April 17, 2012

Property and the Body

However harsh you think your view of justice is, you are unlikely to be as harsh as the justices of Anjou and Maine. The customary of the two provinces of France, written in the early 15th Century, suggested that for crimes such as rape, the murder of a pregnant woman or murder (including suicide) not merely should the offender be punished with death- but their house should be torn down, their fields despoiled, their vines stripped out and any forests they owned chopped down. This they called 'ravaire' or ravage. This punishment is really interesting- Alexander Murray in his work on suicide from which I take this suggests it marked a different boundary of the body from ours. In the medieval world, the body extended not merely to the form of the person but to their chattels and their land. Not merely that but the crime of the individual might well be visited upon the family. Medieval writers justified this by reference to the Book of Numbers, where two people, Dathan and Abiram are swallowed by the earth along with all their families for the sin of blasphemy.

These points that Murray raises are very interesting- because they point right into a conceptual distinction in terms of the way that individuals have been thought about. In the past this notion of the individual extended further than it does today- not merely outwards into property but also outwards into different persons. This raises questions though about the way that they understood those differences. Individuals had their consciousness of that individuality mediated for them through a different prism than that available to us today. The problem with history often is that all we have is the prism- the law code, the theological treatise- we don't have the individual experience of that, the inner consciousness of what that meant. We can only infer from our own empathetic understanding- in most cases. Murray is one of the best historians I've read on this kind of history- and I have no doubt in the rest of his second volume on suicide he will dwell more on this- but its an almost impossible task and reminds me of the fact that the difference between us and the past is precisely the reason why we find it difficult to put flesh into the husk of evidence that we have been left.