Peace and Penance in Late Medieval Italy

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Katherine Ludwig Jansen
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , January
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The imbalance in scholarship on premodern peacemaking compared to modern peacemaking was first raised by Jenny Benham in her 2011 Peacemaking in the Middle Ages (Manchester University Press). Katherine Jansen’s Peace and Penance in Late Medieval Italy continues to redress this imbalance, bringing together a rich variety of primary sources in a multifaceted analysis of medieval peacemaking. The kiss of peace depicted on the cover of Peace and Penance hints at Jansen’s central argument: peacemaking in late medieval Italy was more than just a legal recourse; it was grounded in religious reconciliation and its social context. Jansen draws a specific focus to Florence to create what she describes as a “mosaic” (5) on peace. 

The first chapter assesses peace and penance in the commune. Violence was frequent in the turbulent political climate and peacemaking was used to achieve reconciliation. A prominent role was forged for preachers whose sermons highlighted the importance of peace as an action for everybody—male and female, ecclesiastical and lay—although, as Jansen acknowledges, male intermediaries feature more readily in records. She explores individual peacemaking within popular revivals such as the Great Devotion of 1233, the Battuti of 1260 and 1310, the Columbini of 1355, and the Bianchi of 1399. Attention is drawn to the social reform achieved by the Bianchi, demonstrating a legacy of peace. However, I would suggest that this is a peculiarity of the Florentine environment as such reform is not evident across other locations the Bianchi reached. Ultimately though, the author demonstrates how these movements combined peace with penitence to achieve individual peace for participants.

The second chapter considers peacemaking in the civic sphere and outer peace: the relationship between justice and peace. Remigio dei Girolami, whose sermons and treatises are usually analyzed as political theory, is examined here as an example of sociopolitical and religious history. This interesting and productive lens reveals Girolami’s perspective on the complicated political machinations of Florence, exposing a focus on justice as well as an awareness of social discord. One particularly evocative metaphor compares the body to the city—every part must be cared for in order to remain healthy. The greater good is emphasized above individual needs: the community must work together to achieve the common good of peace. While Girolami’s writings are often abstract, Jansen underscores their connection to the Florentine crisis he had experienced.

Chapter 3 examines peace itself through the instrumentum pacis. This legal document achieved peace between individuals and was sealed with a kiss. A crucial part of the legal system, these instruments were used by the elite and the popolo alike. In Florence, if a peace instrument was notarized within a fortnight of an incident, all charges and fines would be dropped. The notary still had to be paid, although a basic contract might cost five soldi compared to the swift accumulation of court costs. Jansen examines a sample of 526 agreements in the notarial records from 1257 to1343. Most peaces were drawn up within seven days of the crime, although there were some exceptions; thirty-six years elapsed before peace was made in an example of a kidnapping. The power of the instrumentum is revealed, and its penitential echoes are highlighted; its similarity to sacramental confession meant a fresh start for both parties once peace was made.

Feud and vendetta are scrutinized in chapter 4, addressing paxas a legally and socially acceptable recourse to resolve disputes and end banishment. Vendetta is the main focus: a type of disagreement that had its own internal logic and rules. Peace instruments were an important recourse in ending factional violence, although signing an accord did not unequivocally enforce peace. Jansen suggests the instrumentum can be seen as self-help for feuds and vendetta, allowing a reconciliation in which neither party lost face. However, it is hard to typologically differentiate between feud and vendetta in the notarial sources due to the different terms used in medieval Florence. Peace agreements could also be used to resolve banishment, where individuals fled instead of attending a summons and were stripped of legal status. Jansen also turns to literature, a dialogue between Melibeus and Prudenceby Albertanus de Brescia. This text discusses a peace in relation to an attack on the characters’ daughter. Prudence acts as a mediator and religious vocabulary is used to describe the act of peace. This text offers a rare view into the negotiations behind the scenes of an instrumentum as well as highlighting the role of a woman. Reaching a peace agreement in such circumstances could prevent future acts of factional violence. 

Chapter 5 probes visual representations of peacemaking. The ritual act of the kiss was crucial to peacemaking, and its liturgical roots accorded it a weighty significance. For visual representations of peacemaking, Jansen turns to Umbria. An angel of peace watches over peacemakers as an arbiter of justice in three frescoes from Terni. This figure first appeared at the turn of the 14th century and physically joins the peacemakers together to both bless and mediate the situation. Two further examples depict peacemaking during the Bianchi devotions in 1399 at Terni and Vallo di Nera, underscoring the importance of peace in this devotional movement. The public nature of peacemaking is reinforced as well as its religious and penitential significance.

This book provides a fascinating insight into making peace in medieval Florence from a variety of different perspectives. Jansen demonstrates the success and importance of peace instruments for solving a variety of criminal matters and emphasizing the public nature of peace. The religious perspective is also explored, as framing peace as an act of reconciliation was crucial in its success. Jansen’s work thoughtfully intersects a variety of fields and through careful groundwork she ensures that the reader is oriented, whatever perspective they approach this book from. The chapters address different perspectives, functioning as stand-alone entities as well as forming part of the tapestry of Jansen’s overall work in digging beneath the legal documents to present a new, rounded perspective on medieval peacemaking.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alexandra R. A. Lee is Teaching Assistant at University College London and King's College London.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katherine Ludwig Jansen is professor of history at the Catholic University of America. Her books include the award-winning The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton).



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