Chris Wickham
Early Medieval Italy

Feud was not regarded by the inhabitants of early medieval Europe, even by kings, as the disruptive process that has at times been castigated by modern historians. It has rules, and a built-in tendency towards the re-establishment of peace, in that people who are willy-nilly involved in a feud, often with links to both sides, do not usually wish to spend most of their time fighting. In all societies, the famous long-lasting feuds are by definition atypical, for they attract people's attention precisely because they are unsolved. This is usually only possible in cases of exceptional antagonism and gravity, and usually also where the participants live for enough away from each other to be able to avoid social contact, or in places of some social complexity such as cities; the great Italian feuds have nearly all been urban (one thinks of the Montagues and the Capulets). Feud is a possibility in many traditional and small-scale communities, and the Mediterranean has always been one of its strongholds. The potential outbreak of feud underlies all the traditional peasant concern for family solidarity and peace.

The Lombard kings valued peace, too. They did not, however, regard violence, except inside the king's court, as offensive to the principles of civil society. They tried to limit the occurrence of feud, to prevent it breaking out over trivia. Rothari made feud compensation greater, to make its acceptance more honourable, thus increasing the chances for the settlement of feud. But feud was part of Lombard custom, and the basic rights of any Lombard to engage in it could not be undermined. We have seen that Liutprand retained the duel (which is itself, very largely, a ritualised and restricted variant of feud), despite his suspicions of its justice (see above, p.44), and the Carolingians even slightly extended its scope. It is, however, an ironic fact that it is from royal legislation guiding and limiting the procedures of feud that we learn almost all we know about it. Our narrative texts are sparse, and apart from the occasional tale of revenge in Paul the Deacon, Liutprand of Cremona, or especially the Chronicon Salernitanum, we have no accounts of major feuds until the chronicles of the communal period and beyond. Its presence and legitimacy is assumed by all the sources that mention it, however.

The structure of the kin group in Lombard society was made up almost exclusively through male-line, so-called 'agnatic' or 'patrilineal' links. When a man's daughter married, she married into a different family (Liutprand warned against marriage into a family one is feuding with) and elaborate safeguards had to be worked out to avoid her exploitation. If she sold land after her marriage, her own kin had to testify that she did this of her own free will, and was not coerced by her husband and his kin; charters showing this requirement are common into the eleventh century. This male-line kin system helped the definition of families, for a man or woman could only be a member of one family group. It was closely linked to inheritance. When a man needed his kin to swear for him in an oath-helping ceremony, he had to present them in order of inheritance, fetching them from all over the kingdom if necessary. In feud, too, the only man entitled to avenge a dead man was his son, though if he had no children or only daughters the obligation fell to a less closely-defined group of propinqui or proximi parentes, close relatives. Feud, being by its nature a more spontaneous business, could not be controlled as strictly as the ritual of oath-helping.

These were Lombard rules, for they were part of Lombard law. The Romans had patrilineal lineages, too, but the law of the Empire did not recognise such private remedies as feud. There are hints, however, that Romans at least felt the need to exact revenge for the death of kinsmen. The seventh-century Italian legal handbook, the Summa Perusina, states baldly 'if you have avenged the death of a kinsman, you will become his heir.' This text probably reflects the practice in Rome under the Exarchate. In Lombard Italy, all we can do is guess.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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