Carolingian honour and its lack

Statue d'Artagnan Paris

(Statue of d’Artagnan by Gustave Doré)

I’ve been worrying away at concepts of Carolingian honour, on and off, for at least fifteen years. It was the theme of a discussion I had the first time I ever met Paul Hyams, for example, many years ago at the International Medieval Congress. He was pointing out that every society has concepts of honour and insults to an individual’s honour. I was trying to put the case, not very coherently, that there was something different about some societies/cultures and their responses to such affronts. The nearest I could get at that point was talking about d’Artagnan at the start of The Three Musketeers, who ends up having to fight duels with Aramis, Athos and Porthos because of him offending each of them in relatively minor ways.

Anyone might be aggrieved by someone knocking into them because they’re in a hurry, or making disrespectful jokes about them, but a fight to the death as a result would seem to most of us an overreaction. More generally, I’d now characterise an honour culture as one in which it is expected by a social group that acts which do not cause physical harm to oneself nevertheless should be responded to with physical violence, sometimes lethal. (This may include responses to physical or verbal attacks on a third party, so that this definition includes codes of chivalry in which a man who fails to protect/revenge physical or verbal “insults” to certain types of women is himself disgraced, as well as cultures which accept or encourage violent reactions to perceived blasphemy).

This isn’t quite the same as a feuding culture, although there is a considerable overlap. I’m taking feuding to mean a situation where an attack on one person is likely to lead to retaliation by the victim’s social group (whether it’s relations, friends, or some other kind of gang/clan etc) against someone from the attacker’s social group and in which this tit-for-tat violence may continue for some time. It’s possible to have an honour culture without feuding: for example, one in which a duel is seen as settling matters once and for all, and there’s no retaliation against a victor, even if he’s killed his opponent. It’s also possible (though I think not common) to have a feuding culture where honour isn’t key, but where instead violence is used largely defensively and not as a first resort.

With these somewhat vague definitions in mind, why am I back to thinking about Carolingian honour? Because I’m reading Gerd Althoff’s biography of Otto III, which takes “honour” for granted as a key to how the king dealt with his circle of confidants. As Althoff puts it (p. 17):

Each ruler had to take the honor of each person in this circle [of confidants] into account. By this is meant the sum of all earned and acquired possessions, offices, abilities and the rank that they conferred. Each ruler had to value each person proportionate to this honor, in other words give preferential treatment, listen, give gifts.

For Althoff, honour is a vital part of the rules of the Ottonian game, reflecting what tenth and early eleventh-century sources say about such matters of etiquette. It’s these sources that mean that Heinrich Fichtenau, in Living in the Tenth Century: Mentalities and Social Orders starts with a long section on ordo and disputes (sometimes violent ones) over status.

The problem for Carolingianists has always been whether the same patterns existed in Carolingian court culture in the period and it’s just that our sources don’t reveal it or whether something different is going on. Coming back to the problem after recently researching political culture, I feel more confident that there is a real difference. Even if eighth and ninth-century narrative sources don’t discuss such moments of offended honour, I’d expect all the moral tracts from the period to say something about the morality of such violent reactions to offence if it was a significant part of Carolingian court life. Why isn’t Dhuoda, for example, telling William about exactly how offended he needs to be if any insults are thrown at him (or his father Bernard of Septimania) at Charles the Bald’s court? Even if she doesn’t want him to get into fights in that way, she should be telling him to “turn the other cheek” if violent reactions to insults are a normal part of court culture.

Yet the tenth-century emphasis on honour obviously wasn’t new to Frankish societies, as you can see by a section on insults lurking in Lex Salica (Pactus Legis Salicae, c. 30). Compensation for specific insults makes it clear that they are “injuries” just as much as knocking out someone’s tooth. So what changed and why?

One possibility is that the refined Merovingian court culture associated in particular with Dagobert I in the early seventh century persisted into later centuries, but for reasons I’ll come to, I don’t think that a culture of restraint would endure that long without continued reinforcement. My suggestion is that it was Charlemagne who reduced the expression of a traditional Frankish honour culture at court.

