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.


The strangeness of the Carolingian rural state

There’s nothing like reading research far outside your field to give you a new perspective on your own work. In my case it’s making my way through Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality that’s brought home to me how strange the Carolingian empire was in one respect.

Flannery and Marcus’ book is an anthropological/archaeological look at a wide range of prehistoric, historical and contemporary societies at varying levels of social complexity. There’s no mention of the Carolingians (or indeed any European societies), but there is a lot on cultures in the Americas, including the Moche, Mayan and Zapotec civilisations.

Panorama of Monte Alban from the South Platform

Panorama of Monte Albán site

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Patriarchal pieces 1: was Charlemagne the father of the Franks?

(This is the first of a series of short pieces I hope to write for my new project on long-term continuity and change in patriarchal structures. These are intended as initial ways for me to think about the problem rather than as definitive answers and comments or counterexamples are gratefully received).


Some early modern political thought was patriarchal in the most literal sense: the father’s control over his family and household is the model for all political authority. (This is the view of Robert Filmer, for example). The idea seems at once vaguely familiar and subtly distinctive to a Carolingianist and I’m still trying to work out why.

At the moment I can see two differences. One is that although there’s sometimes an analogy made in political writing between the royal household and the kingdom, it tends to be expressed in terms of a ruler’s duties, rather than a father’s. The ruler must rule himself, so that he can then rule his household, and finally the kingdom. This is all put together with the supposed etymology of “rex” as deriving from “regnans”, which is already in Augustine, and probably even earlier. Being a “pater/genitor” doesn’t have the same resonances.

And where the king as father does appear, the direction of the analogy is the opposite way round from the early modern patriarchal one. The king’s household is supposed to be the exemplar for other households, and the king as father for other fathers. Ordinary fathers are “royalised” by the Carolingians, rather than kings being an outgrowth of original family power. After all, the Carolingians knew how kings arose – God had allowed them to do so.

I also wonder whether the vagueness of the Carolingian idea of the king as a magnified pater familias is because the magnates would have found that unacceptable. After all, the kingdom as a family implicitly places them as the king’s children, called to obedience, and subject to his righteous chastisement. In contrast, the metaphor of the body politic, which id developed by John of Salisbury and later medieval authors, makes the other parts of the body subordinate to the head, but without such a steep gradient. A neck or the shoulders and arms are only a little “below” the head and are essential to the body’s proper functioning. Not should the head want to hurt the other parts of the body, but guard them.

In contrast, the fatherly metaphor for rulers separates king and subject more decisively, and subordinates more firmly. Perhaps it’s only in more autocratic times (Roman and early modern) that this particular complex of patriarchal ideas can find acceptance.

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.


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.




The creation of Carolingian homosociality

I’ve recently been thinking about masculinity again and was reading with interest Rachel Moss’ discussions of her new project on medieval homosociality. Rachel states:

I will argue that homosociality was a cultural mindset that, by privileging bonds between men, made it possible to create networks of socially-codified relationships that supported hegemonic norms and facilitated the structuring of patriarchy.

I also discussed the concept briefly with her on Twitter, when she was explaining that she saw homosociality as “a set of socio-cultural mechanisms of which socialisation is an element”.

Rachel works on the late medieval period, so most of the key sources she used in her previous book on fatherhood aren’t available for early medievalists or only in very small quantities: conduct literature written by the laity, gentry letters and chivalric romances. In fact there’s probably only one Carolingian status group about whose socialisation and male bonding we know in detail; that’s monks, whose homosociality is likely to be considerably different from that of other men.

What I started thinking about instead is what type of consciously-created homosocial  structures exist in the premodern West (and in the Carolingian period specifically) and when and why they are created. I’m focusing on deliberately-created structures because there’s one immediate difference between the twenty-first century West and most earlier periods. Both work and education are now substantially less sex-segregated than they used to be. Educating boys and girls together (past their early years) isn’t the historic norm and while officially mixed-sex working places have existed, they’ve normally been less common than single-sex ones, from the weaving shed to the regiment. So the question becomes why homosociality in the premodern world wasn’t just left to arise naturally, as a by-product of such segregation. Why was it made to happen? (I realise that you can have socio-cultural mechanisms for homosociality that arise incidentally from institutions/cultural patterns created for other ends, but “mechanism” does imply at least some purpose).

