration, when people needed each other’s help within a new community. The evidence is that discussion in these medieval towns, even without literacy or classics, was of a high level, and should be viewed with more respect.