As support for my hypothesis there’s firstly the fact that Charlemagne had the power if necessary to humble magnates. The most striking example of this is making Tassilo submit to him in 787, but as Stuart Airlie has pointed out, there were a lot of other submissions to Charlemagne in the 780s. In some of these cases, Charlemagne allowed his victims to save face, at least partially, but any magnate must have been aware that it was risky to push his own claim to a “right to respect” (another way of conceptualising honour) too far at Charlemagne’s court.

So the sources suggest that Charlemagne had the power and willingness to affect the culture of honour, even if he didn’t reject it entirely. Secondly, we know that Charlemagne was opposed to feuds and legislated against them. There are obvious questions about how effective his actions were, but it certainly implies an opposition to the kind of “self-help” violence characteristic not only of feuding, but also honour cultures.

Thirdly, Charlemagne clearly didn’t want to be too tightly bound by the existing hierarchy of honour: he wanted to able to bring outsiders into his court. Predominantly these were intellectuals, but part of the integration of newly conquered territories involved rewarding non-Franks who were loyal to Charlemagne (like the Saxons Hitti and Amalung). Honouring everyone “properly” relies on a clearly-established hierarchy, but Charlemagne’s successes were altering this. How do you decide the “proportionate value” given to Alcuin above a Frankish deacon or a newly-sworn Saxon fidelis as opposed to one in the Carolingian heartlands of Neustria? A de-emphasizing of pre-existing hierarchies and honour codes was probably necessary to accommodate such outsiders.

And finally, if you want to see a possible example of the effects of this diminished honour code, look at what Einhard says about Charlemagne in the baths at Aachen (Vita Karoli c. 22). Einhard claims that that there could be over a hundred men in the baths at Aachen at one time: Charlemagne and his sons, his magnates, friends and sometimes even his attendants and bodyguards (satellites, custodes corporis). It’s obviously a status marker to be one of these in the pool, but bathing’s about the least suitable occupation possible for maintaining a status hierarchy within a group. The bathers were probably all naked, so markers of clothing and equipment vanish (a big contrast to hunting, one of the other main Frankish pastimes). And I’m also pretty sure that in a bath with over one hundred men in it, there is going to be horseplay. At some point someone senior is going to get splashed or bumped into and the court culture has to be such that such informality is accepted and doesn’t lead to long-lasting enmity or violence.

Of course, I’m not denying the existence of hierarchy at the Carolingian court. Even if old Frankish hierarchies were affected by Charlemagne’s actions, a new hierarchy promptly developed, but because there was a particularly strong focus on Christian behaviour at court, the disproportionate violence of a normal honour code was inappropriate. As Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, puts it in the ninth century (p. 413): “Whether or not magnates were governed above all by realpolitik, they felt a strong need to express their political choices in moralized terms”. In the same way, I think that whatever anger secular and ecclesiastical magnates may still have felt about insults to their honour, it had to be expressed within a Christian framework, which limited the options for retaliatory violence. I’ve talked before about how the Vita Gangulfi reveals a conscious attempt by a Carolingian author to oppose one common form of honour-related violence: the killing of adulterous wives. (The one big exception to this limitation on revenging affronted honour was saints: offences to the honour of their church could still be countered with lethal force by dead saints, since such violence could be justified by its pure motives).

I think there are a few other clues from the late eighth century that confirm that it was at Charlemagne’s court that Frankish codes of honour were first muted and rechannelled in this way. One is the emergence of mocking court poetry (from the time of Peter of Pisa and Paul the Deacon onwards). You can have a culture of public mocking along with a strong focus on honour (you can see that in Viking Scandinavia, for example), but it tends to get violent very soon, whereas Carolingian courts mostly didn’t. The argument that this was because it was mostly clerics involved doesn’t bear much weight – Ottonian clerics were extremely touchy about their honour and Carolingian clerics were perfectly capable of using their proxies to carry out violence for them, as seen in the conflict between Theodulf of Orléans and Alcuin over sanctuary. And Carolingian court poetry also occasionally mocked lay magnates, such as Wibod. However much Wibod may have been in on Theodulf’s joke against him, it presupposes a culture in which it is socially acceptable not to fight a man who insults you.

