Communities of Violence

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In David Nirenberg’s narrative monograph, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages Nirenberg examines the meaning and function of violence in fourteenth century southern France and in the Crown of Aragon. Nirenberg’s thesis is that violence towards minorities (Jews, Muslims, and lepers) was neither irrational nor a result of intolerance, instead violence towards minorities was contextual and part of the everyday function of society. Nirenberg argues that there is a difference between “systematic violence” and its function and “cataclysmic violence.” Nirenberg focuses on how those of the time maintained a society by using everyday violence to enforce boundaries and propel negotiations among minorities. Nirenberg not only discusses violence in the literal sense but also as “judicial and accusational violence.” He also argues that there was a “strategic value” in violence that the monarchy employed to fill their coffers, that the majority used to resist the monarchy, and that minorities used to gain power against other minority groups. The first chapter of the monograph presents a general comparison between the roles of Jews and Muslims in “Christian society,” and the violence that was directed towards each group. This chapter is written to give the reader a synopsis of the divergence between the two minority groups which is pertinent to Nirenberg’s later arguments. After the first chapter Nirenberg divides the book into two parts. The first part is titled “Cataclysmic Violence: France and the Crown of Aragon.” The cataclysmic events that Nirenberg uses are the “Shepherds’ Crusade of 1320 which began as a Crusade against Islam but quickly focused instead on Jews,” and the “Cowherds’ Crusade, which began by attacking lepers in 1321 but also came to encompass Jews and Muslims.” Part one of the book is dedicated to “cataclysmic violence” and the importance of putting violence in context in order to understand the “cataclysmic violence” that occurred in France and Aragon. Nirenberg uses the example of the two crusades to compare the context of violence in the “cataclysmic events.” Nirenberg compares the prevalent violence that occurred in France, where minorities “experienced extensive violence,” to the Crown of Aragon where minorities did not experience the same level of violence. Nirenberg compares the context of the violence in order to argue that violence towards minorities was not a product of intolerance or irrationality but because the Jews represented the monocracy and their fiscal abuses. Nirenberg argues that because the Jews were the tax collectors and administrators for the monarchy the shepherds could indirectly confront the monarchy under the guise of protecting the Christian purity of the monarchy. Under the Crown of Aragon, minorities were protected more by the monarchy than in France so the violence was not as rampant. Though there was an event of terrible violence when three hundred Jews were slaughtered at the castle of Montclus. Nirenberg argues that a person’s political identity was more important than their religious identity. The monarchy protected Jews and Muslims because they were economically essential to the Crown of Aragon. Nirenberg compares the “cataclysmic events” in order to argue that the local context of the violence and the intent of the people was what propelled the violence rather than intolerance or collective thought. Nirenberg argues that it was more about what the minority represented than irrational bigotry. Nirenberg method is to look at the context and agency of violence in order to make the argument that violence was not irrational or unintentional. He uses this method to compare everyday violence to “cataclysmic violence.” Nirenberg argues that everyday violence was essential to maintaining boundaries between minorities. Nirenberg disagrees with the longue duree method which is used by social historians. The longue duree method...
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