Monthly Archives: June 2015

Report: Symposium on Emotions in the Courtroom

On 3rd-4th May, a one and half day symposium on the theme of Emotions in the Courtroom was held at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The symposium was a joint venture between the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions (CHE); The Centre for Mediaeval and Early Modern Law and Literature at the University of St Andrews (CMEMML) and the Marie Curie research network Power and Institutions in Medieval Islam and Christendom (PIMIC). Funding was also received from the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE). The symposium was co-convened by Kimberley-Joy Knight (CHE, The University of Sydney), John Hudson (University of St Andrews) and Jamie Page (University of Durham).

This interdisciplinary symposium brought together an international field of scholars of law, literature, and history whose research intersects with emotions and the law. The papers explored the ‘theatre’ of justice in which spontaneous, provoked, faked, and repressed emotions played an important role in legal conduct and procedure. Using Anglo-Norman court cases, John Hudson analysed clerical stratagems that provoked lay frustration, which manifested itself in anger. A keynote lecture delivered by Stephen D. White (Emory/Harvard) entitled ‘Trying to Keep Emotions Out of the Courtroom: Courtliness and Good Counsel in Girart de Roussillon’, challenged the view of medievalists such as Stephen Jaeger that unruly medieval nobles could learn to control their emotions and their violent impulses only from courtly clerics, courtly romances and Christian moralists. Several papers, including those given by Hans Jacob Orning (University of Oslo) and Susanne Pohl-Zucker, explored changes in emotional expression and regulation, demonstrating the importance of moving beyond Elias’ civilizing process.

Law courts could also play an important role in shaping emotional culture. Merridee L. Bailey (CHE, the University of Adelaide) presented late medieval and early modern cases heard in England’s Court of Chancery to investigate the emotional culture of urban London and whether law courts played a role in shaping moral, emotional and economic community norms. Ian Forrest (Oriel College, the University of Oxford) examined faith and feeling in late medieval litigation involving marriage and debt. Such litigation often involved powerful gestures and this highlighted the importance of reading the body and face. In his discussion of fear and anger in high-stakes lawsuits in the Icelandic sagas, William I. Miller explained how swelling, fainting and bleeding could all be read as expressions of vengeance and can give vital clues as to inner emotional states.

The expression and use of anger was explored in papers given by Elizabeth Papp Kamali and Susanne Pohl-Zucker who examined the use of anger as a mitigating circumstance in legal practice. Kamali excavated the understandings of anger that informed jurors’ attitudes toward felony defendants through an analysis of English legal records, religious writings, and literature. The complexity of anger in felony adjudication was made evident with examples that showed it could be aligned with both moral blameworthiness and the loss of reason. Using sixteenth-century trial records from the duchy of Württemberg and the imperial city of Reutlingen, Pohl-Zucker showed how anger was used both to establish and to undermine claims, and that its use as a mitigating circumstance in legal practice had to be negotiated with cultural ideals that valued emotional balance and viewed uncontrolled anger in a negative light.

The rich papers given at the symposium made it clear that the court space could be a locus for emotionally charged events in which anger in particular played a critical role. Discussions arising from the closing roundtable made it clear that legal records and legal historians have much to contribute to the History of Emotions. The symposium will be supplemented by a panel (809) and roundtable discussion (909) at the Leeds International Medieval Congress this July. Speakers will include Paul Hyams (Emeritus Professor, Cornell/Oxford); John Hudson; Matthew McHaffie (Kings College London); Will Eves (University of St Andrews); Jamie Page and Kimberley-Joy Knight.

Selected papers from Emotions in the Courtroom are available via the CHE SoundCloud page.


Conference report provided by Kimberley-Joy Knight (CHE, The University of Sydney)

Conference Report: Gender and Transgression

On 7-9 May 2015, the University of St Andrews Institute for Mediaeval Studies hosted the annual Gender and Transgression in the Medieval World conference. This year’s theme was Crime, Punishment, and Penance.


Sarah Greer, a History PhD student at the University of St Andrews, has provided an in-depth look at the themes and topics covered during the conference:

“How was gender expressed in the medieval world? What activities were considered to be transgressive? What effects did transgression have on medieval societies, and what do responses to these acts tell us about the behavioural norms of the times, gendered or otherwise? The latest installment of the ‘Gender and Transgression in the Medieval World’ conference at the University of St Andrews addressed these questions in early May this year. Scholars of history, literature, archaeology and criminology presented a range of papers exploring the various facets of this year’s theme: Crime, Punishment and Penance in the Middle Ages. The variety of disciplinary approaches and contexts of the papers given threw into question our modern preconceptions of the nature of gender and transgression in the medieval world, sparking an exciting set of ideas for new directions in studying the Middle Ages.

