Friday, November 5, 2010

Guest Blogger: The Romance of Lawlessness

From Bobbie:

As a teenager, I became a fan of Oklahoma history after I discovered author Glenn Shirley's Law West of Fort Smith. Few lawmen-lots of territory for them to cover. It made the Indian Nation a haven for outlaws like Belle Starr and Bill Doolin's Wild Bunch.

Maybe because I spend my days thinking about fictional murder, I remembered Shirley's book and began to wonder how other societies in earlier ages dealt with outlaws and lawmen. And I knew just the person to ask, my friend Jeri Westerson, (that's her picture) author of the one and only medieval noir series featuring disgraced (but noble, in his own way) knight, Crispin Guest. Jeri graciously agreed to do a blog post for us. She's a terrific writer and a whiz at the history of the Middle Ages. By the way--you'll find copies of her books in your room at the Dancing Bean.

And now, my guest blogger, the clever and creative, Jeri Westerson.

Lawlessness in the Oklahoma Territory and the Middle Ages
by Jeri Westerson

It's a romantic period in American history. The old west, the wild west, with its own cowboy justice meted out in the lawless territories. Lynchings, barroom brawls, gunfights on the streets. Everyone getting medieval on each other.

Whoa, hold on there partner. Are we saying that the wild and woolly west had a counterpart in Europe's Middle Ages, where torture was common, subversion of the law was the norm, and the Big Bad Church oppressed one and all?

Well, not so much, really.

I'm certain there is just as much exaggeration about the wildness of the west as there might be about the Middle Ages. For one, there was very little in what you might call lawlessness in the medieval period. In fact, there were a slew of laws, from imprisoning those who slandered others, to rampant lawsuits filed by rich against poor, poor against rich, and everyone in between. And there were rules to follow, hearings, lawyers, and a jury. In fact, we get much of our legal terminology and proceedings from medieval English law. It was pursued practically and, for the most part, as fairly as was culturally possible for the time. For instance, in those days, a jury was chosen not because they didn't know the defendant but because they specifically did, a true jury of their peers. Who better to judge you than people who already knew you?

And what about torture as a judicial device? Again, just a bit of exaggeration brought down to us from our Victorian ancestors who liked a bit of gothic ghoulishness to tickle their corsets. In fact, one of the more notorious torture devices, the iron maiden, wasn't medieval at all, and in fact, never really existed except in the minds of prurient Victorians. These iron maidens were wooden cabinets with iron spikes inside. They were shaped rather like large bowling pins with the image of the Virgin's face on the head part. Closing the hapless victim inside would pierce him in inuumerable holes all over the body. Blood loss, possible asphyxiation, and the horror of it, could cause death.

Except that it didn't. It doesn't appear to have been invented until the late 18th century, and even then it was all in the mind. The earliest account of this device can be found in 1793, but even that was a hoax! It was possibly confused with a "cloak of shame," something that was used in the Middle Ages. But this was more of a portable stocks, a barrel that one was forced to wear, humiliating oneself by walking around town, letting everyone know that you had been naughty, where citizens could hurl ridicule as well as rotten vegetables at you (where were folks keeping all those rotten vegetables they are always throwing at people?). The Victorians read an account of this and then the account of the hoax and sort of glommed them together because medieval people, they thought, were uncivilized barbarians just waiting around to be enlightened by the Renaissance...where there was a lot more use of those torture devices.

And believe it or not, even the Big Bad Church wasn't as big and as bad as one might think. Oh there was the Spanish Inquisition, and according to Monty Python, no one expects that! But there wasn't the resistance to science as there was later in the Renaissance. In fact, in the Middle Ages, seeking the Truth was a much beloved trope, because Truth brings you closer to holiness. Even homosexuality, though little understood, did not result in the Church "getting medieval" on sodomites. More often than not, punishments came in the form of ecclesiastical penance rather than jail time. According to historian John Boswell in his book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, the penalty for homosexual behavior "is given no greater attention than other sins and, viewed comparatively, appears to have been thought less grave than such common activities as hunting." Still, between the law courts and the Church, it was best to keep a low profile.

So is it possible that the Middle Ages was more civilized than the wild west? A startling thought. Makes you want to reread some history, doesn't it?

Jeri does nothing else but reread lots of history for her medieval noir series. Her tough guy ex-knight turned detctive, Crispin Guest, is back in the third installment, THE DEMON'S PARCHMENT. You can read an excerpt on her website