What can we do with Carolingian honour?

Once again, I have been contemplating the problem of honour in Carolingian society and whether I (or somebody else) ought to be writing about it. Although it’s an issue that’s been touched on by a number of scholars (such as Mayke de Jong), no-one’s made a sustained examination of the topic. And once again, I’ve concluded (as some of my friends, I think, also have), that it would be very difficult getting anywhere with such research, and that I don’t currently want to try.

The problem with looking at Carolingian honour isn’t the methodology. There is already a lot of anthropological, legal and historical work on honour available (possibly too much, although that’s a different issue), which can provide a theoretical framework. This includes work that tries to provide cross-cultural definitions of what ‘honour’ is, such as Frank Henderson Stewart’s Honor (University of Chicago Press, 1994). Stewart also contrasts the two main approaches to describing honour: the lexical and conceptual. The lexical approach (focusing on the analysis of a few key words used in the society) would be fairly straightforward to apply to Carolingian texts, especially given the existence of databases such as the MGH and Patrologia Latina. Admittedly, you would get a lot of false positives from ‘honor’ as meaning benefice or office (although that in itself is revealing of attitudes), but it’s an eminently do-able project technically.

The problem, I suspect, is that the evidence you might find just won’t fit nicely with any model. Even without having done the detailed analysis, my sense is that you can find some clear examples of situations and texts involving a code of honour, but not many. One of the obvious places to look for honour, for example, is as a motive for ‘meaningless’ violence, in the sense of violence that nineteenth (and often twentieth) century historians didn’t think of as justified, but just saw as wanton brutality. The new historical thought, made anthropologically conscious, sees feuds, devastating of territory, violent disputes over seating rights at banquets etc, as closely linked to questions of social status and its regulation, honour etc.

In contrast to similar societies, however (Merovingian, early Scandinavian, post-Carolingian France), there isn’t much ‘meaningless’ violence of this kind shown in Carolingian texts: there’s a lot of violence, but it’s more clearly politically motivated. And nor do we have texts which show us intense, even if non-violent, competition for status between nobles, the sort of texts which lie behind Carlin Barton’s studies of Roman honour or Gerd Althoff’s discussions of Ottonian courts. It’s not that Carolingianists can’t think of parallels to many of the kind of behaviours seen in such discussions. It’s more that we can only ever think of one or two isolated examples.

All this leaves us with the problem of how to characterise Carolingian society. You can conclude either that Carolingian society is the kind of intensely honour/status conscious society that most other early medieval societies seem to be, but then you have to explain why the texts don’t generally reflect this. Or you can say that Carolingian society seems less honour obsessed than parallel societies, as reflected in the texts, and then explain why this is. (My suspicion is that Carolingian rulers were able to divert concerns about nobles’ honour and status so they focused mainly on performance in public warfare, but that’s only an initial guess). I’m not sure that either view is going to fit terribly well within the current paradigms of honour societies; whoever does try and tackle Carolingian honour may end up with some rather unsatisfactory conclusions. But then, if the problem was easy, someone would have done it already.


3 thoughts on “What can we do with Carolingian honour?

  1. I was about to come up with an example of competition for honour, and then saw that you said, we can only ever find one or two examples, and thought, touché. But then you say:

    My suspicion is that Carolingian rulers were able to divert concerns about nobles’ honour and status so they focused mainly on performance in public warfare, but that’s only an initial guess.

    And my example is even better for that; Bernard of Septimania and Berenguer of Toulouse duking it out (ah ha ha) on the Spanish March for control of the war effort there. Competition become outright warfare as it’s crucial for Bernard’s rehabilitation to demonstrate his ability to control the area and crucial for Berenguer’s position at court to be able to stop Bernard…

    Maybe it’s a better approach to avoid trying to answer the question through the term-led question and ask, instead, what is distinctive or characteristic of Carolingian noble behaviour and then query its motives? But didn’t you already do that, in fact…


  2. Next year a very good book will appear at CUP (the Medieval Life and Thought Series) which addresses the issue of Carolingian honour in a most intelligent and stimulating way: CHRISTINA PÖSSEL, RITUAL, TEXT AND POWER IN THE EARLY

    It’s worth waiting for.


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