Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Terror victim's body found

Just as my course on Medieval England got up to the reign of Edward II, what should come out in the news but the identification of a medieval corpse at Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire as that of Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger, a great favorite of Edward II, who was executed by "drawing and quartering" in 1326. "Drawing and quartering" was a horrible process which involved disembowlling the victim while still alive, and it was reserved for notable traitors.

The news articles are emphasizing that Edward II was possibly gay and Sir Hugh may have been his lover. In yesterday's lecture I emphasized that Edward was a man constitutionally addicted to listening to and favoring a small number of intimate friends while ignoring everyone else in the kingdom, including his wife and his "natural advisors," the earls and great lords. Sir Hugh and his father of the same name used their position to make themselves rich by plundering the heritages of others' families. This as much as any sexual transgressions made them hated, to the point that Queen Isabelle was able to use their behavior as a reason to overthrow the king in favor of his teenaged son, Edward III.

So why am I calling the greedy and vicious Hugh the Younger a "terror victim?" Note that I didn't say he was an innocent victim of terror. His execution, however, was meant as an object lesson: Lords and gentlemen, don't try to duplicate his illegitimate power! The Telegraph article I linked to above tells readers that he was executed before a "mob," to teach a lesson to the "masses." Well, I think however many people were present, and whatever their station in life, the main lesson was meant for the very restricted political class of England; mere disrespectful nobodies might get in trouble but they would not be given Sir Hugh's elaborate treatment.

Also, I have a problem with the word "mob." Its use implies that the members of it are the scum of the earth. Possibly true, but often not the scum you are thinking of. Many mobs are led by people with big political ambitions, or their direct henchmen, or henchmen of henchmen.

I remember about 20 years ago reading about the Toronto mob that destroyed the print shop of the reform newspaper of William Lyon Mackenzie in the 1830s. That mob was made up of members of the colonial governor's council, or their hangers-on. A zillion similar examples can be found in other eras and places, once one puts away the illusion that "mobs" are made up of opportunistic ordinary criminals.

I'll bet the mob of 1326 was, on average, a really well-dressed group.

Image: A 15th-century depiction of this execution from a ms. of Froissart's Chronicles.

Promoted from comments:

Phil Paine adds:

I recently read a half dozen books on the phenomenon of lynching. It's foundation in political culture rather than "human nature" seemed pretty obvious. During a period in which there were more than 3,000 lynchings recorded in the U.S., there were zero in Canada, and thorough efforts have been made to find them. The only known event was a case where an American probably murdered his wife, then organized a lynch mob to pursue a 14-year-old boy across the border into Canada, where he was tortured and then hanged. Subsequent evidence makes it clear that the boy was a diversionary scapegoat.

What leaps out of the evidence, but seems to escape the notice of the historians, is that time after time it is clear that the "lynch mob" was planned, organized, and lead by a local bigwig --- a wealthy landowner, merchant, or politician. For example, in the case cited above, the leader of the mob was a wealthy local citizen who later became a State Senator. In the west, the typical "classic lynchings" were lead by wealthy cattlemen seeking to dispose of farmers or small ranchers who wouldn't sell their land. The great wave of lynchings in the South, starting in the 1830's, were aimed at shutting down newspapers that might be sympathetic to abolitionism. Lynchings were organized by prominent southerners, and included elaborate expeditions, going hundreds of miles into Northern states to kill free blacks or the editors of abolitionist newspapers. In one case, the "mob" organized an excursion train with reservations, and printed instructions.
Southern pro-slavery newspaper editorials created a systematic myth that these events were spontaneous expressions of "grass-roots democracy" or at least understandable excesses of human nature outraged by fear of crime. Many northern papers accepted this propaganda and echoed it. Few now realize that the Civil War was preceded by decades of terrorist raids on the North, organized by the wealthy elite of the South. That alone made the war inevitable.

Yet in most of the books I read, the authors seemed to ignore their own evidence, and clung to the notion that lynching expressed a spontaneous aspect of human nature, or was a sociological side-effect of the "frontier" and its supposed absence of legal infrastructure.

This delusion ignores the facts that 1) Canada, which was far more of a frontier society than the U.S. during the lynching era, had no lynchings 2) most cases of lynching involved an organized mob breaking into a jail, removing a someone who was in the hands of the law, and killing them, usually after extended torture (burning alive, etc) 3)people who had been found guilty and were going to be executed were lynched just as often as those where the case was not concluded. 4) the heaviest concentration of lynchings was in areas that were far from the frontier, often areas settled for centuries.

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