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 skin and bones of history

Chris Wickham
Chris Wickham a number of years pre-retirement

Last month I was at a conference on political culture in the earlier Middle Ages. I’ll talk about that in future posts, but for now I want to think about it in combination with another event I went to recently: a celebration of Chris Wickham’s work to mark his retirement. Rachel Moss has written appreciatively  of Chris as a colleague; the short papers on the day had much to say about different aspects of his research. One recurrent theme was Chris’ determination to get inside national historiographies and understand them fully, rather than merely cherry-pick from them. (His review-article, Marx, Sherlock Holmes and Late Roman Culture got particular mention).

I want to talk about the most important insight I got from Chris’ work, especially from Framing the Early Middle Ages. This was his use of explicit models and ideal types to pin down specific components of what we are trying to compare over time and space. Such a move may be seen as reductionist or too schematic, but it’s a powerful tool if well-used. Several of my more recent projects have started from this idea of comparing underlying structures, even if they’ve been on topics a long way from Chris’ own interests.

Chris’ focus has been on underlying social and economic structures, what you might call the bones of history. A review of The Inheritance of Rome complained it didn’t have enough about kings in it. It was quite a mental stretch to go from that to the conference that Katy Dutton organised in Manchester on “Political Culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins”. That was full of kings, as well as dukes, counts and countesses and a surprising number of archdeacons. Ever since I read Mayke de Jong’s Penitential State I’ve become interested in Carolingian political culture, because Mayke emphasized its dynamic nature. Many previous studies of Carolingian ideology had focused on royal image-making as relatively untroubled process, whether it’s Charlemagne’s followers sneering at the Merovingians or Charles the Bald’s creation of an imperial image. Penitential State, in contrast, showed political tactics being contested and how metaphors and discourses allowed actions (such as deposing a king) that were unthinkable otherwise.

How does this political culture relate to the kind of structural history that Chris favours? I’m starting to see it as the skin over the bones. In the keynote speech at the Manchester conference, Martin Aurell talked about the conflicts of Henry II and his sons in 1173. Although there were important underlying economic and social issues beneath the conflict, the chroniclers discussed it largely in terms of personalities and individuals.

In the same way, the Brexit result, which inevitably haunted the conference, combined deep underlying structural issues (such as the depressed state of the economy in some regions) with important roles for spectacular personalities, such as Boris Johnson and a campaign marked by the successful use of sometimes horrifying propaganda. To understand what happened, here, as with other political events, you need skin and bones – political culture combined with socio-economic structures.

How we carry out that combination varies. Much of my historical work has tended towards the ‘skin’ side, focusing on specific cultural moments, but Chris’ work keeps on reminding me that I need to look at wider patterns as well, see how all the pieces of a society fit together. That’s the impact, often indirect but important, that he’s had on my own research.


Transwomen, class and feminist solidarity

I started this blog just over ten years ago by talking about a feminist article I’d read. So it seems appropriate to celebrate the anniversary by looking at another one, dealing with an issue that seems to have become a hot button topic within feminism. How can trans women be fitted into a feminism that focuses on patriarchy? I’ve come across an article by Jane Clare Jones, who expresses anti-transwomen views in such a context, but tries to argue that this is a moderate position. Jones discusses various kinds of oppression, focusing on what she sees as the function of the oppression:

Women are oppressed as women because that oppression enables men to extract resources — in the form of reproductive, domestic, sexual and emotional labour — from women. Similarly, class- and race-based oppression is structured around the extraction of labour-resources from the oppressed group.

In contrast, she sees “the restrictions on homosexuality” as a variant of patriarchal oppression, part of a wider system of heteronormativity predominantly designed “to naturalise men’s appropriation of women’s bodies”.

Based on this, Jones goes on to argue that while trans people are oppressed, they are oppressed as the result of patriarchy and not by women. To her, discussions of cis-privilege are wrongly positioning non-trans women as the oppressors of trans people:

There can be no question of to what end non-trans women are invested in the oppression of trans-women. As the oppressor, non-trans women are not permitted to question this: we must understand that the only just course of action is to acquiesce without a murmur to the stated needs of the oppressed. And so the possibility of solidarity between non-trans and trans women, based on the recognition that we are equally—though differently—constrained by heteronormative ideologies of gender, is thoroughly blocked. There is no acknowledgement that we are both suffering under the same system, and there can be no negotiation of how to accommodate our varying needs within feminism as a political movement.