These are my four suggestions of where and why such (male) homosocial structures were created:

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Pseudo-Isidore and canons as weapons

Scholars debating about when in the ninth century the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries were created have increasingly argued for an early date for them, either in the aftermath of the second rebellion against Louis the Pious in 833 or even after the first rebellion in 830. Some scholars, such as Mayke de Jong, however are not convinced by these arguments for an early date. I’m not an expert on Pseudo-Isidore, an immensely complicated subject, but I am interested in how canons and decretals get used in Carolingian disputes, so I want to approach the question from a slightly different angle: when in the ninth century did people start using canons as weapons?

The purpose of the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries is relatively clear, after all: they’re forgeries of authoritative statements by councils (canons) and in papal letters (decretals). And they were intended to be of use in disputes concerning churchmen, for example setting out under what conditions clerics can be accused of an offence. But such forgeries only make logical sense in a situation where genuine texts of this type are already being used to argue controversial cases (like the deposition of Archbishop Ebbo of Rheims and its after-effects).

There’s probably an entire master thesis to be written on the development of Carolingian citation practices. From early on in Charlemagne’s reign, some capitularies, such as the Admonitio generalis of 789 quote canons by the name of the council; similarly, the Council of Aachen in 816 has a whole string of passages from named authors and councils. There’s a noticeable change in referencing practices in the lay mirrors between Alcuin’s  De virtutibus et vitiis and Jonas of Orléans’ De institutione laicali. Alcuin incorporates short extracts from patristic sources into his text without identifying them; Jonas gives longer extracts, specifically identified as such. Using canons and decretals isn’t a new phenomenon in 830.

But when you start looking at their use in polemic texts from the 830s, it’s minimal. For example, Agobard of Lyons cites no canons or decretals in either part of his Liber apologeticus from 833. Then there’s Divinis praeceptis – a possibly forged letter of Gregory IV (JE  2579) claiming to be from 833. Eric Knibbs argues that’s is a genuine text of Gregory’s inspired by Paschasius Radbertus of Corbie, one of the Pseudo-Isidore forgers. Eric describes the text as “basically little more than a patchwork of canonical citations”, largely from one of Pseudo-Isidore’s key sources, the Collectio Hispana. But despite this, there’s only 1 papal decretal explicitly cited (Innocent I, JK 286), the text of which has then been interpolated to include a reference to the Council of Nicaea. It’s a similar story for the relatio of Louis’ penance by a number of bishops from Oct 833: that cites only one papal decretal explicitly (and no canons).

In other words, there’s little evidence of arguments making extensive use of genuine canonical sources around 833, which makes a project to forge large numbers of them seem implausible at that date. Of course, that doesn’t exclude them being forged later in the 830s, but here the evidence of Ebbo of Rheims is revealing. We have two versions of an apology by Ebbo of Rheims, justifying his reinstatement as archbishop of Rheims in 840. The earliest of this was probably written in 841, the later possibly in 842. Neither of them includes any explicit references to sources other than the Bible.

What’s particularly interesting is that at one point Ebbo says that he’s done seven years of penance, after which remission is usual (septenni ferme sub penitentiae spacio, quo in sancta aecclesia peccatorum penitentibus fieri solet remissio, patienter expectans et nemini consecrationis ibi dignitatem impedivi). I’m not certain where this statement comes from, but there’s one likely source for its specific reference to seven years. That is a letter allegedly by Isidore of Seville to Bishop Massona of Merida, which was widely circulating in the Frankish world by the eighth century, including in the canonical collection, the Collectio vetus Gallica. In this letter, “Isidore” deals with the question of whether a priest can be restored to office after doing penance. He says that they can if they have done worthy penance and specifically claims that the canons allow this after seven years (PL 83, col. 901: Maria ergo, soror Aaron, caro intelligitur sacerdotis, quae dum superbiae dedita, sordidissimis corruptionum contagiis maculatur, extra castra septem diebus, id est, extra collegium sanctae Ecclesiae septem annis projicitur, qui post emundationem vitiorum loci, sive pristinae dignitatis recipit meritum).

