A Blegging Blog about Blood in Bologna

This post concerns an old and much-cited legal chestnut that I have come to think might be more profound (and more tied to “law and religion”) than first appears.  It is also a bleg — a request for help from anyone out there with some expertise in medieval law or medieval Latin, or both.

William Blackstone, in his discussion of statutory interpretation in his Commentaries (first published 1765-69), refers to

the Bolognian law, mentioned by Puffendorf [sic], which enacted “that whoever drew blood in the streets should be punished with the utmost severity,” [and] was held after long debate not to extend to the surgeon, who opened the vein of a person that fell down in the street with a fit.

The point here, of course, is that words should not be read literally if that would give them “a very absurd signification.”

Blackstone’s source, Samuel von Pufendorf, discusses this “case” in his “Law of Nature and Nations,” first published in 1672, and Pufendorf in turn cites a 1516 digest of legal arguments by Nicholas Everhard (aka Everardi, Everts, and several other names).   Pufendorf, for example, adds that the defendant “was in no little peril because it was added in the statute that the words should be taken exactly and without any interpretation.”  Everhard leaves out that tidbit, but does spin out the legal argument at greater length, and emphasizes that punishing the healer would be “absurd and inhuman,” not merely “absurd.”

Now, my intuition tells me that there’s more to this odd tale than meets the modern eye.   Continue reading

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