It’s certainly perfectly possible to see some of the oppression of trans people as resulting from patriarchal systems. The problem is that it’s hard to see the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as a hotbed of patriarchal thought. Some strands of feminist thought are also hostile to or exclusionary of trans women, and pretending they’re not isn’t very helpful. It also isn’t simply a matter of the old claim that trans women embody stereotypes of femininity. What we’ve seen as more trans people come out is how varied they and their experiences are: no-one’s going to put Deidre McCloskey on the cover of Vanity Fair. So I want to go back to Jones’ question: to what end are non-trans women/cis women invested in the oppression of trans-women?

In one way that’s the wrong question to ask, because systems of oppression don’t actually require much investment by most people. Race-based oppression (especially in the US) may have started as being structured around the extraction of resources of land and labour from particular races. But racism is still a structural problem in the UK and the US (in different ways), even though many white people aren’t deeply invested in it. Instead, such structural racism in white-dominant societies relies on relatively small groups eagerly enforcing white superiority and the much wider indifference/passivity of most white people (in which I’d include myself), which means that the system doesn’t get changed. In the same way, I don’t think most cis women are actively oppressing trans women. But there are a small group that are and I think the end for much of this is paradoxical: they’re trying to maintain feminist solidarity.

I’d argue that feminism has had more problems with solidarity than any other social movement. The oppression of women has been going on for millennia and yet feminist movements are a very recent phenomena. And the main reason for this is class: women from higher classes have not felt they have much in common with women from the lower classes and vice versa.

The historical evidence suggests that class is the primary division blocking solidarity between women, not race or sexuality. In particular, feminist movements didn’t grow up substantially more quickly in societies that were relatively racially homogeneous (such as nineteenth-century Britain) than in ones that were more racially mixed (such as the US or New Zealand). And while arguments over sexuality did divide the women’s movement in second-wave feminism, they weren’t prominent before then. BAME women or lesbians can still feel alienated by the priorities of modern day feminism. But I’d argue that class is still by far the most difficult issue in feminism (and in social justice circles generally).

The key problem is that for a feminist campaign to have real political impact, it needs to deal with issues that matter personally, if not to all women, at least the majority of them. In particular, a lot of all forms of political activity is carried out by students and middle-class professional women. They have the combination of the skills and networks to get political attention and also (often) more free time for campaigning than working-class women.

This doesn’t mean that working-class women can’t play an important role in feminist movements, but I can’t think of many feminist groups that were/are predominantly working-class. And the most successful feminist campaigns have tended to focus on issues that affect both middle-class and working-class women.

The classic example of an issue that cuts across class lines is women’s suffrage. Campaigns for sexual discrimination laws have also been able to draw on cross-class solidarity. But there are other feminist campaigns that have gradually run into the sands, at least partly because of class differences. The most obvious one is equal pay. Yes, it’s discriminatory if bankers who are women don’t get the same multimillion pound bonuses as their male counterparts do. But it’s hard to feel solidarity with women who miss out on that (or on being in the boardroom) when you and all your male friends/relatives are working in minimum wage jobs.

Campaigns about childcare have also tended to run into issues of class. Available childcare for middle-class women is increasingly about ensuring that their career path isn’t blocked; an alternative option is simply not to have children or to have them relatively late in life. My impression is that in contrast, childcare for working women is more about being able to hold down any job in order to earn a little more money. And there’s also the hidden issue of who is doing the childcare: in most cases, it’s done by poorly-paid working-class women, because it’s a low-status feminised job. Solidarity around this issue is hard to maintain across class lines.

If you look at the hot feminist topics of the moment, meanwhile, they’re abortion (in the US), sexual harassment and sexual violence. These, again, are experiences that affect all classes of women and that also have resonance across boundaries of race, age and sexuality. It’s not surprising that feminists in the media tend to focus on them.

And it’s here that issues about trans people come up: what are the bases on which such cross-class solidarities rely? Abortion as an issue relies very heavily on the distinctiveness of female bodies: women can get pregnant and men can’t. In fact, that’s a simplification, but a lot of female solidarity has always been based on shared bodily experiences. Trans people, by indicating that being a women may not be based purely on body sex, are potentially a threat to this solidarity.

Does the inclusion of trans women in feminist groups/movements threaten the ability of all women in them to be able to talk about shared bodily experiences? That seems to be at the basis of a lot of feminist hostility towards trans women. But I think, as with lesbians before them, what trans women speaking out reveal is that not all women have the same experiences. Lesbians speaking up within feminism reminded straight women that not every woman’s life involved sexual desire for men. Similarly, trans women aren’t the only women whose bodily experiences are ‘atypical’: there are ‘born women’ who from an early age know they’re infertile or don’t have periods etc. We need to work towards a feminist solidarity that can cope with both common and unusual bodily experiences via empathy: this specifically may not have happened to me, but I can imagine how positive/negative it would make me feel if it did.

