How archaic were the Ottonians?

I have recently read Gerd Althoff’s book on Otto III and I am still trying to unravel one key statement from it. On page 25, he states: “We speak of an archaic society.” (This isn’t a translation issue: in the original German, the adjective is “archaisch”). So what does it mean for Althoff to call late-tenth century Ottonian society “archaic” and he is right to do so?

Otto III enthroned (image from Gospels of Otto III)


In one sense, Ottonian society can’t be “archaic”, in the sense of “age-old”: a key part of its culture was Christian, and the Saxons had only been Christian for around two centuries at the most by that point. What about other aspects? Althoff rightly states (p. 16) that the Ottonians had fewer state structures than the Carolingians, although, as Tim Reuter pointed out, that comparison is less striking if you compare Carolingian East Francia with the Ottonian kingdom. But it’s not obvious that in the tenth century there is a whole lot more “stateness” in West Francia than the Ottonians have, so if you count the Ottonian kingdom as “archaic” in the sense of “old-fashioned”, then you’d have to rate large chunks of the rest of Western Europe as “archaic” (apart from the Anglo-Saxons, who were forming an up-to-date kingdom like the end of the world was coming).

The Anglo-Saxon kingdom also demonstrates that a culture that has “a wealth of ceremonial and ritual acts and activities, which served to display rule” (as Althoff puts it, p. 16) isn’t necessarily “archaic”. As Charlie Insley’s recent wonderfully-titled article, ‘Ottonians with Pipe Rolls’? Political Culture and Performance in the Kingdom of the English, c.900–c.1050 and other work by Julia Barrow and Levi Roach has shown, we can see similar ritual and ideas of performance of rule visible in Anglo-Saxon sources, especially charters as in Ottonian ones (and in the West Frankish kingdom as well).

But what seems to me key to Althoff’s idea of the Ottonian world as “archaic” is a different aspect: rulers’ supposed inability to plan rationally. He complains (p. 18-19):

modern scholars…postulate a wealth of other areas that supposedly preoccupied medieval “policy makers.” So for the tenth century it is traditional for historians to speak of Italian policies, eastern policies, western policies, and monastic policies. It is also customary to portray rulers and magnates as acting as if political plans had first been developed and then been put into effect in these areas and others. Such portrayals carry the implicit assumption that the rulers took counsel and agreed with their magnates on such plans, which then became guiding principles of a policy applied for a certain period of time or even long-term.

By contrast, the sources of the tenth and other centuries refer to such reasoned policies only very seldom, if at all. This rather forcefully raises the question: do we not deal in anachronisms if we categorize medieval royal rule according to the model of modern government with its plans and policies, especially since we are unable to trace where and how such alleged policies arose? Indeed, one would be right to doubt whether this supposed intense planning is in any way at all in harmony with the conceptual framework and mentality of the central Middle Ages. Plans and policies may have been quite alien in a society whose understanding of politics centered with such certainty on the idea that a God-ordained order must either be guarded or reestablished. Such an understanding also set its stamp on the duties and powers of medieval kings, as the significance of peace and justice among the ruler’s duties attests. But performing such duties did not so much require some sort of future-oriented planning as the employment of the customary usages by which people had always performed these duties.

And towards the end of the book (p. 108), Althoff states that one of the main themes is to consider:

how effective rulership actually was in the tenth century, how wide the sphere of political activity, and whether the king could shape the events of this era. Did he spend his time outlining political strategies in the widely diverse realms of church and monastic policy, the policies of the west, east, and Italy? Did he try to reach accord among the powers concerned? Did he then formulate final plans, and oversee their implementation? Or are these activities anachronisms? Did a tenth-century king understand his duties differently?

So is the concept of planning something alien to Otto III, and early/central medieval kings more generally? Is it anachronistic to think that kings might have policies? There are two fairly obvious counters to this: from the Gospels and one from the Carolingians.

First of all, let’s hear Jesus’ words in Luke 14, 28-32:

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.

Planning, to Jesus, is a fact of life so obvious that you can use it as an analogy to the costs of discipleship. And the examples he gives are precisely the kind of decision that all medieval kings had to make. Amid all the “customary usages” of Ottonian life, the ruler still had to make such binary choices: do I carry out this particular action now or not? The emphasis on the king “taking council” is precisely because such decisions needed to be made on a regular basis. At least for the Carolingian period we’ve even got a specific image of a council of war; this comes in Ermoldus Nigellus’  In honorem Hludowici, where Louis the Pious’ magnates discuss attacking Barcelona. Given all this, it seems extremely implausible to me that the Ottonians (and Otto III specifically), didn’t carry out at least some “future-oriented planning”.

