The Renaissance Discovery of Violence

Reading the literature of the European Renaissance in view of how it represented violence, and why it did it the way it did, means considering the abundance of novel perspectives the period adopted, many of which were thought to be based in the literature of antiquity, but most of which were in fact innovations, and which confronted a society of considerable complexity, harbouring a host of different religious, cultural, political and social points of view. It is also to see Renaissance literature in the context of nothing less than the history of violence itself. And why not?

 This history is only just now being written, although it was anticipated by historians like Huizinga, sociologists like Norbert Elias, and philosophers like Nietzsche and Arendt. This is a history not only of acts committed or of judicial procedures undertaken, but of codifications, aggregations, exploitations and speculations. It is a history of peace as well as war, of the demarcations of innocence as well as the identification and management of guilt. And although the archives of court records, chronicles and eyewitness accounts have been the primary source materials for historians of violence so far, much can be contributed to our understanding by examining the literary record, where violence is endlessly imagined, structured, morally commented upon and rendered as the content of emotion. Violence is inevitably a provocation to the creativity of authors and the receptivity of readers.

 In the Middle Ages, it has often been supposed, violence was normative. Not only was violence an inevitable and common expression of fallen human nature; it was, given the right conditions, an adjudicator of truth and falsehood, of privilege and servitude, of right and wrong. There were critics of the system, and debates about conditions, but respect for the normativity of violence endured for centuries.

 That situation began to change in the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. The formation of city-states in Italy and elsewhere, the professionalization of jurisprudence, and advances in weaponry and civil defense, and the growth of imperial governance outside of Italy led to new demands for law, order and security. More intimate changes in everyday life, including the development of new forms of commerce and culture played a role as well. New sensibilities with regard to violence therefore developed, sensibilities which were rehearsed, experimented with, encouraged and sometimes contested in the field of literary expression. In the novelle of Matteo Bandello and Marguerite de Navarre, for example, we encounter character after character who has been victimized by the brutality of men in power, with the implication that it is the victim who is the real subject of tales of violence, and the object of the reader’s sympathy and respect. In Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso we encounter a knight errant who, on hearing about how a woman is to be executed for breaking a law against committing fornication, and who therefore needs to be saved by a knight such as himself, first remarks, ‘But that’s wrong! There shouldn’t be a law against such things, which are a part of human nature.’ The idea isn’t new; but it is a new kind of thing for a knight errant to say.  

 So, the Renaissance discovery of violence: from Bocaccio to Shakespeare a new world is discovered, and that world, for better or worse, has violence at its heart.

This project has been generously funded by Vetenskprådet, the Swedish Research Council.