Saturday, March 10, 2007

The "Civilizing Process" and persistence of the Duel: Brown reviews Carroll, Blood and Violence in Early Modern France

Stuart Carroll, Blood and Violence in Early Modern France (Oxford University Press, 2006) is reviewed on H-Law by Howard G. Brown, Department of History, SUNY Binghamton. Brown begins:

Stuart Carroll's challenging book is a study of what he calls "vindicatory violence" as perpetrated by French nobles between the late fifteenth and the late seventeenth centuries. It is a social and cultural history based primarily on the archival detritus of legal institutions. He believes that a study of this sort will serve to correct misleading interpretations ofnoble violence, especially of the duel, generated by historians who rely exclusively on printed sources such as pamphlets, treatises, and memoirs. If Stuart Carroll is right, and I think he is, then Norbert Elias was wrong. Elias viewed the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the most important period in the "civilizing process" in Europe. This is when the still barbarous medieval knight was transformed by the cultural power of dynastic states into the self-controlled aristocrat polished to a high sheen by courtly etiquette. France, and especially the court of Louis XIV,played a privileged part in this process, facilitating the birth of the Enlightenment and civil society. Such an interpretation simply cannot be sustained in the light of Carroll's evidence. French nobles had no idea that they were supposed to be taking a teleological path to civility. Quite the contrary. The duel, which first gained popularity in the late sixteenth century, did not so much ritualize and regularize noble violence, as provide a fig leaf for the naked slaughter of one noble by another. Equally, the blood feud, so often taken as proof of societal primitivism, actually flourished for a hundred years (1560-1660). The decline of dueling and feuding in the late seventeenth century did not result, therefore, from the "civilizing process," but from the militarization of the nobility for the purposes of foreign war. This satisfied the nobles' penchant for using public displays of violence to justify and defend their elevated status. Thus, military service to the king finally took the place of "vindicatory violence" in the construction of noble identity.

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