Political culture 2: actors and scales

A very belated second post on the conference I went to in July 2016 on “Political culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins, c. 800-1200”. The first day of the conference revealed to me the wide variety of approaches to looking at political culture, but on the second day I was thinking more about a couple of key questions. Firstly, what did particular forms of political culture allow powerful people to do that they couldn’t easily do otherwise? And secondly, what does studying political culture bring that’s new to political history (which is, after all, one of the oldest historical topics)?

The first paper on the second day was by Charlie Insley under the wonderful title of “Ottonians with pipe rolls? Political culture and performance in late Anglo-Saxon England”. Charlie was bringing Gerd Althoff’s ideas about ritual and symbolism to bear on the Anglo-Saxon world. As Charlie pointed out, he wasn’t the first Anglo-Saxonist to do this, and as I’d already heard Julia Barrow on the topic (and a paper by Levi Roach on the Aethelred charters under discussion), I was familiar with quite a lot of the paper. But it was a handy reminder that we can’t just oppose ritual/performance to literacy/bureaucracy, as Althoff and some English historians have tended to do. And it was also a useful example of what a particular form of political culture could allow you to do: Aethelred was able to make a policy U-turn by drawing on a discourse of penance.

The second paper in the session was by Jonathan Gledhill, talking about work done in association with the People of Medieval Scotland database project. As Jonathan pointed out, while Scotland wasn’t part of the Angevin Empire, it did sometimes experience Angevin power. His theme was also very relevant to the conference: what can you say about political culture when charters are almost the only source you have?

Because of Scotland’s lack of narrative sources and eleventh century charters, historians have tended to lump together the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as one “feudal” period. Jonathan argued that if you look harder you can see differences, between a twelfth-century culture that is starting to formalise and a thirteenth-century one that is formalised. He argued for a very slow process of formalisation and explained what he meant by that. One is that there is a change from “barons” being any political important men who were the king’s friends to men who exercised justice in a particular area (called a “parish”). Secondly, you can see witness lists of charters becoming more hierarchical over time. Jonathan also discussed other changes you could see in charters, for example that later re-grants by a king of a charter might include more specific details, such as the courts that could be held and powers of them.

This paper was an interesting contrast to Charlie’s because it’s starting from a corpus of charters that’s substantially bigger than the late Anglo-Saxon one, but also a lot more standardised. And that affects methodology. Charlie’s essentially looking at charters as special snowflakes, because it’s mostly such big diplomas that survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. Jonathan (and the POMS team generally) have been compiling more bulk data from charters over time and analysing it in new ways (such as by social network analysis) to get a more general overview of Scottish political culture.

In the second session of the day, we went on to ecclesiastical politics and started with Benjamin Pohl talking about a century-long dispute  (c. 1077-1172) between the Abbey of Saint-Étienne de Caen and the bishops of Bayeux. How did a monastery newly founded after 1066 fit into existing diocesan structures? The problems centred on Whitsuntide processions: did such processions in parishes under Saint-Étienne’s control still have to go to the mother church at Bayeux (with every household having to provide a pennyworth of wax as a render)? Both the King of England and the papacy got involved in the dispute at various times and even though some parishes eventually were exempted from the need to process to Bayeux, others still had to make the trip (which could be more than 15 miles each way). As Benjamin pointed out, a clear political message was being sent: despite the prominence of Saint-Étienne, the monks were still politically subordinate to the canons of Bayeux cathedral. Benjamin’s paper neatly pointed out both the political importance of ecclesiastical ritual and that financial and spiritual dues couldn’t easily be separated: the requirement was not just to pay in wax, but to bring it with one.

We stayed in Normandy (and indeed Caen) for the next paper, in which Laura Gathagan talked about Cecelia, eldest daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. The female monastery of Sainte-Trinité in Caen was founded by William and Matilda at the same time as Saint-Étienne and they made Cecilia an oblate there in 1066. Laura reckoned that Holy Trinity was more Matilda’s gift to Cecelia than the other way round and she went on to show the great importance of Cecelia to the monastery, even though she only became abbess in 1113, after more than 40 years there. She was a patron of poets, she regularly travelled to London and she helped negotiate charters for Holy Trinity after the death of her father William the Conqueror. Around 1100, she and the abbess Matilda jointly issues a charter in which Cecelia was referred to as “daughter of the king”. She also carried out several surveys of the monastery’s lands.

What was particularly interesting was her relationship with the abbess Matilda, whom Laura saw as carefully managing her resources, including the most precious resource, Cecelia herself. Indeed Matilda in her old age tried to resign as abbess in Cecelia’s favour, but was forbidden to do so by Anselm of Canterbury. Although Amy Livingstone has warned us to beware of thinking that women holding power were exceptional, Laura thought that Cecelia did look exceptional: her power did not come from any office, but her status as William the Conqueror’s daughter. It was these ties to him and to her brothers that enabled her to win “victories” for the monastery by grants and confirmations that secured their property amid the tumults of post-conquest Normandy.

From the political culture embodied in one woman we moved on to a large number of men.  Stephen Maritt was talking about twelfth-century English archdeacons and their role in political culture. More specifically, he was trying to rehabilitate them from a stereotype of being venal and careerist. Stephen started by pointing out the prominence of archdeacons – we can reconstruct itineraries for most of them and they provided a link between bishops and the king and local societies.