The significance of sexual harassment and violence to the feminist movement, meanwhile, is another paradoxical reason why some feminists are hostile to trans people. Some definitions of patriarchy put such violence at the heart of it, such as this one by bell hooks:

Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.

But hooks goes on to show this theory as something taught to her by both her mother and her father. The perpetrators of patriarchy are not just men. And those suffering patriarchal-based “terrorism” and violence are not just women: Jones herself admits that gay men and trans people also suffer from this.

The problem is that political campaigns need both to simplify their aims and to solidify their supporters. A binary between those suffering from the patriarchy and those benefiting from it can’t be easily summed up in a slogan. So just as fights against capitalism become simplified to being about “workers” versus “bosses” (or the 99% versus the 1%), a fight against patriarchy as a system which focuses on sexual harassment and violence become simplified to women as victims of harassment and men as perpetrators. The logic is summed up in the hashtag #YesAllWomen. All women are supposedly subject to misogyny and sexual violence and this becomes their defining experience. Following binary logic, therefore, men/some men are the perpetrators of misogyny and sexual violence.

The experiences of trans women, however, don’t easily fit into this simplified understanding of patriarchy. They are regarded socially as male (at least in their early years) and yet they’re also subject to patriarchal violence. And again, the enforcement of their masculinity is often done by their mothers as well as their fathers.

Trans women are therefore a complicating element in the simple political binary of them-and-us radical feminism, in which #YesAllWomen has implicitly become #YesOnlyWomen. A feminism supposedly based on shared experience of sexism ends up having to deny the experiences that trans women and cis women potentially share. Yet as with bodily experiences, it ought to be possible to find enough overlap of social experiences to build bonds of solidarity which includes trans women within a feminist movement. It’s not just trans women, after all, who stuff their bra to give themselves cleavage or get the wrong sort of toys taken away from them.

As I’ve said earlier, feminism has always found solidarity difficult, but the movement has nevertheless over the years achieved something not just for middle-class women, but also working-class women, black women and lesbians. In the same way, despite all the current fractiousness over the role of trans women in feminism, I expect that more and more they will come to be accepted as part of it: we just need to remain aware that the necessary simplifications of political slogans don’t match the messy complexities of real life.

Ideology, enforcement and arseholes

Since I research what could be broadly described as early medieval cultural history, I’m used to intermittent objections to this approach by proponents of socio-economic history. Ideology, to them, is secondary: people are motivated primarily by their own material advantage. While historical materialism is predominantly Marxist, there are also non-Marxist strands of economic/political history that also regard ideology as merely propaganda, simply fine words concealing self-interest. I want to argue, however, that even if you take a self-interested view of people’s motives, there’s a considerable need for ideology/propaganda in any non-democratic society, whether medieval or modern. (I’ll leave aside modern democratic societies for the moment, because there are potentially different dynamics there).

Many modern dictatorships or quasi-dictatorships show us in stark form the kind of dynamics that seem familiar from premodern European societies. The basis for power is a combination of wealth and office/political power. Office brings officeholders wealth via corruption; in turn wealth is used to ensure that the political and legal system continues to support the wealthy. And it’s also clear that in every society power and wealth rests ultimately on coercive force. This can take various forms, from the lord demanding dues from his peasants backed by a band of men on horses with swords, to the ‘pay this charge or we’ll send round bailiffs to seize your goods’. Behind even the most sophisticated political and legal system is ultimately the threat of physical violence from armies, police or militia.

The question then becomes what motivates the enforcers. The first point to make is that coercion is rarely risk-free. At a certain point most oppressive societies have to deal with putting down revolts or rebellions and it’s these enforcers who are on the front-line.

There are a few relatively risk-free way of coercing or punishing opponents, but these rely on being prepared to destroy the area you’re trying to retake: burning cities/villages (in pre-modern times) or bombing/gassing them (since the twentieth century). But if you want to keep most of the population intact, to use as a workforce, defeating opponents is potentially dangerous, especially if they’re tactically clever. As a lot of military history has shown, there are ways to defeat even elite weapons (such as heavy cavalry or tanks) on the right kind of terrain.

