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Vendetta (Summer 1999)

1) Introduction

Over the twenty years of its history the IAHCCJ has addressed the question of violence and infra-justice on several occasions. During such instances the issue of vendetta and blood feud have often been touched upon, but they have never constituted the precise focus of the meeting. The aim of this colloque is to explore different historical manifestations of vendetta drawing on anthropological as well as historical expertise.

2) The Issue

What is vendetta ? The definition presented in different, classic dictionaries are much the same :

a) A family blood-feud, usually of a hereditary nature, as customary among the inhabitants of Corsica and parts of Italy

b) A similar blood-feud, or prosecution of private revenge, in other communities.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

(mot italo-corse de même sens, lat. vindicta, vengeance, punition...)

Coutume corse qui veut qu'un meurtre ou une offense grave engage d'honneur – la famille de la victime à poursuivre la vengeance de la faute par le meurtre du coupable, créant de longues inimitiés entre des familles...

(Le Grand Larousse)

  • 1  Stephen Wilson, Feuding, Conflict and Banditry in Nineteenth-Century, Corsica, Cambridge : Cambrid (...)

Both of these definitions draw attention to the Corsican example, and this has recently been thoroughly explored by Stephen Wilson1 but they also point to other examples and the words « custom », « prosecution of private revenge », « vengeance », « honneur » imply parallels with other issues that are central to debates among historians of crime and criminal justice as well as among anthropologists.

How far, for example, might vendetta be perceived as a form of infrajustice or community-condoned justice ? Exploring this issue would benefit from explanations of both the causes and course of such phenomena in different geographical contexts and different time periods. Wilson has described the rituals of Corsican vendetta – the preservation of bloodstained clothing, letting hair and beards grow – and the rules – no attacks on women and children. How common were such rituals and rules ? How commonly were they breached and what was the effect of such breaches ?

The popular assumption of linear development in history has encouraged the belief that vendetta has been rooted in rural societies at a particular stage of their development. Few academic historians would now accept such a simple explanation of linear development, so what explanations may be advanced for the persistence of vendetta in rural southern Europe ? The practices of some indigenous peoples appear to have confirmed beliefs about linear development among European imperial powers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the Maori practice of utu and the preparedness of the Inuit to kill offenders offer two such examples. But can such practices be equated with vendetta or does this obscure other meanings ?

  • 2  Richard Cobb, Les armées révolutionnaires, instrument de la Terreur dans les départements, avril 1 (...)
  • 3  M. J. Broers, Révolution as Vendetta : Napoleonic Piedmont, Historical Journal, 1990, 33, p. 573-9 (...)
  • 4  Anton Block, The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1860-1960 : A Study of Violent Peasant Entrepreneurs (...)

The evidence suggests that state law has had difficulty in suppressing vendetta in Mediterranean countries and in colonial territories. But has the phenomenon been able to continue under other guises within « modernised » societies ? Richard Cobb showed how, in some communities, the politics of the French Revolution enabled the perpetuation of long-standing feuds2. Michael Broers has shown this happening with vendetta in revolutionary Piedmont3, and Anton Blok's work suggests that feud, politics and mafia became inextricably linked in nineteenth-century Sicily4. Might this also be the case beyond the Mediterranean in the twentieth century ? Moreover, in some instances, might the state itself pursue vendettas ?

3) The Programme

Provisionally the colloquium is to be organised around four sessions as follows :

i) Classic vendetta : the early modern period

ii) Classic vendetta : the modern mediterranean world

iii) The violence of « primitive » peoples

iv) Vendetta and modern politics

The Mediterranean will probably be the focus of the first two sessions. The first will clearly need to explore vendetta in the Italian city state as well as within peasant communities. The second will, provisionally, include investigations on vendetta in nineteenth-century Greece and among the Adygs of the Caucasus in the mid-twentieth century. Session three will explore vendetta-type behaviour among the indigenous peoples of North America and Australasia at the time of European conquest, and the conquerors' responses. The final session will address how far modern politics, since roughly the period of the French Revolution, has provided a cover for the continuation of vendetta and feud ; a case study has been proposed, for example, on the way in which violent party politics subsumed village feuds in East Prussia during the inter-war period.

4) Publications plans

A leading publishing house in the USA has already expressed interest in a volume.

5) Contact

Proposals for papers should be sent to :

Professor Clive Emsley
Department of History
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA - U.K.

The conference will be held in France or Germany. The number of participants will be limited to about 15 – Participants will be accomodated but must provide their own fare.

