Medieval political culture 1: let a hundred flowers bloom

This is my first report on the conference I went to in Manchester in July 2016 on “Political culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins, c. 800-1200”. One of the things that struck me during the conference was how wide a range of topics could plausibly come together under that theme. Usefully, Martin Aurell, during the keynote speech, described political culture as being about the ‘atmosphere of power’, not just political structures and institutions, but how politics was performed. Katy Dutton* had already pointed out one small example: how between 1090-1150 in Anjou royal and comital acts moved away from the king or count’s children acting as co-signers or consenters. Katy argued that the ending of this tradition of including children, which he saw as an assurance of continuity, wasn’t just as bureaucratic change, but affected the experience of ruling and being ruled.

Martin’s main focus was on the turbulent events of 1773-1774, when several of Henry II’s sons revolted against him. Could descriptions of these events by chroniclers be seen as propaganda or is that an anachronistic term? Although Jürgen Habermas claims that no political space existed before the emergence of the printing press, Jacques Le Goff argued for ‘informal propaganda’ in the Middle Ages, and Martin showed that the chroniclers’ accounts did look like propaganda.

One point that wasn’t raised in the paper or in questions afterwards is whether propaganda needs to be contemporaneous. Should the chroniclers’ work be seen more as after the fact justifications, a political genre that’s very familiar after the Iraq War? However, there’s surely an argument that chroniclers may be writing down arguments that were already circulating in 1173-74, i.e.  that what we have is fossilized propaganda.


Matthew Paris’ picture of kings from Henry II to Henry III

Martin’s interest was anthropological, looking not at possible structural reasons for the revolt, such as magnates’ reaction to the reinforcement of royal administration, but at what the chronicles themselves talked about, focusing on a series of images. Some are expected: the revolot of sons against their father as being the insanity of a revolt “against nature”; Eleanor of Aquitaine refusing to submit to her husband as she should. But there were also other narratives possible, such as justifications of Henry the Younger attacking the “avaricious” Henry II, or stories about the harmful effects of previous transgressions by the Angevin family (for example the claim that Eleanor had fornicated with Geoffrey of Anjou, before marrying Geoffrey’s son Henry). In the same way, as well as familiar colonial narratives contrasting civilised English to barbarous and bloodthirsty Scots and Welsh, there are positive depictions of Welsh warriors fighting on the “right” side. And while some chroniclers invoked the effect of the murdered Christian saint Thomas Becket on events, Gerald of Wales quoted Merlin’s pagan prophecies.

These varied perspectives support the idea of chronicles as propaganda, manipulating significant images (often Biblically-inspired) to support a particular side in the conflict. Martin’s final point was about the key role of fidelity as a value in this propaganda. The stress in the sources was on personal bonds of faith and fidelity, not on more abstract ideas of kingship or monarchy. To the twelfth and thirteenth-century chroniclers at least, the political was still personal.

After Martin’s paper we had Stephen Church on another aspect of Henry II’s reign. Stephen was focusing tightly on one small fragment of political culture: Prince John being called “dominus Hiberni” in charters from 1185. Stephen was arguing against Rees Davies, among others, who had seen this title as some distinctive form of dominion. Stephen argued from other examples that in fact it was the normal title of a king who had not yet been formally crowned.

From this very focused case-study, we went to a much broader view, by Thomas Foerster on “Plantagenet and European traditions of gift exchange in the late twelfth century”. Thomas argued for two different traditions, which he saw colliding in 1198, during the Third Crusade, when Richard I and King Tancred of Sicily made peace. On the first day, Tancred gave Richard rich gifts and would accept only the token countergift of a little ring. On the second day, however, Richard gave King Arthur’s sword to Tancred.

Thomas saw Tancred as acting within a Mediterranean/Byzantine tradition of lavish gift-giving, emphasising the incomparable wealth of the ruler. In contrast, English sources of the period have less to say on gift-giving and often regard it negatively as a sign of greed and corruption. (Nevertheless, they show Richard triumphing over Tancred in the gift-giving via a more culturally prestigious gift; the Sicilian sources don’t mention Arthur’s sword).

