Edward Muir. Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta in Renaissance Italy. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. xxviii + 208 pp. $15.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8018-5849-9.
Reviewed by Jo Wheeler (Department of External Relations, King's College London, UK)
Published on H-Italy (August, 1999)
This is a powerful, compelling, and extremely readable account of a sensational topic: a sudden savage massacre during Carnival in 1511 at Udine and the eruption across the Friulan countryside of the most extensive popular uprising in Renaissance Italy. Mad Blood Stirring explores those events, their causes and consequences, and the meanings of violence, as supporters of the Strumiero faction were hacked to pieces, their property burnt or looted by peasants loyal to the Zambarlano faction, led by the charismatic nobleman, Antonio Savorgnan. Professor Muir's book was awarded the 1993 Howard Marraro Prize for the best book on Italian history; he has now abridged it for this reader's edition, cutting most of the sections on Friulan social history (which incidentally themselves offer an excellent synthesis).
This microhistory weaves in some very broad themes, examining the role of vendetta and factions in politics, the characteristics of a peasant revolt, the nature of the Venetian mainland state, the abandonment of the vendetta for the duel, and popular culture and Carnival.
Through extensive archival research, Muir provides a penetrating analysis of the vendetta that pitted the Savorgnan against other castellan families, notably the Della Torre and Colloredo. He shows the Savorgnan taking on the protection of the peasantry and popular faction in Udine and building close relations with Venice--far different from their enemies, who fostered marriage and patronage links within their own class. Factions became the most potent organizations for regulating disputes and local conflicts in the face of inefficiency, indifference, corruption and a profound divide between Venetian and Fruilan judicial systems. A key point that factions gathered in most of the tensions of Friulan society, many of which had very little to do with the technical obligations of personal revenge, emerges less clearly than before though.
Muir argues that there was a ritual language that established the patterns of killing; victims were dehumanized, made literally into dog meat, corpses systematically dismembered, forms he sees as modelled on the butchering of animals, hunting practices, and the body imagery of Carnival. Killers were likened to rabid dogs, enthralled by mad blood, so they were no longer responsible for their actions.
The final chapter (pp. 157-182) moves up to the mid-sixteenth century and traces shifts in aristocratic behaviour, from the vendetta towards the suppressed anger of duels, from collective towards highly individualized concepts of honor, stimulated by the profileration of Renaissance books of manners. Throughout this work, like his books on ritual in Venice and early modern Europe, Muir draws very widely on anthropological theory (of feuding, masculinity): as it is meant for a general audience, influences such as Mikhail Bahktin, Carlo Ginzburg, and Le Roy Ladurie are now in the background.
In the Author's Note, Muir mentions a recent study of the same events by Furio Bianco. As Muir says, "they agree more than they disagree" (p. xi), but I want to mention a difference of emphasis. Bianco focuses more on the souring of social relations in the countryside and the worsening material conditions of life. He attributes much of the peasants' fierce hostility to the castellan nobility to their conviction that these lords were infringing and undermining "popular norms of justice": so peasants were reasserting custom and ancient social norms to safeguard the common good against change. This perhaps meshes with Muir's evidence that vendetta violence disappeared in the countryside in favor of highly selective plundering (p. 107) and that rent-rolls and other seigneurial records were systematically burnt (p. 100).
The reader's edition should be welcomed by students, as well as anyone with an interest in Italian history. Professor Muir has made an important, original and thought-provoking contribution even more accessible.
. Furio Bianco, 1511, La "crudel zobia grassa": Rivolte contadine e faide nobiliari in Friuli tra '400 e '500 (Pordenone, 1995).
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Jo Wheeler. Review of Muir, Edward, Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta in Renaissance Italy.
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