This implies that Ebbo had a source for his statement about seven years penance but chose not to cite it. In terms of referencing practice, he’s working in an older Carolingian tradition (as seen in Alcuin) of implicit citing of sources, where it’s either assumed that anyone who matters will recognise the source of the author’s quote or that the writer’s own authority is enough in itself to justify the statement made.

In 833 Ebbo had gone over to Lothar’s side at the Field of Lies, at precisely the point when Eric Knibbs thinks Pseudo-Isidore was starting up. But it’s not just that around 840 Ebbo doesn’t appear to know any Pseudo-Isidore’s texts; it’s that’s in the early 840s it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that citing canons or early decretals was a useful thing to do.  In fact, when Ebbo himself later turned to forgery (around 845) he forged a letter from Gregory IV (JE 2583), who had only just died.

In other words, in the 830s people engaged in the sort of controversies that the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries  were allegedly created to affect, not only aren’t using these forged sources, they’re only rarely using genuine sources of the same type. If we do want to find people using canonical sources as polemic, we have to look in different directions: Hrabanus Maurus and Hincmar of Rheims.

The first polemical source I’ve found that makes more sustained use of canons and decretals is the letter  De honore parentum by Hrabanus Maurus to Louis the Pious from 834 (recently discussed by Mayke de Jong) . This treatise is largely based on Biblical exemplar, as you would expect from an expert commentary writer, but in one section, c. 8, on how those who administer secular judgement are to be considered, we abruptly get a string of patristic sources and councils: a decretal of Pope Innocent I, extracts from Augustine and Ambrosiaster and a quote from the Council of Antioch. In form, this looks very like the argument from sources you can see in Jonas’ De institutione laicali, but it’s now being applied to a work that’s making a political argument, claiming that the penance imposed on Louis the Pious was unjust.

We also have a surviving manuscript (Paris BnF lat. nouv. acq. 1632A) from the late 830s or early 840s, which contains a collection of sources known as Capitula diversarum sententiarum pro negociis rei publice consulendis. This is a selection of patristic sources justifying warfare and the ruler punishing others. Although it doesn’t specifically include canons or decretals (it does include Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job), it’s the kind of dossier that in the second half of the ninth century was frequently used as source material to argue a specific case. The dossier has previously been attributed to Jonas of Orléans and placed in the late 830s, but Phillip Wynn thinks it was compiled by Hincmar of Rheims, possibly in about 842, during the war between Louis the Pious’ sons.

There’s also another source from the early 840s, which although it’s not directly polemical, is collecting canons and decretals in a way that would be useful for polemic. This is Hrabanus Maurus’ Paenitentiale ad Otgarium, which he composed for Archbishop Otgar of Mainz around 841. The first chapter of this contains a discussion of whether it was possible to reinstate priests to office after they had done penance. Hrabanus listed a string of canonical and patristic texts on the subject. This topic was central to Ebbo’s return to Rheims, and demonstrated that such matters could in theory be decided by the use of authoritative sources.

Putting these three texts together, it looks like there was a change in concepts of the sources of authority sometime between about 834 and the early 840s. Previous polemicists and litigants, such as Ebbo, relied on more generalised moral and Biblical arguments. In contrast, some scholars were repurposing the moral florilegia that had existed from the late eighth century onwards into specifically political/legal weapons, citing them explicitly as authorities. This is clearly visible, for example, by the time of the Council of Soissons in 853. Only when this idea of canons as weapons had spread did it make sense to forge Pseudo-Isidore, because only then would its material be used.

The first possible citation of Pseudo-Isidore comes from 852; the first definite one from 857. The earlier the creation of Pseudo-Isidore is pushed back, the greater the problems in explaining why we have no trace of its effect until the 850s. But I think the evidence (or rather non-evidence) of the use of (genuine) canonical sources as weapons before the 840s also makes it harder to argue for an early date for starting Pseudo-Isidore. Before 840 it’s not clear to me that if the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries had existed, anyone would have known what usefully to do with them.