Stephen’s argument was that a lot of the stereotypes about archdeacons came either from reading back Anthony Trollope’s Archdeacon Grantly into the Middle Ages or from overheated rhetoric from the likes of John of Salisbury. In fact most archdeacons didn’t advance beyond that rank: only about 10% made it to bishop (although a comparison with modern academia suggests that poor prospects of success don’t necessarily reduce careerism).Stephen also pointed out that while John of Salisbury might have complained about Archdeacon Walkelin of Suffolk naming his illegitimate children after Pope Hadrian IV, he also wrote friendly letters to Walkelin.

Stephen also gave us some intriguing vignettes of the archdeacon’s role. They might turn up for visitations with vastly excessive retinues (Bridlington priory complained of an archdeacon arriving with 97 horses, 21 hounds and 2 hawks), but some of this excess may have been an effort to enforce their limited authority in county towns (and to help them collect dues, which was not popular). They also had to sort out a lot of nitty-gritty church administration: I enjoyed hearing that Gerald of Wales’ Gemma ecclesiastica includes a discussion of what to do if the priest at communion has used cider instead of wine!

And Stephen’s final point was to stress that archdeacons (who unlike rural deans had to be in major orders) had a sense of their own spiritual identity, often citing Acts 6 on deacons and the example of St Lawrence. Also unlike rural deans, but like bishops and abbots, archdeacons were excepted to have their name as well as their office on their seal.

Archdeacons clearly played an important role and Charlie Insley made an intriguing parallel between the complaints about archdeacons and those by Wulfstan on reeves. These secular and religious officials may have carried out some of the same middleman functions and thus been liable to the same temptations and accusations. Stephen’s wide-ranging and entertaining paper thus showed us some more ways into local politics, a topic that hadn’t really been raised before during the conference.

For the final session, we were back to high politics, starting with Rick Barton on counsel and placita in western France and England, part of a wider project he’s doing on honour and shame in Western France.  Rick was interested in how political culture was formed and changed during assemblies and using narrative sources to explore this. He focused on the text De iniusta vexacione Guillelmi episcopi, which discuss the trial of William of St-Calais, bishop of Durham, by William Rufus in 1088, and its representation of counsel. Concilium is a dominant theme in De iniusta vexacione and Rick was interested in when this happened and also when it didn’t happen. For example, Bishop William was deprived of the counsel of other bishops, but was allowed that of seven knights who came with him from Durham.

All this fed into wider discourses about counsel visible in this and other placita. Some of these are quite general, such as ‘evil counsel’ leading to hostile acts and ‘having taken wiser counsel’ as indicating a change of heart. But there are more specific discourses in De iniusta vexacione: Bishop William could not get the counsel he wanted (from religious, rather than secular men), while he complained that William Rufus had the whole kingdom to counsel him. Bishop William also made a sarcastic gibe at Archbishop Lanfranc: “this old wordsmith knows how to speak too well”. We can see here “counsel” becoming a political weapon, as a way of indirectly claiming an unfair trial. More generally, Rick saw traditions of disputing in De iniusta vexacione that were similar to those in western France, and also noted the primacy of personal relationships in such hearings.

The final paper, by Mark Hagger, remained in the Norman sphere, but focused on ducal Normandy in c. 1000-1135 and the “atmosphere of power” there. Mark started from an interesting quirk of the evidence: there was no ducal chancery before 1135, so all the charters we have were produced by beneficiaries. If you’re careful, Mark argued, you can use these to give us a bottom-up view of ducal power by its users.

These charters show beneficiaries coming a long way (and sometimes travelling to warzones) to gain ducal grants. They don’t say much about the nature of the duke’s rule (although some cheekily have the duke apologising for his previous ill deeds!) Surprisingly, the percentage of charters with petitions drops after 1066, although you might expect more grovelling to kings than dukes. (Mark reckoned that the most elaborate grovel in a charter was by Dudo of St Quentin in 1015).

Anathema clauses were common under dukes Richard and Robert, but died out later. Mark suggested such clauses might imply a lack of trust in dukes and also that whoever pronounced the anathema clause might take the spotlight away from the duke. He cited an act by Duke William for Saint-Ouen in which Archbishop Malger of Rouen pronounces a lengthy and vituperative anathema. Mark saw this as part of a wider pattern of (friendly) competition between beneficiaries, patrons, bishop and the duke himself for credit for the grant, a pattern which may have changed fundamentally after 1066. It’s an intriguing thought for any of us who work on charters for any period or place: do we need to think beyond a simple hierarchical model of giver as acknowledged superior to the recipient?

All the papers I heard over the two days of the conference had their individual points of interest, but I want to finish with three ideas that I think drew them together and might be useful when considering the advantages of studying political culture. One is that the broader definition of political action that cultural history encourages allows for the inclusion of individuals and groups who haven’t traditionally been considered as “political”, such as women and (non-elite) religious.

The other two ideas are more about two contrasting methods for studying political culture. One might be called zooming in. As Martin Aurell pointed out, he’s heard a lot more anthropology over the two days and much less legal history than normal at conferences considering political topics. Sources giving “thick descriptions”, whether they’re charters, liturgical sources or narratives, can provide a lot of important new information. They can get us nearer to the crucial questions about what the political arguments were in a particular situation and why they worked.

But what was also interesting was the contrary approach: zooming out to try and spot overall patterns of action across a group of political actors. At times this was done statistically or using social network analysis (as by Jonathan Gledhill and Mark Hagger). But it could also be combined with thick description, as in Thomas Foerster’s work on gift-giving, Stephen Marritt on archdeacons and my own paper on countesses. It seems to me that it’s this willingness to change scales, combined with a new awareness of who and what counts as “political” that makes the study of political culture an important method of reinvigorating and developing medieval political history.



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