It is difficult to put down this rich and insightful examination of pardon letters from the Burgundian Netherlands. Readers will learn of tavern brawls, of noble quarrels, and of domestic disputes. People young and old across the entire social spectrum are documented in these letters—men and women, individuals, and collectivities. The authors provide rich detail and gripping narration within a nuanced methodological framework, incluing translations of the main letters discussed at the end of each chapter. The introduction references, most notably, Davis’ Fiction in the Archives.1 The authors are clear about how their work contributes to hers: Whereas Davis, with brilliant literary-inflected insight, uncovered the narrative and legally conditioned strategies that shaped the presentation of events in pardon letters, Arnade and Prevenier bring this same attentiveness to a broader tapestry of social life. The stories told by the supplicants in their book are influenced not only by the requirements of a legal system but also by the social networks that enveloped it.
The authors accordingly show how each letter writer attempted to create an “effet de réel,” and what these effects of realism can reveal about wider social patterns. The letters allow those who are traditionally voiceless in the historical record to speak their piece—among them a street musician, who played the rebec (47), and a prostitute, who, according to a supplicant, had been rescued from a life of sin by a traveling actor who invited her to join his troupe (173–221). The letters are also rich sources for those interested in the history of emotions. From the perspective of Rosenwein’s interest in emotional communities and emotional repertoires, the very constructedness of these letters is telling.2 Arnade and Prevenier comment on the repeated reference to “hot anger” as a mitigating factor in the appeal, and provide insights into topics that have traditionally alarmed historians—for example, romantic love, which the letters deploy to elicit sympathy and to justify an elopement (193–194). Although women were rarely supplicants, the letters also afford insights into gendered relations, which Arnade and Prevenier convincingly interweave with literary sources, such as the Cent nouvelles nouvelles, or pictorial sources, such as Hans Memling’s depiction of an abducted widow named Anna Willemszoon, treating similar motifs.
The authors uncover the rich layering of aims and voices in these letters. Unsurprisingly, rulers often resorted to pardon letters as political tools. More striking is the fact that sometimes this gambit worked not in favor of the socially elite but the supposedly weaker party: Strategies were complex; the interweaving of political tensions, social unease, and interpersonal conflict could lead to unpredictable results. Moreover, these strategies sometimes involved contradictions, underscoring just how malleable narrative can be. In the case of his abduction of a young woman who formed part of his acting troupe, Mathieu Cricke pleaded for pardon on the grounds that he had rescued her from a life of prostitution and later claimed that his actions could not be construed as rape since she was a prostitute (190). Cricke's story, complex and contradictory, epitomizes the structural, narrative, and legal constraints that some extremely resourceful individuals were able to manipulate.
Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford, 1987).
Barbara Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, 2006).