Violence as a political language: the uses and misuses of violence in late medieval French and English popular rebellions
This extract from the Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris written and composed between 1405 and 1449 by a member of the University of Paris who is still anonymous (though we do know that he was a member of the cathedral chapter of Notre Dame) is an excellent introduction to the complex question of the signification and acceptance of popular violence, especially in the context of rebellion. It depicts a very specific incident that occurred – or may have occurred, I will discuss this matter later – in Paris in August 1418 during the Cabochien uprising in the context of the French Civil War between the supporters of the deceased duke of Orléans, Louis, usually named ‘Armagnacs’ after the name of their leader, Bernard VII, count of Armagnac, and those of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. The two factions were engaged in a severe competition for controlling the person of the king, Charles VI, who was suffering from intermittent madness, and thus the access to royal power. John the Fearless was supported by most of the burgesses of Paris and, especially, by the powerful group of butchers which was able to mobilise armed men, particularly the skinners who took an active part in several riots which happened in Paris between 1413 and 1418. The main leader of the first popular movement against the Armagnacs which took place in 1413 was in fact a skinner, named Simon Caboche, while the most important figure of the 1418 uprising was Capeluche, the executioner of Paris. These two episodes must be carefully distinguished as the movement seems to be much more ‘radicalised’ in 1418 than five years earlier, and it eventually lost the support of not only John the Fearless but even that of the butchers. Nevertheless, a kind of confusion has occurred between these two episodes which are conflated under the name the ‘Cabochien movement’. The cover of this book perfectly reflects this state: the miniature was realised in 1484 – which
means about 70 years after the events – for a manuscript of the Vigiles de Charles VII composed by Martial d’Auvergne and which is a mourning poem celebrating the deceased king.2 The text includes a title, ‘la turie de Paris’ but refers only to the events that occurred in 1413 and to the bad enterprises of the ‘butchers, killers, and skinners’3 led by Simon Caboche and the lord Hélion de Jacqueville, including rapes, murders, and eventually beheadings but without any allusion to the executioner Capeluche. A contrario, the image represents the murdering of a pregnant woman, an episode which is generally linked to the events of 1418 and attributed to Capeluche as is shown in the initial extract from the Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris. It may be explained by the fact that the miniaturist chose intentionally to focus on the exactions committed by the rebels4 but such a choice that summarises the entire Cabochien movement in the murder of a pregnant woman is highly significant of the transgressions implied by medieval rebellions. The question of such transgressions is highly controversial because, for many years, scholars, strongly influenced by medieval and modern chronicles, tended to focus on the high level of irrational violence instigated by rebellious people. They often, for instance, invoked the idea of fury or madness (furor) to describe such events.5 But more recently, many medievalists have begun to reconsider the role of violence; far from being senseless, violence is now increasingly understood as a fundamental component of medieval society, shaping and reshaping social and political relations, functioning much like a language of dominance and submission. This new historiography thus obliges us to recognise that violence was systemic to a society in which personal honour was of the utmost importance. Violence should not be considered antagonistic to the social order but, on the contrary, as an integrative force for communities, states, and power more generally.6 Any reflexion on violence should also take into account recent studies focusing on ‘war violence’, especially in the context of the First World War, which defines it as a ‘social fact’.7 That we now consider ‘war violence’ as a specific type of violence with its own rules, rituals, and expressions, as a world in itself quite disconnected from the normal life – the contrast between the peaceful, early twentieth-century European societies and the outburst of violence in the battlefields of the First World War is particularly striking – should lead us to consider whether a specific ‘rebellion violence’ may have existed. As far as I know, ‘rebellion violence’ has never really been considered on its own, but rather has always been seen as a distorting mirror reflecting the general, pre-existing violence of medieval society. Obviously, the main sources for medieval rebellions, such as chronicles and judicial sources like royal pardons, are not always as informative as we might wish about this social grammar of ‘rebellion violence’. Such texts generally consider rebellion only from the point of view of criminality, describing destruction, rapes or murders and naming rebels thieves and killers in order to be able to give to rebels the appropriate punishment for such acts.