Social, Legal and Emotional Aspects of Conflicts in Western Europe, 1300-1600 – Online Workshop

Thursday. 13 May 2021 16:00-18:00 CEST

In premodern societies, the notions of honour and reputation helped to frame social interactions on different scales. On a personal and familial level, pursuing honour was a way to secure economic and social safety through the establishment of networks of professional cooperation and community support. On a communal level, claiming honour was a way to consolidate alliances between cities, states and professional groups. A challenged honour could be the basis for legal disputes or become conflictual, potentially leading to cycles of courtroom battles and violent retaliation that represented a threat to individuals and communities. However, violent retaliations, despite representing a threat to social cohesion on various scales, had the major advantage of restoring social positions, by reclaiming honour. Thus, in premodern societies conflicts around honour were part of a set of behavioural forms that helped define social structures of alliances and division. This set of behaviours, which has been termed an ‘economy of honour’, involved strategies in which the benefits and risks of challenging honour and using violence were carefully calculated, since these behaviours represented economic, social and political risks. In these strategies, legal contests occupied an important position, since the social standing of an individual, and the reputation of a group could help legal decisions to be made in their favour, while proving that the honour of an individual or a group that had been threatened could legally justify violent retaliations that were perceived as necessary to reclaim honour.

Honour and the practices surrounding it are also deeply embedded in social constructs, and the attitudes surrounding honour and violence have evolved across time. While historically minded sociologists such as Norbert Elias, Pieter Spierenburg and Steven Pinker have associated this evolution of attitudes to the ‘civilisation process’ and a subsequent decline of violent interactions surrounding honour, recent scholarship has challenged this view, and has been highly critical of the normative claims embedded in the concept of a civilisation process. Analysis of archival sources conducted by Barbara Hanawalt and Trevor Dean, for instance, has highlighted how court records, guilds and city statutes give a much more nuanced vision of the perceived violence of premodern societies, and demonstrated the many ways in which honour could be displayed, protected and strategically manipulated by individuals and governments to fulfil their agendas. Recent scholarship has also challenged views regarding the groups involved in conflicts surrounding honour, initially perceived as the reserved field of noble men. Manon van der Heijden and Cynthia J. Johnson have highlighted that women actively participated in honour-related conflicts, while Claude Gauvard, Andrea Zorzi and Kate MacGrath have shown how the pursuit of honour was applicable to every layer of society.

This workshop focuses on the way conflicts participated in defining interactions between individuals and groups in Western Europe between the 14th and the 16th centuries. It aims, first, to explore the similarities and differences between honour-related conflicts on different scales. Were honour-oriented conflicts used in the same way to navigate social interactions between individuals and groups? Next, it seeks to interrogate how legal systems were adapted (or not) to handle the honourable aspect of conflicts, and what paths did legal procedures create for the restoration of honour to litigants. Finally, it will investigate how emotions could influence claims to honour and conflictual interactions. On an individual level, how are some forms of violence that lead to loss of honour, if not bodily integrity, tied to self-esteem, self-perception and emotional reactions? On a group level, how can the sense of belonging to a professional association or an urban community influence the emotional and behavioural response to perceived threats to the honour of that group?


  • Scorned honour and ill repute: Emotional, social and legal implications of honour in the pacification office (Ghent, 1350-1400). Lola Digard, Phd Candidate, Universiteit van Amsterdam
  • More things are necessary for a household than four naked thighs”: Honor, material culture and late medieval marriage. Dr. Anna Boeles Rowland, Research Fellow, KU Leuven
  • Trust issues: reputation in conflicts around trade and debt in Northern European cities (c.1400-1550). Christian Manger, Phd Candidate, Universiteit van Amsterdam, and Ester Zoomer, Phd Candidate, Universiteit van Amsterdam

 Respondent: Dr. Daniel Lord Smail, Professor of History, Harvard University

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