Deviance and Power in Late Medieval London.
Although a great deal of study has already been devoted to power, authority, and misbehavior in English towns generally and in London specifically, new perspectives and analyses are still being put forth. One such work is Frank Rexroth's Deviance and Power in Late Medieval London originally published in German as Das Milieu der Nacht in 1999. As a translation of an earlier work, and as Rexroth acknowledges, this study obviously does not reflect all of the latest historiography; Caroline Barron's significant London in the Later Middle Ages is among the most obvious works that are not engaged with here. While this is unfortunate, it does not detract from the overall quality of Rexroth's study or reduce the utility of the book for those interested in the subject; it is simply a consideration that must be kept in mind while reading.
The analysis begins with the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War, which Rexroth argues helped create the idea of the "counter-society" in the minds of Londoners, who were concerned with the possibility of French attacks by stealth, as had been executed at Portsmouth and Southampton. The book argues that this idea' of an organized, menacing counter-society persisted up to at least 1485, which serves as the endpoint for the study. Rexroth's analysis draws on a wide variety of primary source material, and contains transcriptions of some of the less familiar ones, which may make the book a useful resource for students researching the period.
The general argument of the book is that the leaders of medieval London believed they could meet the threat of the counter-society by promoting unity among the population and maintaining "peace and concord" in the city. Rexroth explores the ways authority figures tried to accomplish these goals through a study of their reaction to transgressions such as prostitution, sexual misconduct, and vagabondage. Overall, he argues that the authorities determined the line between respectable and marginal members of London society, and used ritualized public displays to make this distinction clear to the populace, underline the thorough corruption of all those who fell outside the limits of respectability, and emphasize the dangerously "infectious" nature of illicit behavior to respectable citizens. This process reinforced civic leaders' power by making it clear that it was they, and they alone, who were empowered to determine exactly where the border between mainstream and underworld was drawn.
Rexroth argues that the main objective of wardmote inquests in particular was not the punishment--through fine, imprisonment, or exile--of transgressors, but instead to rehearse the relationships of power and conformity that bound respectable London together. Those indicted at wardmotes were subjected to what Rexroth calls "status degredation": a ritual proceeding that reduced them from individuals who had done something specific to generic, disreputable, irredeemable members of an immoral, debauched underworld. The main purpose of these occasions was not to punish individual transgressors, but to remind those who witnessed the proceedings of the wardmote of the existence of the underworld and its dangers, especially the danger that respectable citizens who were not sufficiently vigilant might slip into the counter-society themselves.
Of course, it is also true that such status degredation would itself have been a form of punishment in a society where reputation and "fame" were so crucially important. Those who were publically degraded in the way that Rexroth outlines would have found it difficult to secure the credit necessary to engage in business transactions, to find people willing to associate with them personally and professionally, to have their testimony accepted in court cases, or to secure a marriage partner, to name but a few of the consequences of acquiring "ill fame" in medieval London. While Rexroth does not consider this aspect of the degredation enacted at wardmotes, it does not necessarily undermine the point he is making. In fact, it is quite possible, and probable, that wardmotes did--as Rexroth argues--rehearse the distinction between licit and illict society in the city, reinforce the bonds of authority and power among "respectable" Londoners, and inflict an unofficial, but still doubtless very effective, punishment on those individuals who were presented for their transgressions.
One component of Rexroth's analysis that is not always clear is whether the authorities of London were motivated by a genuine fear of underworld society, or whether this was a rhetorical strategy used by those in Power to justify and perpetuate their control of the city. At the beginning of the period he examines, the threat of French fifth-columnists is portrayed as a real fear felt by Londoners, and the English in general, but when discussing later material, he seems to imply that the underworld was more of a convenient device for those in authority than something they truly felt threatened by. It is certainly possible that what is being suggested here is an evolution of the concept over time; a real threat at the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War which, having proved useful to London's elite, was still being exploited many years later, even though the actual concern had lessened. This would not be an unreasonable theory, although it would have been beneficial to have it argued more explicitly, if it is indeed the case Rexroth is trying to make.
Overall, Deviance and Power is a creative examination of the dynamics of power and authority in medieval London. Rexroth's analysis challenges the reader to think about medieval court records in a way that looks beyond their overt purpose and seeks to understand the implicit ideologies that underpin them. This kind of textual analysis can refresh even familiar sources, and it is for this reason that Rexroth's book deserves attention both from those interested in the history of London and scholars with more general interests in authority and power in medieval society.
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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