The Prisoners of Starvation, or Necessitas dat legem

Autumn/Winter 2016
DOI: 10.3898/NEWF:89/90.01.2016

In 1961, the same year that Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth appeared, Gilles Couvreur, a Jesuit, published Les Pauvres ont-ils des droits [Do the poor have rights?]. Couvreur’s work offered a carefully researched examination of the debates within canon law particularly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries concerning the right of those who are starving to steal food. At the heart of these debates is the question of whether the appropriation of food that is the property of another, under circumstances of extreme need, constitutes theft (albeit a theft whose criminality is immediately nullified by the law itself) or whether in such circumstances the legal status of property itself is suspended, in which case the taking of food can no longer be understood as theft. Finally, I examine the legal maxims “need has no law” and “necessity [or need] makes law,” often cited in the period under consideration, to show how the concept of property was subordinated to the imperative of life in a way that appears unthinkable today. 

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New Formations 89/90: Death and the Contemporary