In questions, some of us raised the chronology of this proposed northern/southern European split (Thomas wondered if it was linked to Tim Reuter’s butter/olive oil line). There’s certainly an Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian tradition of rulers giving lavish gifts. Thomas thought the change came around 1100, when there was new emphasis on the humility of kings in gift-giving in more northern sources, (which he linked to chivalry)and less of an emphasis on the king standing out from all others. If Thomas is right about this pattern, it’s a useful example of how a specifically political culture can be influenced by wider cultural changes, such as the rise of chivalry.

After lunch, we had a session on gender history. I argued that countesses in the tenth century were able to carry out actions that they hadn’t been able to under the Carolingians (developing an argument I first made on this blog a number of years ago). I also in passing coined what became one of the key phrases in the conference, when in discussing the origins of the term “political culture”, when I referred to it as the “squidgy bits” in-between the normal nuts and bolts of political systems.

Amy Livingstone, meanwhile, talked about the twelfth-century Breton countess Ermengarde (wife of Alan IV), arguing that neither she nor twelfth-century Brittany was as marginal as conventionally thought. Amy is writing a biography of Ermengarde, who was noted for her religious patronage. In one sense her research might be seen as part of mainstream political history, but I think there are good reasons for including her research in a study of political culture. Ermengarde’s political role, like those of many “lordly women” has been underestimated by earlier research because of their underlying assumptions about medieval political culture. Part of the deliberate study of political culture should be to shine a spotlight on cultural assumptions made by previous generations of scholars.

The final session of the day looked at crusading culture. Natasha Hodgson talked about clerical masculinity on the First Crusade. There’s been a lot of recent interest in Crusade masculinity, but Natasha saw previous studies as focusing on investigating a single model of the ideal crusader. In contrast, Natasha was arguing for a variety of masculine models and using the example of Arnulf of Chocques, briefly the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Arnulf was a controversial figure, the son of a Flemish priest who rose because of his scholarship and preaching ability, but also his relationship to powerful individuals such as Odo of Bayeux, whose wealth he inherited. Natasha pointed out how often writers contrasted Arnulf with other men, implicitly setting up a variety of standards of masculinity. For example, in a debate in 1099 between Arnulf and Tancred, Arnulf stressed his own role in the success of the crusade and complained about Tancred despoiling the Temple of Solomon. Tancred in response said that as a mere soldier he lacked Arnulf’s eloquence: Arnulf’s strength was in his tongue, like a scorpion.

Natasha’s point about the opportunities for social mobility offered by the crusades was one that hadn’t occurred to me before, but her paper indirectly raised wider questions about the nature of ‘political culture’. Clearly there was politics going on within the Crusade armies themselves and in the Crusader States, but how does that relate to wider European political culture? And how does a model of political culture originally developed in the era of nation states deal with political entities such as the papacy?

The final paper of the day was by Jamie Doherty on “The Holy Land in the charters of the twelfth-century counts of Champagne”. There’s been increasing interest in using charters to look at political culture, because they potentially allow us to get nearer the perspective of individual rulers than narrative sources normally allow. Jamie was interested in how crusading could be used to gain cultural capital, and get a laugh for a reference to “the itinerant boasting campaign of William of Aquitaine after 1101”.

Jamie’s paper focused on two counts of Champagne, Hugh of Troyes and Henry the Liberal, who both led independent crusades (i.e. not connected to the main numbered ones). Despite issues about scribal versus issuer intent, Jamie argued that you can sometimes see the counts “performing crusader status”, e.g. when it’s explicitly mentioned that Hugh is confirming a number of acts before going on crusade, or Henry publicly states that he’ll deal with a dispute in Dijon when he returns from crusade.

This crusade performance may have spread lower down the social scale: twice in Hugh’s witness lists there’s a witness called “Bovo of Holy Sepulchre”. Jamie thought that it was too early for him to be a settler in the East, but that instead Bovo may have sworn himself to the Holy Sepulchre and continued to use that as an identification. In the comments afterwards, Charlie Rozier pointed out the key role of reputation in political culture; it would be interesting to consider if there are parallels or differences between how medieval and modern political figures create such reputations.

As my title suggests, I’m not sure there was a particular common thread connecting all the papers together, even though they all struck me as related to political culture. But as a taster of different ways you might approach medieval political culture, I certainly found it valuable.

* Update (10/9/16): I’ve been reminded that it was Katy Dutton who talked about witnessing by children, not Martin Aurell, so have corrected this.





One thought on “Medieval political culture 1: let a hundred flowers bloom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s