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.

April 16, 2012

What is a murder?

The content of murder is often debated within our own society. It is not so long ago that suicide was deemed to be a type of murder- we shall discuss that more in the future. Plenty of people see abortion as a type of murder- others do not. Some see contraception as another type of murder. There are definite arguments that euthanasia is a species of murder: whether in the same sense as suicide or the added coercion of relatives keen to see an inheritance. The content of murder shifts generation by generation: is death in war murder? Some people think that Tony Blair and George Bush are murderers- others that they were merely leaders of states that went to war. Murder isn't an obvious concept to us- but one meaning has drifted away from us and its interesting to think about why that's so.

The original meaning of the word murder is not unlawful killing: it is unlawful secret killing. Secrecy really worried medieval society. The secret murder concerned the legal authorities and they took great pains to advertise when a murder or a suicide had been published. This is one reason why, as Alexander Murray documents, suicides were buried at crossroads or on the shores of rivers. They were buried with the instrument they had used to kill themselves- the noose, the knife- to demonstrate that the law knew the manner of their deaths and advertised to all passers by that they had died in this grisly way. You could see this as the basis for public hangings too: the law advertising that this killing had been found unlawful, that it was not one of these murders that would never be detected. The law fixed epistemologically what had happened to a person: uncertainty in this sense allowed a violation of the law, was a challenge to the legal model of knowledge.

Nobody uses murder in this sense today. Despite its uncertain range- our murders are all well murders. We know when someone has been unlawfully killed- and unsolved cases are more often than not unsolved murders, rather than unsolved because noone can be sure about a natural death. There are two reasons for this. The first is the most obvious and will not detain us: we just know a lot more about what a natural death or a murder looks like. From being able to detect DNA on a knife, to being able to register poison in a bloodstream, we know far more than our medieval ancestors did. The second is interesting though and its about the powers of the state. The medieval state had no police force, had no registry of identity, worked through local elites and had no social services. Its infrastructure of knowledge was not inferior neccessarily, but was less statistical and more moulded by a local elite than the modern state.

This is a guess and it would be interesting to know when and how the meaning of murder changed- but my guess is that it has something to do with the changing nature not of science but of the state. Probably that changing nature is what has led us to abandon some of the practices of our ancestors- public execution for one. The impact it has on the way in which the content of the concept of murder has changed is also interesting: thinking about it the only type of murder where we become worried about the boundaries between death and murder today is euthanasia. That may be the exception that proves the rule about our evolving understanding of what the rule means.