Violence and Sovereignty in Europe, 1300–1800

AHA Session 81
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 104 (Hynes Convention Center)
Barbara H. Rosenwein, Loyola University Chicago
David A. Bell, Johns Hopkins University

Session Abstract

The subject of this panel is the association between violence and sovereignty. An expectation that violence was implicated in the construction of sovereignty permeates the political and legal history of late medieval and early modern Europe. The classic formulation was Max Weber’s (1918): “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Writing a few years later, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, in his “Critique of Violence” (1921), that the state itself was born in acts of violence and subsequently maintained its law through what he called “administrative violence.” Their claims, and many others like them, did not emerge from armchair philosophizing. They were distilled from the work of the previous generation of European historians who, starting in the 1870s, wrote the new history of nations, a history that included exactly this premise: that sovereignty was built, in part, on the monopoly of violence. But the philosophy, in turn, served to amplify the histories written over the ensuing decades, and the resulting feedback loop has so thoroughly normalized the narrative that it has become difficult to interrogate. Historians have gotten in the habit of expecting that sovereignty, in Europe, was erected on the ability both to restrain violence and to dish it out. We expect to find that late medieval and early modern states displayed the symbols of their sovereignty through the media of coercive institutions (policing, prisons), spectacles of punishment, or spectacles of grace.The goal of this panel is to interrogate this narrative and especially the teleology of a thinking and planning state that informs it. In her paper, Carol Lansing will address the role of humiliation in legal processes and discuss how the Florentine court system, far from pursuing a monopoly over coercive force, facilitated private justice. Dan Smail’s paper seeks to illustrate how acts of coercive force and spectacles of sovereign violence played out in contexts of debt recovery far more often than in criminal contexts. Paul Friedland, finally, will query the long-standing assumption that spectacles of justice were designed to have a deterrent effect. The instinct of all three papers is to dissolve the faceless interests that have been attributed to states and to restore the historical context that is necessary for understanding events and processes. By bringing together scholars from late medieval and early modern Europe, moreover, we hope to justify a history that doesn’t respect conventional field boundaries.

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