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Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature: Negotiations of National Identity
by Larissa Tracy

Reviewed by Betsy L. Chunko


Published:

Published by D. S. Brewer, 2012   |   336 pages

According to Foucault: “from the point of view of the law that imposes it, public torture and execution must be spectacular; it must be seen by all almost as its triumph.” Yet as Larissa Tracy points out in Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature: Negotiations of National Identity, the public spectacle of violence in medieval literary sources often backfires on those who employ it. At the center of this book is a fairly straightforward question: How is torture exercised via medieval texts—and why? The answer traces the murky divide between vengeance and justice, brutality and law. Ultimately, Tracy contributes to a new understanding of the function of medieval literature as a mode of popular dissent by examining the ways in which poets and their audiences envisioned themselves and their national identities in opposition to those cultures that sanctioned excessive brutality.

Indeed, Tracy’s book is, at its core, as much a meditation on the place of torture in discourses about national identity as it is an investigation of the how and why of brutality in the extant literary sources. Unlike previous treatments of the link between violence and national identity—such as Peter Haidu’s notable The Subject of Violence: The Song of Roland and the Birth of the State (1993)—Tracy’s work situates single texts in terms of a host of examples, focusing in particular on the meaning of excessively brutal judicial punishments embedded in romances and national sagas. This case-study approach allows her to draw connections between varied medieval cultural centers to define issues of law, identity, and public psychology in a broader sense. Tracy’s larger argument is that torture effectively acted as a lens through which medieval audiences could critically perceive artificial or unjust aspects of their national judicial systems.

Her introduction asserts that we too willingly accept that imagined brutality can be ascribed to medieval people. But they were not inherently violent any more so than we are, nor did they necessarily take pleasure in the violence of their world. She discusses the vague sense of underlying horror that accompanies modern statements associating physical violence with the Middle Ages, arguing that such sentiments lurk even more prominently in a post-9/11 world. She cites in particular the backlash around comments of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Binyam Mohamad, who remarked via his lawyers upon his release that it was still difficult to believe he had been abducted, transported across national borders, and tortured “in medieval ways” by the United States government. Two days later (on February 25, 2009), President Obama stated “without equivocation: The United States does not torture.” In this, he echoed President George W. Bush, who (on September 6, 2006) likewise decried: “The United States does not torture.” Underlying such sentiments is the insistence that torture is both brutal and barbaric. According to Tracy, our tendency to associate it, as a concept, with a medieval past is simply an attempt to displace a distasteful practice onto an Other unable to defend itself against the slander it accrues. Indeed, when modern nations engage in debates surrounding the role of torture in judicial procedure as a means of defining national identity, they follow in medieval footsteps. We don’t do those things, this debate goes, then as now. Other people do.

The first chapter examines violence inflicted upon saintly bodies in later medieval English hagiographies, arguing that these ‘orthodox’ examples of resistance ultimately showed heterodox sects models of authoritarian resistance. Her next chapter examines the way Continental cultures of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries tried to establish their own identities based on an institutional rejection of judicial torture. In so doing she suggests, for instance, that Charlemagne’s judicial punishment toward Ganelon in the Song of Roland is not only excessive but a holdover of pagan brutality, qualities later writers recognized as contrary to law and good Christian government. The third chapter analyzes Icelandic texts and the stigma of inherited brutality in the face of Norwegian imperialism. Here, Tracy suggests that literary forms popular in Norway were rejected in the establishment of a national Icelandic literature. Such literature tended to emulate instead a shared Anglo-Saxon heritage, in which torture had no legal or moral place.

The fourth chapter returns again to England, examining secular literary treatments of judicial torture in examples such as the vernacular Havelok the Dane and Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, as well as the Anglo-Latin Arthur and Gorlagon. This is followed by a chapter contextualizing what Tracy calls an “English rejection” of torture in Old French fabliaux sources as exemplified, for instance, in the Miller’s Tale. This chapter is especially interesting for its attention to so-called “comic castration episodes” in the context of Abelard’s fate and the inquisitorial undertones of Nicholas’ branding. The final chapter follows a supposed legacy of medieval judicial practice, tracing the literary processes by which torture was condemned and relegated to a decidedly past history by, for instance, Shakespeare and Marlowe.

Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature is commendable for its impulse toward comprehensiveness. Through diverse examples, Tracy is able to show that medieval authors challenged the notion of torture as a viable means of extracting ‘truth,’ concluding that, those who use excessive brutality (medieval and modern alike) are tyrants. Yet some will find the individual chapters at times over-burdened by summary. Tracy makes few assumptions regarding prior knowledge on the part of her reader; she explains certain textual examples thoroughly enough to supplement an undergraduate reading course. While this is a useful service to the non-specialist audience, some might wish to see her move to analysis more swiftly. Another criticism regards the organization of material. The chapter on Icelandic sagas is interesting, the more so as it broadens the dialogue outside Continental Europe and Britain. It also—thanks to Tracy’s analysis, which grounds her argument in Anglo-Saxon literary precedents—serves as a fine segue to the following chapter on England. But it is brief and a little stark, particularly compared to the one that follows. In fact, the uneven lengths of the chapters throughout is a superficial issue but one which nevertheless evinces where her emphasis rests. The fourth chapter on English secular literary responses to judicial torture, like the opening chapter, wants to be its own book. Not only that, it doesn’t quite seem to know what kind of book it wants to be. The chapter, over all, seems to be making many arguments about the difference between texts that place torture and brutality at their center and those which relegate it to the periphery.

Over all, though, this is a very fine book. Tracy’s approach to a disturbing cultural signifier is characterized by much-needed rigor and sophistication. Throughout, she never loses sight of the point that texts are not passive reflections of historical realities. Ultimately, her analysis reveals that torture was no more a banal cultural ‘fact’ for peoples in the Middle Ages than it is in twenty-first century America; that it was just as hackneyed and lacking in uniformity—and, more often than not, just as detested and opposed.


Betsy Chunko holds graduate degrees in both art and literary history. She earned her PhD from the University of Virginia and currently teaches courses in medieval studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

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