Ive been thinking for a while about a post by Guy Halsall in which he expressed scepticism about the recent emphasis on the consensus model in early medieval politics, and dived briefly into game theory to argue that the struggle for power in the early Middle Ages was in material terms, pretty much a zero-sum game: if you had land/animals, someone else didnt. I dont want to get into arguments about Guys wider point on whether or not an early medieval state existed (which relies crucially on how you define the state). But I do want to think a bit harder about the extent to which the early medieval struggle for power is a zero-sum game, because Ive been arguing in terms of attitudes towards Carolingian masculinity that there is a lot of consensus and co-operation within the elite.
As a technical point, if youre going to argue that its really a zero-sum game, youre saying that there was no growth in resources at all in the early medieval period, which is a very strong statement to make. The material evidence suggests that there is population growth, increasing wealth (as seen in coinage etc). I dont, however, think that this invalidates Guys argument. If economic growth is very slow (and even today, annual GDP growth in the UK can be on the order of 1-2%), for practical purposes, Guy is right that you do have a zero-sum game. You cant easily and quickly recover from serious material losses in battle, for example.
But you can accept that a zero-sum game is a reasonable approximation of the overall situation in one society without that implying that kings and aristocrats necessarily have opposing interests. Partly this is because aristocrats as a group are not a player in this game particular aristocratic individuals/families/collectives, etc are. And also because kings and magnates arent the only players in this game so are individual peasants and peasant collectives. Thats why someone like Chris Wickham, who certainly doesnt believe the early Middle Ages is all sweetness and light can accept the model of consensus politics. It’s just that he sees this as a conspiracy between members of the upper classes in order to oppress the peasants more effectively. (Its certainly noticeable that whenever theres a peasant rebellion later in the Middle Ages, or the early modern period, aristocrats previously at each others’ throats start to co-operate in putting the lower orders back in their place).
Guy, however, is arguing that this alliance between local elites and the central power isnt necessary. Whether or not it’s necessary, I think in some cases we do have evidence that it existed, at least by the Carolingian period. Einhards letters, for example, show how a courtier is able to get favours for his friends from the king, and his letters end up being used as a formulary, which suggests that this is fairly standard practice. But I want to look at consensus from a rather different angle, looking specifically at Guys argument about warfare as a zero-sum game.
Guy makes his point with a simple example:
By way of a hypothetical illustration let us suppose that territory X, a component of Kingdom A, can support 200 warriors from the surplus generated by its land. If access to Territory X is lost by the King of A, either through conquest by Kingdom B or the secession of the local Governor of X, then the King of A loses 200 warriors, whose control is gained either by the King of B or the Governor of X.
This is accurate in as far as it goes: King B gains, King A loses. But in practice, this isnt really how things works. There is always collateral damage in war: so B probably loses at least 5 of his own warriors gaining this land, which may well have been harried enough that its productivity has declined temporarily. In other words, any war is likely to lead to an overall loss of resources.
If you like at it like this, what you have is a classic prisoners dilemma game. The best overall solution (the one that preserves most resources) is if A and B dont fight. But the best solution for either A or B is a successful attack on the other. However, this risks the worst overall solution, which is that you end up with dozens of warriors dead on both sides and the land youre fighting over rendered useless. When you have warfare between two relatively evenly-matched parties, its possible that everyone loses: in that sense its not a zero-sum game.
This doesnt simply apply to warfare, either. In any game with rules, its always preferable if youre allowed to cheat and the other players arent. People are naturally anti-Kantians: they want rules and also want personal exemptions from them. (My ideal library, for example, is neither a reference library, nor a normal lending one, but one from which I and only I am allowed to borrow). But competition between powerful men, is always particularly prone to escalate in destructive ways, whether its potlatches, or spending on political campaigns, or revenge killing.
This is where consensus politics come in. It’s not a fluffy, bunny-hugging hippy idea, but one of a number of tools used to stop powerful men with retinues going for each others’ throats and ripping society apart. The preferred mechanisms vary, according to the polity and the scale involved. ‘Stateless’ societies (such as early medieval Iceland or Patrick Geary’s C11 France) could still have some complex mechanisms for preventing resort to customary vengeance and for dispute settlement more generally. In polities with rulers, other patterns are also visible, such as the ruler as a supposedly neutral arbiter between disputing parties, and there are pre-emptive attempts at bonding, encouraging magnates/warlords to co-operate rather than slaughter one another. The same patterns can sometimes be seen between kingdoms as well, reaching its extreme in the interminable struggles between Carolingian rulers in the second half of the ninth century. Agreement and co-operation between rival rulers wasn’t something that could be expected spontaneously, but instead was something deliberately and laboriously created.
Going back to the game theory aspect, the outcome of the prisoner’s dilemma is very different if you have repeated games. The most effective strategy in any one game is to ‘defect’ (to cheat or resort to violence), but in a repeated game, co-operation (and a limited willingness to forgive others) is more effective. Looked at in this way, consensus politics is an attempt to encourage some co-operation. It’s not surprising that such an attempt wasn’t always successful, given the short-term temptations for individuals of resorting to violence, but in the slightly long term, such a strategy could benefit the ruler and the aristocracy.
Not only did such consensus politics potentially prevent damaging internal conflicts, but co-operation developed within a polity could also provide the military basis for expansion. Agobard of Lyons in 833 (Liber Apologeticus 1-3), criticising Louis the Pious in 833, deplores the preparations being made for civil war:
when the army ought to have been sent against external peoples, and the emperor himself should have fought against barbarian nations, so that he might have subjected them to the faith and extended the boundary of the kingdom of the faithful
Consensus politics in the early Middle Ages, I would argue, never excluded the use of violence. It was just a question of who that violence was used against.