Fighting Words and Wounded Honor in Late-Fourteenth-Century France

  • Penelope D. Johnson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Even when our mothers told us to chant that as a defense against schoolyard formenters who were calling us names, we knew it really was not so; words could hurt us. In the modern world, insults and demeaning epithets caused pain when we were children and may well still smart in our adult years.1 But in the last quarter of the fourteenth century in France they not only could hurt, they most often did hurt, even proving deadly. Verbal assaults could force a man to defend his honor, as they did a certain Geoffrey Guerre, who killed his neighbor Martin Garem for making insulting remarks.2 Geoffrey was not behaving in an unusual fashion; most of his contemporaries would have agreed that certain language was beyond the pale of acceptable discourse and required a person to retaliate with violent means.


Fourteenth Century Verbal Violence False Friend Violent Response Outrageous Comment 
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  1. 3.
    For this project, I worked with pardon documents from the last quarter of the fourteenth century, 1376–1398, that is the registers from that of Paris, AN, JJ 109 of 1376 through the register of Paris, AN, JJ 154 of 1398. The most important work that has been done on pardons is the magisterial study of Claude Gauvard, “De Grace Especial”: état et société en France à la fin du Moyen Age (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1991).Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Natalie Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), pp. 28–37.Google Scholar
  3. 12.
    John Peristiany, “Introduction,” in Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, ed. John G. Peristiany (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966), p. 11.Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    For example, fights over wagers, rules, and decisions within sports and games often generated trouble. Jean-Michel Mehl, Les jeux au royaume de France: du XIIIe au début du XVIe siècle (Mesnil-sur-1’Estrée: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1990), p. 298.Google Scholar
  5. 23.
    see Lester K. Little, Benedictine Maledictions: Liturgical Cursing in Romanesque France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993). See Gauvard,“De Grace Especial”, pp. 807–812.Google Scholar
  6. 48.
    See Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, repr. 1987).Google Scholar
  7. 49.
    Matthew Strickland, War and Chivalry (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  8. 57.
    Claude Gauvard, “Grâce et exécution capitale: les deux visages de la justice royale Française à la fin du Moyen Age,” in Bibliothèque de l’ Ecole des chartes 153.2 (Paris: Librairie Droz, 1995), p. 281.Google Scholar

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© Stephanie Hayes-Healy 2005

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  • Penelope D. Johnson

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