Framing the Early Middle Ages 2: comparing aristocracies

(This is the second in a series of posts exploring the arguments of Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages chapter by chapter.)

Chris Wickham’s approach to aristocracies (in Chapter 4 of Framing) is a comparative one, as befits his book and he sets it up with a distinctive definition of an aristocrat (p. 153): ‘a member of a (normally landed) political elite, someone who could wield some form of power simply because of who he (or more rarely, she) was’. He adds six different criteria which he sees as particularly important for assessing membership of a broad aristocracy in the period 400-800 (p. 154): ‘distinction of ancestry; landed wealth; position in an official hierarchy; imperial or royal favour…; recognition by other political leaders and lifestyle.’ He adds that although these facets are often related, different cultures tend to privilege some more than others. The rest of the long chapter is an attempt to explore for a number of different early medieval cultures the balance of these factors. In particular, he’s interested in the wealth and scale of aristocracies in different regions, and uses as one of the main criteria for assessing this both the extent of their land-holding (as seen from wills, estate documentation, narratives etc) and also how widespread this land-holding is (whether all the land is concentrated in one city and territory or they have holdings several hundred miles apart).

By concentrating on such questions, alongside more typical questions about relationship to the state and cultural identity, Chris produces insights that are both far more comparative than usual and sometimes genuinely novel. For example, he shows that elites in Francia are untypical of the post-Roman world in their wealth and the extent of their landholding (almost everywhere else, only city-level aristocracies are visible). He uses this to argue against the view either that there was no early Merovingian aristocracy or that it was a purely ‘service aristocracy’ entirely dependent on Merovingian rulers (p 178-184). He identifies a militarization of the aristocracy taking place in many different early medieval societies, from Lombard Italy to the Byzantine heartlands (an issue which needs to be considered more seriously by cultural and gender historians than it has until now).

Chris also has very intriguing things to say about how continuity of landholding and of families need not imply continuity of identity. In a striking comment (p 168) he states: ‘By 800 there is not a single person, anywhere in the former empire, with the sole exception of the Mamikonean and Bagratuni families in Armenia, whose male-line ancestors in 400 are securely known’. (The fact that Chris in a footnote adds a possible parallel with the descendants of Cunedda in north Wales tells you just what a mass of material he has digested for this book). As Chris points out, the lack of continuity is true for places where the aristocracy is ‘old’ (Byzantium, Egypt) as well as ‘new’ (Lombard Italy, Francia): Chris’ argument that aristocracies change in response to cultural changes within the state (p 257), starts to look a lot more plausible with such a comparative view.

Although Chris in theory stops in 800 (and in 750 for Francia), there are also several important insights lurking about slightly later periods: like Byzantine surnames indicating a patrilineal consciousness not seen in the West till several centuries later (p 237) . I was particularly struck by how some of the Frankish material suggests ideas relevant to discussions of the ‘Year 1000’ and ‘feudal mutation’, by implying changing aristocratic strategies. Chris says (p 199-200): ‘aristocratic power was great, but it was fluid, and its quantity was more important than its local coherence or impact, for any magnate who wanted to make a political impression at court…one indeed has the sense that a lord who committed himself to local dominance rather than the king-centred political hierarchy would have been something of a failure’. Those kind of contrasts between localised and centralised strategies of power accumulation (which connect together with the scale of land-holding), seem a very promising way of approaching the changes of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Yet this brilliant use of comparison has one major limitation. Because Chris focuses on the political elite and on evidence from land-holding, he does not in this chapter consider aristocracies in the societies he regards as ‘stateless’: Ireland, England and Denmark. They are dealt with in a later chapter, but for the moment, we have a discussion of aristocracy that is more ‘Roman’ than ‘barbarian’. To look at Francia (and the Visigoths and Lombards) in this way is a revealing change, but it may mean overlooking some continuities between other cultures. But I’ll have to reserve final judgement until I get onto chapter 6. Before that (but after Christmas), I have chapter 5 (50 pages) on agricultural management to consider. Not a topic I’ve found fascinating before, but Chris may be able to show some enlightening broad patterns.


4 thoughts on “Framing the Early Middle Ages 2: comparing aristocracies

  1. some of the Frankish material suggests ideas relevant to discussions of the ‘Year 1000’ and ‘feudal mutation’

    Well, that makes sense as Chris has been arguing for years that it is usual to place that transformation far too late and he would rather site it c. 750, although my sense is that he hasn’t yet actually made this argument in detail in print beyond his `Other Transition’. I agree that the local/central political capital is a key factor, but I also think I got that from Matthew Innes’s State and Society so I don’t think it’s one hundred per cent unused as a technique.


    • In his Past and Present article on the Feudal Revolution, Chris says 800 is the turning point for local aristocratic dominance in Francia, but sees this as informal dominance, with formal practices coming later. But in Framing (p 293) he does see the eleventh century onwards as a time of ‘increasing economic complexity’, so I don’t think he wants to remove Year 1000 entirely.

      There has been a fair bit done on the centre/locality aspect, but Matthew’s work certainly tends to be very focused on what kings do (as does the traditional view of the declining influence of later Carolingians). What Framing keeps on touching on, though doesn’t really discuss in detail, is the factors in the aristocracy that made them want to stay connected to rulers, regardless of how powerful those rulers are. Why didn’t Francia break up into regions in periods of Merovingian weakness? Why did English aristocrats stick close to kings who were accumulating kingdoms, but Welsh aristocrats not do so? We need more subtle models to work out why different aristocrats made different decisions in the same or similar circumstances – why do some of your Catalan counts still suck up to the Carolingians and others ignore them?


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