In another part of the Etymologies, Isidore distinguishes between laws and customs: “a law is a rule for a people … every law either allows something … or it a punishment.”
Modern commentators should not suppose any underlying democratic principle; for the medieval world, the laws of kings were neither more nor less than an expression of rule, and only incidentally a codification of popular values or sentiment.
Laws made power manifest; punishment was the apology required for having offended the person in whom power was invested. Whether applied to this world or envisaged for the next, punishment was only formally represented as a restoration of peace, or an act of justice for those directly harmed by a deed. In practice, punishment was requital for the offence caused a lord, and a lord might harm members of the lower orders with impunity, while savagely punishing the slightest infringement of his own prerogatives. So too the severity of punishment was determined by the degree to which an individual lord was offended by flouting of his instructions. The same model informed description of sin as ‘an offence’ against God, his church or his elect.
Who might or might not be punished, and the degree and type of punishment was determined by political and social weight. It is relevant that we find no Christian king imagined in Dante’s hell. We see there a number of pagan kings, legendary or historical, but only Attila (Inf. XII.135) and Totila – Dante conflates the two in Inf.XIII.135 – are added to their number.
More about Isidore’s view of law, and the influence of his views, when treating Books 2 and 5.
Helen Carrel, The Ideology of Punishment in Late Medieval English Towns’, Social History, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Aug., 2009), pp. 301-320 (JSTOR)
Mark Hagger, ‘Secular Law and Custom in Ducal Normandy, c. 1000-1144’, Speculum, Vol. 85, No. 4 (Oct., 2010), pp. 827-867. (JSTOR)
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