are a societal phenomenon
that essentially amounts to a government facilitated, codified system of assassination
The basic system works like this:
- Somebody kills your (usually male) relative, or someone your family was honor-bound to protect.
- You (assuming you are male) become honor-bound to find this man and kill him.
- You kill him.
- One of that man's relatives becomes honor-bound to find and kill you. This continues until the families die out.
Depending on the exact society the blood feud is found in, there may be assorted fees that must be paid to the government, blood money.
For example, in Ismail Kadare's novel Broken April, set in the plateaus of rural Albania, the main character, Gjorg, must travel to the castle of the prince to pay the "blood tax" for killing his mark.
Blood feud systems provide an official code for the purpose of taking revenge. Industrialized nations tend to replace this system with a legal system to provide "justice," whereby the government works out methods of revenge-taking for citizens who prove their case.
In law professor William Ian Miller's book Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, the blood feud system of medieval Iceland is examined in a legalistic way. Although most of us would prefer to think that a blood feud society is a result of a simplistic, perhaps near-anarchistic legal code, the notion could hardly be more false. Medieval Iceland had thousands of laws covering all aspects of society, and woven throughout almost every section of the legal code are rules of how the blood feud affects and is affected by that part of life. Icelanders took great pride in their system of laws, and they were the only medieval European nation without a monarchy (which terribly upset the rest of Europe).
Here then, are professor Miller's observations on Icelandic blood feud:
- Feud is a relationship (hostile) between two groups.
- Unlike ad hoc revenge killing that can be an individual matter; feuding involves groups that can be recruited by any number of principles, among which kinship, vicinage, household or clientage are most usual.
- Unlike war, feud does not involve relatively large mobilizations, but only occasional musterings for limited purposes. Violence is controlled; casualties rarely reach double digits in any single encounter.
- Feud involves collective liability. The target need not be the actual wrongdoer, nor, for that matter need the vengeance-taker be the person most wronged.
- A notion of exchange governs the process, a kind of my-turn/your-turn rhythm, with offensive and defensive positions alternating after each confrontation.
- As a corollary to the preceding item, people keep score.
- People who feud tend to believe that honor and affronts to it are the prime motivators of hostilities. Cross-culturally, there appears to be a correlation between the existence of feud and culture of honor.
- Feud is governed by norms that limit the class of possible expiators and the appropriatenesses of responses. For instance, most feuding cultures recognize a rough rule of equivalence in riposte, the lex talionis being but one example.
- There are culturally acceptable means for making temporary or permanent settlements of hostility.