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Mishandled vessels: heaving drinks and hurling insults in medieval Welsh literature and law

Mishandled vessels: heaving drinks and hurling insults in medieval Welsh literature and law

Mishandled vessels: heaving drinks and hurling insults in medieval Welsh literature and law

By Michael Cichon

Canadian Journal of History, Vol.43:2 (2008)

Abstract: “Mishandled Vessels ” explores the gesture of insult in medieval Wales by means of a detailed examination of the intersection of literature, law and art. The article takes as its starling point the illustration of “sarhaed” or insult, in the mid-thirteenth-century Welsh legal codex NLW Latin ms Peniarth 28. It then considers the attitudes which lie behind the gesture, namely those which anthropologists have identified as peculiar to cultures which feud, and charts them through select literary and legal texts. This investigation helps shed light on how the medieval Welsh dealt with the perceived shortage of honour in their culture.

Introduction: The mid-thirteenth-century Welsh legal codex NLW Latin ms Peniarth 28 is famous as much for its illustrations as its content, especially the picture of two men locked in a hair-pulling tussle. Not surprisingly, the picture illustrates sarhaed, a term that means both insult and redress and which occurs repeatedly in medieval Welsh literature and law. Welsh law treats many forms of insult, in many places, all of which require compensation. Welsh literature describes numerous actions that demand redress, some of which directly echo scenarios described in the laws. In effect, this depiction exemplifies aspects of feud that lie behind legal and literary descriptions of sarhaed. The near identical participants suggest an equality of status, and seem to imply that “what goes around comes around”– each could just as easily be the victim or aggressor. Welsh Law contains commentary on social order, hierarchy and proper behaviour, and this is reflected in the Arthurian tales Peredur and Owein, which illustrate to some extent the principles behind the laws in action. The laws, alongside the tales, shed light on the values of the society that produced that literature, and this helps elucidate how the tales make meaning. Taken together, all three examples — tales, law texts, and picture — point out the mentalite which lies behind the transaction of honour and power in medieval Welsh society.

Medieval men and women took their insults much more seriously than perhaps we do, and often comments or gestures, whether unintentional or calculated, could spark a violent blood feud. Today, the term feud carries negative connotations: there is a current western cultural bias against groups who practice self-help violence associated with insult and redress, but to the participants in the feuding process, such violence functioned as a “… reasonable and eminently moral form of social action.”

Feud can be engendered by insult and once begun, is itself treated as a form of insult requiring reparation. In essence, feud is aggressive social competition integral to the creation and maintenance of social order. Feud is motivated by scarcity, both material and moral, and takes the form of a game played between relative equals who keep score and endeavour to take the lead from one another. This game of exchanges is potentially interminable, but the understanding of a never-ending conflict motivates the parties involved to limit their conflict. Still, even after a resolution, any affront or assault will likely spark additional hostilities. It is this concept of talion that accounts for the cyclical nature of insult and redress in Welsh literature and law. Simply put, any act that brings about dishonour must be somehow either atoned for or paid back. Finally, feud is driven by the participants’ belief that their honour has somehow been threatened or compromised. “The feud was more than the series of overt actions that made it up,” according to one scholar. “It was the relationship between the groups, the state of the participants’ minds, the postures of defiance, antagonism, and coldness filling the intervals of time between hostile confrontations. These things were every bit as much a part of the feud as vengeance killing.”

See also Peniarth 28: illustrations from a Welsh Lawbook


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