English assemblies and Arab dictators

This is partly a discussion of a recent IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar, Levi Roach’s ‘Stating the obvious? Rituals, assemblies and the Anglo-Saxon state, 871-978’, but it also swerves off into some broader thoughts on states generally. Levi’s paper, which I enjoyed a lot, was an attempt to apply Gerd Althoff’s ideas about the importance of ritual and symbolic communication to the Anglo-Saxon evidence. Levi’s isn’t the first attempt to transfer these theories from the Ottonian period that Althoff focuses on to English history. I remember a paper by Julia Barrow at the IHR from 2001, which included Julia demonstrating ritual gestures towards Paul Fouracre (and which was later published as Julia Barrow, “Demonstrative Behaviour and Political Communication in Later Anglo-Saxon England”. Anglo-Saxon England, 36 (2007), 127-150).

While Julia’s article was focusing on particular types of ‘emotional’ behaviour and their possible changes over time, the main body of Levi’s paper was examining specific descriptions of rituals at assemblies, for example, those described by Byrhtferth in the Vita Oswaldi and the Vita S. Ecgwini. We also got the immensely symbolic and very entertaining account from the B Vita S. Dunstani about Eadwig abandoning his coronation feast to sleep with his wife and mother-in-law. Julia mentions this in her article (pp. 142-143), but Levi brought out some of the gendered aspects more, and also the wonderful touch that Dunstan found Eadwig’s crown on the floor, emphasising how much the story was about blackening Eadwig’s name by showing him inverting correct behaviour and neglecting the kingdom. Other rituals that Althoff has talked about: the adventus, feasting, intercession, are also visible in the sources.

Levi was thus able to demonstrate that although the sources are a lot thinner for Anglo-Saxon rituals and symbolic communication than Ottonian ones, they do exist. But what interested me most was when he took this a step beyond Julia’s argument, and asked the question about what this meant for our view of the Anglo-Saxon state. These rituals were a real feature of contemporary politics, but enthusiasts for the idea of the Anglo-Saxon state, such as James Campbell, have tended not to see them as central. Similarly, Patrick Wormald saw charisma as a secondary gloss on effective government. This, after all, is one of the conclusions that could be drawn from the Ottonian use of ritual: that the Ottonians had this instead of state structures. But why then, did the Anglo-Saxon sources (and the Carolingian ones, as Jinty Nelson has in the past pointed out) also spend time discussing such matters?

As Levi pointed out, a view contrasting charisma and effective government is already found in Weber’s functionalist view of charisma, and he also quoted Philippe Buc on the ambiguous relation of the post-Reformation world to rituals. Levi, however, drew on Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘Theory of Practice’ to argue that there are different kinds of capital: economic and symbolic capital, and that in precapitalist societies, leaders need both forms of capital, with symbolic capital being used as credit, a pledge of future economic capital. Expensive ways of gaining prestige, such as feasting, are then a way of converting economic capital into symbolic capital. In this view, rituals aren’t a sign of a minimalist state, but a way of mobilizing relationships. Levi concluded with a plea for us to think seriously about how we model the state, because ‘the state is not obvious’.

In the spirit of that call to model the state, I now want to connect up early medieval societies to current Arab dictatorships, and argue that the most basic resource that any leader of a polity needs isn’t land or wealth, it’s the consent of his (or more rarely her) army (or at least the leaders of it). Without that, as President Mubarak found, even a dictatorship collapses.

In the modern world, that isn’t necessarily enough. I argued once, wrongly, on this blog that ‘people power’ in revolutions had had its day. But, in fact, there are limits to what a conventional army can do to put down a revolt, especially in large urban areas, as discussed entertainingly by Daniel Davies (scroll down to the post from Feb 2nd on ‘Arseholes, considered as a strategic resource’, in which he argues the importance to modern dictators of a reactionary citizens’ militia to counter the revolutionary citizens’ militia). But until you get large and well-organised peasant/lower class movements, a small but well-armed force of cavalry can normally coerce them.

However, even if you are in possession of a small but well-armed force of cavalry, (or indeed a Praetorian Guard or the whole Roman army), the question is, how do you stop them turning on you and killing you? Even if you’re the best fighter in the kingdom, there are more of them than you. Financial rewards are one obvious method, but what’s to stop them just killing you and then taking your money or land? The safety of a leader, even a dictator, thus ultimately depends on the consent of at least some of his followers (a large and violent enough part to keep usurpers and rebels down). This, I would say, is one of the reasons that female rulers are rare in the premodern world.

There are lots of ways of gaining this consent, of course, and I don’t want to underestimate the importance of wealth, but it’s not the only common method. A shared hatred of some other group can be an important bonding factor between a ruler and his close followers, magnates etc, as can ethnic/tribal/familial identity. Or you can have armies/bodyguards of ‘outsiders’ (slaves, eunuchs, criminals), who stick with you because they have no other social support. But rituals and other forms of symbolic communication are also very important. They demonstrate community (who is in the ‘in-group’, who matters), while also emphasising hierarchy, that the ruler is the most important. The power of any ruler, I would argue, rests ultimately on sufficient confidence by key people that they are justified in obeying his/her orders. All the state structures in the world aren’t enough to maintain a polity otherwise, as recent events are once again showing.


One thought on “English assemblies and Arab dictators

  1. Seminar XCII: ritualised kingship in later Anglo-Saxon EnglandAfter some weeks of having to miss it, I made a special effort to get to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 2nd March because my occasional collaborator and general knowledge machine Levi Roach was speaking, wit…


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