A kind of wild justice

Discussions of early modern revenge often trace a teleological line in which traditions of revenge are gradually replaced by a national system of justice. What this teleological view of the development of a strong legal system obscures, however, are the similarities between justice and revenge. Looking back from our modern period, we tend to think of revenge as a wild and destructive force, and we contrast it to the rational and civilized nature of an impartial legal system.

This contrast, however, was constructed in the early modern period, precisely in order to enforce the authority of the legal system. Traditions of blood revenge in medieval society, for example, functioned as a means of enforcing justice and minimalising violence (See Keith M. Brown, Bloodfeud in Scotland 1573-1625: Violence, Justice, and Politics in an Early Modern Society, 1986; and Richard Fletcher, Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England, 2002). In the history of the development of a sense of justice, the lex talionis or talion law of “an eye for an eye” plays a pivotal rule. This talion law later broadened out into a system of blood revenge, the feud or the vendetta, based on the obligation to avenge the death of a family member.

Early modern law similarly knits together revenge and the maintenance of order. Perhaps we could even turn Bacon’s famous words on revenge inside-out, and say that justice is a kind of civilized revenge. Legal punishment is in a sense the monarch’s revenge on the criminal who personally affronted him by disobeying the legal system he presides over. Foucault writes that whereas technologies of power from the eighteenth century onwards tended to focus on a preventive and corrective inter¬pretation of the right to punish, early modern law conceived of punishment as a ceremony of vengeance. “In the execution of the most ordinary penalty, in the most punctilious respect of legal forms, reign the active forces of revenge,” he writes (Discipline and Punish, 48).

That the social function of the courts of law was associated with that of revenge in early modern culture, appears also from the contemporary texts. John Smyth of Nibley, for example, calls Westminster Hall “our cockpit of revenge” – and compares it to the battlefield of the Wars of the Roses: “the civill warres of my dayes there reageinge, wasting more treasure and time then the disuniion of the houses of York and Lancaster ever did the unitinge.” Similarly, Fredson Bowers in his monumental Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (1940) writes that the system of appeals in some aspects could be seen as legalized private revenge, and cites Sir Thomas Smith, who in 1583 refers to the “battle vpon his appeale & priuate reuenge” (8).

This emphasis on the similarity between justice and revenge seems to have disappeared from Western culture. Susan Jacoby in her book on the evolution of revenge goes so far as to compare the taboo attached to revenge in our culture today (she writes in the US in 1983) to the Victorians’ taboo on sex:

The personal and social price we pay for the pretense that revenge and justice have nothing to do with each other is as high as the one paid by the Victorians for their conviction that lust was totally alien to the marital love sanctioned by church and state. […] [This taboo] is a curious development in a century that has experienced its own full measure of revenge, expanded beyond old limits by modern science and technology” (Jacoby, Wild Justice, 1983: 13).

It makes you wonder what Jaboby would say about the world of 2005…

See also Oh Vengeance! – a site on early modern ideas on revenge.


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