Crime : texts and contexts (Summer 2001)

To those of us who study the history of crime it is clear that the volume of recent work has increased dramatically. Accounts of criminal acts, celebrated trials, patterns of punishment, and long term trends have become a significant and creative aspect of contemporary historical studies on both sides of the Atlantic, reflecting both contemporary concerns and a wider approach to the subject generally. As scholars in the field we participate in a growing number of conference sessions, review an increasing body of literature, and supervise new graduate work. But whatever our specific subject, and regardless of whether we focus on a specific period, event, or place, or on the larger questions of mutual interest and concern – the significance of long term crime rates, the relationship between crime and urbanization, the role of the state, etc. – we are all aware that the history of crime is not an end in itself : it serves as part of a larger enterprise on the history of culture and society. And as this body of new scholarship develops, it is also clear that as historians we view the sources we use with increased scrutiny and sensitivity to both content and form. Whether we interpret literary works – execution sermons, crime and trial narratives, newspaper stories, or police reports – or numerical data subsumed in similar materials, we examine these texts closely, analyzing them not only for the information they yield, but the way they convey that information, for whom it was originally addressed, for what purpose it was intended, and how it was ultimately used. Questions about a document's assumed or intended audience and emotional effect have become as important as determining its social and political consequences, or the historical context in which it was framed. Consequently, concern about rhetoric, narrative, and the politics of literary production, once the territory of literary critics and students of intellectual history, have become well integrated aspects of historical studies as we inquire more deeply into both the texts through which criminal events are made known and documented (police reports, newspapers, trial and court proceedings), as well as those they in turn produce (legislative debates and laws, medical and psychiatric tracts, etc.).

Taking this general attention to crime discourse one step further, some scholars have forged an approach to the history of crime which is quite consciously grounded in both social history, with its traditional attention to issues of class, race, gender and ethnicity, and cultural studies, with its attention to the interpretation of texts, the importance of cultural patterns, layers of meaning and the significance of multiple discourses. A significant feature of this work is the way it focuses in on the history of specific crimes or criminal events (particularly those identified as celebrated or notable crimes), using them as cultural texts. In turn, these texts serve as useful vehicles for understandinq a wide range of historical issues, both at a particular moment in time and over the long term. This scholarly work merely reinforces, and even reinvents, what mystery and crime writers since Edgar Allan Poe have always understood : crime reveals much about a society's values, tensions, and culture.

Some of this recent work focuses on the representations of crime in a particular genre of crime literature : Daniel Cohen's, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace : New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 and Karen Halttunen's forthcoming Murder and the Gothic Imagination in American Culture both evaluate American eighteenth- and nineteenth-century execution sermons and murder narratives. Other work studies the variety of representations that narrate a particular crime : Sean Wilentz and Paul Johnson's, The Kingdom of Matthias : A Study of Sex and Salvation in Nineteenth Century New York ; Simon Shama's Dead Certainties ; Amy G. Srebnick's, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers : Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York. In these studies, as in other work which analyzes the history of representations of crime, the event itself becomes a mechanism for understanding mentalites or historical /cultural transformations over time. Thus Cohen is concerned with the genesis of sentimental and commercial culture, Halttunen, with the emergence of a humanitarian sensibility, and my work with the history of gender and modernity in urban culture. In English studies, Vic Gatrell (The Hanging Tree : Execution and the English People, 1770-1868) has similarly suggested that his study of England's Bloody Code is in fact a study in the history of emotions.

What unifies this new scholarship is its often creative use of a variety of sources, literary and non-literary ; its attention to different modes of discourse, including those of both an official and unofficial nature ; and its careful consideration of the relationship between text and context. Indeed, it is the last that locates this historical work as significantly interdisciplinary ; it draws upon the analytic categories and techniques of the social sciences – especially sociology and anthropology – as well as those of literary studies and cultural analysis. In the United States there has been a virtual explosion of such work by both recognized scholars (Sean Wilentz, Simon Shama, Karen Halttunen, Barbara Hanawalt, Allen Steinberg, etc.) and graduate students. While the former tend to be almost exclusively historians, the latter come from a variety of disciplines and interdisciplinary fields-literature and cultural studies, critical legal studies, women's studies, etc.

Given this new emphasis in crime studies, it seems timely to propose a conference to discuss :

1) crime and criminal events as cultural and social texts, and

2) the historical discourses on which such studies rely.

Tentatively called « Crime : Texts and Contexts », the conference would focus, not on one particular form of crime discourse – medical or legal say – but on the integration of different discourses and representations as mechanisms for writing the social and cultural history of crime, and for historical analysis generally.


The conference will be held in summer 2001 in France or Italy and participation will be limited to about 20 persons.

Proposals for papers should be sent to :

Professor Amy Gilman Srebnick
Department of History
Montclair State University
Upper Montclair, New Jersey 07043 – USA
Email :


Professor Clive Emsley
Department of History
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA - U.K.
Email :


1  Stephen Wilson, Feuding, Conflict and Banditry in Nineteenth-Century, Corsica, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1988 ; idem, Feuding, patronage and the courts in nineenth-century Corsica, in Xavier Rousseaux et René Lévy, (Eds.), Le pénal dans tous ses États. Justice, États et sociétés en Europe (XIIe-XXe siècles), Bruxelles, Publications des Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis, 1997.

2  Richard Cobb, Les armées révolutionnaires, instrument de la Terreur dans les départements, avril 1793-floréal, an II, 2 vols, Paris, Mouton, 1961-1963.

3  M. J. Broers, Révolution as Vendetta : Napoleonic Piedmont, Historical Journal, 1990, 33, p. 573-97 and 878-809.

4  Anton Block, The Mafia of a Sicilian Village, 1860-1960 : A Study of Violent Peasant Entrepreneurs, Prospect Heights, ICC, Waveland Press, 1974.

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