Strategies of noble expansion in the early Middle Ages

This post has been lurking at the back of my mind for some months, but I’m prompted to bring it forward now by a post at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. Jon Jarrett has been trying again to wrestle with the problem of the ‘Feudal Revolution’, drawing on many of the papers from his recent trip to Kalamazoo, and extensive reading. I, on the other hand, didn’t go to Kalamazoo and have little time currently for keeping up with the literature, so I’m sticking to half-digested management theory. (Anyone who wants to argue at this point that such theories are not applicable because medieval nobles were not economically rational needs to remember recent events).

If modern companies want to expand, they have two main routes to take. One is what is often called organic growth, which is the process of gradually expanding your current business: opening up one extra shop, buying the piece of equipment that will increase your output etc. The alternative is expanding via mergers and acquisitions, where you suddenly take on a whole new area of business. The M&A route can get you big gains quickly, but it’s risky, because you’re moving into unfamiliar territory. Organic growth is slower, but in theory is safer, except that if one of your rivals goes the M&A route and gets a lot bigger, it can then swallow you up.

What does all this have to do with early medieval noblemen? They too want to expand, in the sense of gain more wealth and power. And we can also see two main strategies for how they do this. One focuses on expansion, particularly via war or royal favour. The other is more locally focused, aiming to exploit their current lands and the peasantry on them to the maximum, while gradually buying up or taking over adjacent property. Call these imperial and local strategies.

It’s important, first of all, to notice that it’s hard to combine the two strategies. If you’re spending all your time focused on your local area, you don’t have free time for being at court in the king’s presence, or carrying out the other kinds of networking that you need to gain royal favour. Conversely, if you’re reliant on royal favour, you need to be willing to go where the king wants you. If you’re given charge of the Pannonian frontier, you relocate there, you don’t just stay where your ancestors were. But you then have the fundamental medieval problem of the delegation of power. If someone else is managing your lands for you, and you’re not on the spot, how do you ensure they don’t either rip you off financially or even usurp the land? You can’t easily mix and match the two approaches.

Generally speaking, the local strategy is a conservative one, in the sense of more likely to keep what you already have (whereas king’s favourites can come to very sticky ends). It also fits better with both hereditary office and castles, as I’ll explain in a moment. But first, I want to emphasise one point: that discussions about what (lay) noblemen want too often ignore the anti-Kantian nature of their ideas. Medieval noblemen, like most of us, often really want rules that apply to everyone except themselves, or only to them, not to others. So it’s misleading to say that nobles always wanted offices to be hereditary. They wanted the offices they held to be hereditary, but not necessarily the ones that other men held, because that would make it harder for them to get their hands on those. If offices are becoming hereditary, that suggests an aristocracy worrying more about holding onto their current offices than acquiring new ones, which goes with a local strategy.

Castles are also more effective for a local than an imperial strategy. Castles enable a small number of warriors to dominate a local area, which is handy if you’ve got to terrorise the neighbouring peasants into coughing up higher rent. On the other hand, if you have to delegate control of the castle, because you’re busy on the other side of the kingdom, it’s all easy to come back and find your castellan is now setting himself up as an independent lord. (Modern management may have its problems, but at least if you have an uppity subordinate, you don’t end up having to besiege a branch office to regain control).

So how and why does a nobleman chose between these strategies? Most don’t actually really have a choice, because they’re not important or lucky enough to be able to seek royal favour. They’re stuck with local, seigneurial, strategies. It’s only the higher levels of the nobility that really get a choice, and that depends on a number of factors. Some of them are cultural: as Chris Wickham points out, Merovingian magnates seem to have regarded it as being beneath them to exploit their peasants to the maximum extent. You get more glory (and references in poetry) from plundering than ratcheting up the rent on your tenants by a few pence, even if long-term it’s less financially rewarding.

But there are also practical factors. How much wealth do the rulers have to give (in terms either of war booty or fiscal land)? Are you going to be able to gain royal favour, or are a few families monopolising it? How risky is it to back a particular king at a particular time, especially if your far-flung possessions might end up in another king’s kingdom? Part of any solution of the feudal transformation has to be looking at when and why nobles decide that a local strategy is better than an imperial one. There’s an interesting paper by Regine Le Jan, ‘Le Jan, Régine, ‘L’aristocratie lotharingienne au Xe siècle: structure interne et conscience politique’, in Herrman, Hans-Walter, and Schneider, Reinhard, (eds.), Lotharingia – Eine europäische Kernlandschaft um das Jahr 1000 Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Saarländische Landesgeschichte und Volksforschung, 26, (Saarbrücken : Saarbrücker Druckerei, 1995) , also reprinted in her Femmes, pouvoir et société dans le haut Moyen Age, (Paris: Picard, 2001), which looks at why regional principalities didn’t develop in Lotharingia in the tenth century, when they did in both France and Germany. Sometimes it gets a bit teleological, assuming that Lotharingian nobles simply missed their chances. But she also points out that some families, such as the Reginarids were blocked from developing independent principalities by their close ties to the Ottonians. Other Lotharingian families focused on gaining bishoprics, again tying themselves into imperial structures, rather than locally-based lineages.

What this suggests is that although in the long-term, most nobles would probably end up with a broadly similar strategy to your rivals (if something seems to be working, everyone will pile in), in the short-term, different groups might try different tactics to get a temporary advantage. This is where we get back to Jon’s Königsferne, which I think we again need to understand as anti-Kantian. What such nobles really, really want is a king who is distant from their local rivals, but still accessible to them personally, so that they are the only ones who benefit. In a largely local game, a small amount of an imperial strategy can give you an edge. If we start looking more comparatively at strategies by different families (including in different regions) and the relative success of these families, we might get some interesting clues about why relationships with rulers change.


One thought on “Strategies of noble expansion in the early Middle Ages

  1. <applauds mightily&rt;

    Firstly, OMG WRITE THIS UP and fling it at Journal for Interdisciplinary History or someone, it should be out there. It also seems to match quite well with an old discussion we had here about whether the nobles of the supposed Transformation really know they’ve never had it so good; if the competition at the local level is getting tougher that may encourage retrenchment and presence on the lands and the sort of strategies that you here categorise as conservative. The result of this, if that competition came first, would still be Lemarignier’s empty court, and there might be very little even an able king could do. So I think this may have more explanatory power than you have so far allowed!

    Secondly, the comparative approach. Aha! Would you like to see this year’s Leeds paper? Indeed, are you coming to hear it? It will start that hare. As so often, our thinking seems to be very close on this…


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