Crimes of sex

As may be expected from a conference on gender and transgression, transgressive sex acts in medieval societies received a great deal of attention. What was notable, however, was the stress laid by a number of speakers on how responses to medieval sex crimes were often less concerned with the sexual nature of the act itself than with other related concerns. Condemnation of sexual behaviour could serve as a literary tool to reaffirm the identity of a group, as Emilio Bonfiglio pointed out in an anti-homosexual Armenian text written for a monastic audience in the fifth century. Introducing new punishments for sexual crimes could act as a means by which conquered regions were further absorbed into empires, which Zubin Mistry noted occurred with abortion and infanticide in the law codes of the Carolingian empire. Indeed, as Jamie Page showed in the dispute following the sexual assault of a 4-year-old by a 12-year-old girl in late medieval Zurich, even legal cases sparked by sexual assault could be less concerned with investigating the assault itself than with resolving the impact on the honour and reputation of the families involved.

The wider effects of transgressive behaviour on medieval society clearly which concerned medieval writers greatly. The amount of attention medieval chroniclers gave to royal anger, as Hannah Kilpatrick pointed out, showed how important it was for a king to express his emotions in the proper manner in order not to antagonise his followers. But properly expressing anger was not simply a royal concern. In the same vein, Ekaterina Mitsiou noted that the focus on restraining anger in monastic communities was a further facet of the wider medieval concern with outlining acceptable and unacceptable forms of behaviour.

Responses to disputes and transgressive acts were not simply focused on the parties involved, but needed to deal with the wider ripples that these disputes had caused in society. As the boundaries between crime and sin were fluid in the medieval world, any response to a transgressive act needed to include some form of appeasement to God as well. Rob Meens highlighted how penance, as a highly visible act of conciliation, served as a useful form of conflict resolution to knit back together ruptures in society.

Gendered bodies

While the Middle Ages are often characterised as a time of repression for women in general, in fact medieval women had a variety of ways through which they could gain a measure of power and agency over their own lives. Much of the ability for individual women to do this was determined by their social position, with those in the upper strata of society having more resources and opportunities to act in their own right. However, as both Sara Mederos and Azime Pekşen Yakar pointed out, women were able to use their bodies, specifically by controlling access to them, as a way to gain power over the men in their lives.

The comparative difficulty of seeing medieval women in primary sources can at times obscure the roles they played in medieval society. Yet, as Delfi Nieto-Isabel showed with the actions of Beguin women during thirteenth-century heresy trials, women had much more active roles than we often recognise. Indeed, sometimes our own modern preconceptions about medieval gender roles can lead us to misread the evidence, which Andrew Welton demonstrated through the number of Anglo-Saxon weapon burials that have been falsely catalogued as male. Megan Cavell also proposed that these same preconceptions hinder our understanding of the allusions to textile production being violent in Anglo-Saxon riddles, as even though it was a female-gendered activity, making fabrics was a visceral and highly violent occupation involving repurposed weapons. As Welton suggested, we may do better to put aside our modern view of medieval gender divisions as a male/female dichotomy and instead think about other kinds of models that past societies may have used, such as warrior/mother archetypes.

Indeed, the boundaries between male and female gender roles could at times become blurry. Women were praised for acting in a manly fashion and leading military action when there were no men around who were able to act, which Lydia Hayes outlined in her description of the biblical commentaries on Judith. The same praise for masculine behaviour by women appeared in Arab epic literature, but Amanda Hannoosh Steinberg noted that the key difference between the heroines and villainesses in these stories was not based on their gendered activity but rather on the motivations for their actions. In some cases men needed to take on feminine qualities too, as Catherine Coffey outlined in the case of high medieval German mystics. Women like Mechthild of Magdeburg were able to use their femininity to create sensuality in their mystical union with God, whereas male mystics had to transform their gender roles in order to do so. Effectively, medieval gender roles were less rigidly differentiated than our modern ideas about the Middle Ages might lead us to expect.

Norms and identities

By examining sexual and gender transgressions in the medieval world, the key result of this conference was to question our modern ideas of what the norms of sexual and gendered behaviour were in the Middle Ages. In many cases, we need to re-examine how much of what we consider to be normative behaviour is instead us implementing our own ideas onto the past. Rather than trying to classify the actions and identities of individuals in the past into strict categories with definite and recognisable boundaries, we need to consider the fluidity that these roles seem to have possessed. Also, any examination of medieval sex and gender needs to take into account the other contextual factors that influenced the case in question. In many situations the position of an individual in the hierarchies of power and authority in their society was more influential in determining their behaviour than their gender. Gender could serve as a useful discourse, to be activated in praise or criticism of an individual when needed, but individuals were able to act outside of what we might consider to be typical gendered behaviour in a remarkable number of cases. While gender was an important aspect of medieval identity, we should not forget that it was not the only, nor even the primary part of individuals’ identities.”