What about policies? This depends rather more on definitions. If you think of policies as formal statements (often written) which lay out overall principles within which more day-to-day planning takes place, then no, medieval governments didn’t have policies. But if you think more generally of policies being to planning as strategy is to tactics, then I think at least some early medieval rulers had policies. You can sometimes see consistent courses of action, rather than purely short-term reactions to events. You can debate whether or not Charlemagne had a Saxon “policy”, but it’s hard to dispute that he had the long-term aim of conquering the Saxons.

So why aren’t these policies recorded in our sources more? One obvious answer is that a lot of the policies had to do with how to deal with external powers or internal enemies and so it was sensible to keep them secret. It’s not surprising that no Carolingian or Ottonian ruler produces a memo, statement or the like saying “we intend to make sure that no pope hostile to our interests is elected”. That doesn’t stop at least some of them repeatedly interfering in papal elections.

There’s also the point that what medieval authors tend to be writing isn’t histories of the “Policies of the Saxons”, but the “Deeds of the Saxons”. Early medieval traditions of narrative history mean that they don’t tend to focus on long-term policies, but instead short-term sequences of events. So, for example, as Eric Goldberg points out in Struggle for Empire, there’s a good case for seeing Louis the German as having a policy of Drang nach Westen, repeatedly trying to take over parts of the Western Frankish empire, but that’s not directly stated anywhere in his documents or narrative sources of the period.

But Louis’ Drang nach Westen does suggest something distinctive about the quality of early medieval plans: their implementation tended to be more episodic than in later periods. Louis the German may well have spent years wanting to expand into Charles the Bald’s kingdom, but his main moves were in 853/854 and 858, and in between he was focused on his eastern frontier. In a similar way, most discussions of Charlemagne see at least some of his campaigns as “opportunistic”; so does his intervention in a dispute in Lorsch which ended with it becoming a royal monastery.

I think this reflects the fact that early medieval kings (and arguably medieval kings in general) probably were less able to influence events than early modern/modern rulers. In particular, natural disasters (famine, disease, death) could have a major impact in creating opportunities or hindrances to military campaigns and diplomacy (two of the key policy areas). When you add to that the fact that rulers had much less information available to use when assessing foreign policy decisions, in an era of poor communications and without permanent diplomats, it’s not surprising that systematic long-term planning wasn’t as important a priority then compared to say, the early modern period.

Going back to Althoff, I also worry about his linking of planning with the question of the “effectiveness” of tenth-century rulers. Despite the modern 7Ps formula (“Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance”), I’m not sure that you can assume that things going wrong for rulers necessarily resulted from their lack of planning. Carolingian kings and emperors went through a lot of crises, and these often arose when things went wrong in several widely-spaced locations simultaneously (such as happened to Charlemagne in 778 or Charles the Bald in 858). It’s not clear to me how easily any medieval ruler could have planned to prevent such difficulties, given the difficulty of rapid travel.

In the end, the question of whether or not early medieval kings were capable of plans and policies depends on how tightly you define the concept. There was nothing like the impartial and theoretically competent bureaucracy of the modern state to carry out such planning, but given that only really developed from the mid-nineteenth century, that’s not surprising. And it’s interesting how often the word “policy” does creep back into Althoff’s description of Otto III’s activities. In practice, it’s quite hard to deny some policy/planning capacity not just to the Carolingians, but to East Frankish rulers generally.

But it’s now that we get to one final twist, inspired by my favourite description of Otto III. This was uttered many years ago by Susan Reynolds, who said he was “a young man with a lot of fancy ideas, but he didn’t last long”. It’s perfectly possible for the Ottonians as a whole to have been capable of making and implementing plans and policies, but for Otto III not to have used that capacity. Because as we’ve seen in 2016 and 2017, just because you can plan carefully, doesn’t mean that every politician wants to. It may be too tedious for Trump to sit down and estimate if he can afford to build a tower (or a wall) before proclaiming that he will, or for the UK cabinet to consider if David Davis and a couple of civil servants really can emerge victorious from an encounter with an army of Brussels bureaucrats. In other words, if you’re going to label states as “archaic” because of their inability to plan or their lack of effectiveness in achieving their aims, we may now have a few modern states to include on the “archaic” list.


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