The second point comes from Alcuin’s lay mirror, De virtutibus et vitiis, written around 800 and one of the most successful texts (in terms of surviving manuscripts and translations) from the Carolingian period. That may have been partly to do with the sheer banality of its content, which purveys a Christian morality that I’ve previously described as intended for spiritual couch-potatoes rather than spiritual athletes. One of the passages that made me think that is from Alcuin’s chapter on patience (c. 9), where he says:

We can be martyrs without sword or flames if we truly preserve patience in mind with our neighbours. It is more praiseworthy to avoid injury by being silent than to overcome by responding. He who tolerates evils patiently will merit an eternal crown in the future. (Sine ferro vel flammis martyres esse possumus, si patientiam veraciter in animo servamus cum proximis nostris. Laudabilius est injuriam tacendo declinare, quam respondendo superare. Qui patienter tolerat mala, in futuro coronam merebitur sempiternam).

Looking at this passage again, I now wonder if the seeming hyperbole about the “martyrdom” of true patience is in fact reflecting the difficulties involved in moderating an honour culture.

If you put these pieces of evidence together, it does suggest that Charlemagne was trying to change attitudes towards honour. What’s more, that is how he was remembered at the end of the ninth century. The anecdotes of Notker the Stammerer repeatedly show Charlemagne exalting the humble and humbling the proud. In contrast, Notker’s main anecdote about Pepin III (Notker 2-15) is how he demonstrates to his magnates his superior courage to them by defeating a lion, after they’ve been secretly despising him. Pepin’s violence here is against an animal, rather than his detractors themselves, but otherwise it’s a classic story of challenged honour being regained. Notker, therefore, associates the memory of Pippin with a traditional honour culture, but Charlemagne with a more complex hierarchy, in which virtue counts for more than social status.

Notker shows a memory living on of Charlemagne as rejecting many aspects of honour culture, suggesting that it may well have been part of court culture for several generations of Carolingians. Indeed, it’s only at the end of the ninth century that annals start to include incidents of offended honour, such as the Annales Vedastini from 900 reporting on Robert I leaving Charles the Simple’s court because he’d been insulted by something somebody said about him. There also the intriguing statement of the Fulda Annals from 900 (Tim Reuter’s translation):

Zwentibald….continued to hold onto the Gallic kingdom [Lotharingia] and to attack the lands of the church with immoderate cruelty. His worst crime was to strike Ratbod, archbishop of Trier on the head with his own pastoral staff, contrary to the honour due a bishop. (Zuentipoldus…Gallicanum  regnum secum retinens, res ecclesiarum crudelitate sua inmoderate affectans, maxime crimen eo, quod Ratpodo Treverensi archiepiscopo contra sacerdotalem honorem baculo suo in capite percutiens intulit).

The first sentence is a standard Carolingian denunciation of a bad magnate or king; I can’t think of an eighth or ninth century parallel to the second statement. This isn’t about a brutal physical attack; there’s no suggestion of permanent injury to Ratbod. Zwentibold’s “worst crime” is mainly about disrespect.

As well as this direct evidence of heightened concerns about honour, from the 870s onwards, there are also signs in East Francia of it being harder for kings to control individual aristocrats and feuds becoming more prominent (such as between the Conradines and Babenbergers). What this suggests to me is that in the absence of rulers who are attempting to moderate or oppose cultures of honour and feuding among nobles, these cultures are liable to return. They are, after all, two of the main ways of ensuring protection for oneself and one’s family in non-state societies, by showing a willingness to retaliate, even disproportionately. So I’d now be inclined to say that Carolingian honour was materially different from Ottonian ideas of it and that this was one less-visible aspect of Carolingian reform.

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