Being an enforcer can be a dangerous job, but it’s rarely the ruling class themselves who are the sole enforcers. The medieval aristocracy may have led armies or raids, but they relied also on a lot of non-noble troops; the early medieval milites who became the knights were often originally jumped-up (literally) peasants. And in modern military dictatorships, while those at the top of army may be rolling in it, there are a lot of far poorer troops at the sharp end of military activity or policing.

So what motivates such enforcers? The obvious answer is money: they get their pay or a share of the loot from their enforcement activities. In a society with some approximation to the rule of law that may be enough, but in non-democratic and corrupt societies, enforcers can get more on their own account than by staying within the system. Why don’t they keep the proceeds of the coercion themselves, rather than handing it over to their superiors? And to reduce it to the most basic level: if you’re a group of guards being paid by a king to guard his treasure and/or his person, why don’t you band together, kill him and split the treasure between you? If you’re faced with putting down a serious revolt, why don’t you instead switch sides and join it?

All this suggests that relying on purely material factors is a bad move for a dictator/non-democratic ruler. It’s at this point that the arseholes come in. This is a phrase coined by the economist Dan Davies, who argued that every would-be dictator needed a reactionary citizens’ militia: “a large population who are a few rungs up from the bottom of society, who aren’t interested in freedom and who hate young people. In other words, arseholes.” Such people can be mobilised to put down revolts with relatively little training because their main role is to carry out group attacks on those who are individually weaker.

To encourage such groups, Davies thinks the dictator should “concentrate on nurturing their sense that they, despite appearances, are the backbone of the country, and allowing them to understand that although rules are rules, there are some people who just need a slap.”

Davies is talking about the specific case of modern, semi-industrialised countries (he mentions the Iranian basiji, eastern European miners and Zimbabwe ex-soldiers), but the general point is wider: what a non-democratic government really needs is people who are willing to help support it by force for “ideological” reasons as well as purely economic ones. His examples also show that these enforcers don’t need to be taken from a different class in a Marxian sense, those having different relations to the means of production. To take a modern British example, the police are also “workers” and have a strong trade union in the Police Federation.

Marxists tend to see the main purpose of ideology as a peaceful means of keeping the oppressed down: provide them with ‘false consciousness’ so they accept their oppression peacefully. But maybe we need to emphasise more the role of ideology on the oppressors’ own side: encouraging feelings of superiority and solidarity both among themselves and with the group of (lower-class) enforcers, so that no-one’s tempted to defect. The general tactics of ‘divide and rule’ by the ruling class are well known from modern politics, but how was such ideology specifically targeted at enforcers in earlier societies? Arguably, such a technique is behind the original development of chivalry, which linked together ideologically everyone from the ruler to men who possessed nothing more than a horse and some expensive weapons, possibly only as a gift from their lord.

Dan Davies’ definition also suggest that what modern dictators really need for securing their enforcers is an ideology closely tied to elements of social class. To put it a different way, it’s possible to be an ex-Nazi or an ex-Communist or an ex-Baathist. One of the main factors determining whether a dictatorship survives is when its enforcers can’t easily change side when the revolution begins. If you have an ideology to which almost anyone in any social position can subscribe, it’s easier to switch away from it when the going gets tough, at least for the junior ranks. Take off your army uniform and you can be a revolutionary too (or at least pretend to be while you run away).

In contrast, what’s been noticeable about recent Middle East conflicts is how tenaciously many people have been willing to stick to the ‘losing side’. The key point here seems to be the role of ethnic and religious identities, which can’t easily be changed overnight. If you’re an Alawite, you’re likely to stick to the Assad regime to the bitter end, because a Sunni government is going to be hostile to you.

In most premodern European societies, however, the ruling class (and their enforcers) weren’t predominantly from an ethnic or religious minority. (The obvious exception is Norman England). I suspect that therefore there would have been more need either for a fine-grained class ideology (the people you have to put down are stupid and lazy, unlike you) or identifying those who need to be oppressed with outside threats to society (they’re all Catholics/Protestants/Communists/heretics/in league with the Jews). For the early Middle Ages we’re unlikely to be able to find many traces of such kinds of ideology/propaganda being addressed to the enforcers (who are essentially illiterate warriors), but for those working on later medieval periods, it might be worth exploring how the ‘good’ lower classes can be encouraged to repress the ‘bad’ lower classes.

Gender, politics and history

I’m still trying to finish off the proofs of my book and think up something coherent to say about the International Medieval Congress 2011 (in between starting preparations for IMC 2012). But I’ve also been distracted this week by a Christian friend of mine starting to come out as genderqueer and the reminder that gives me of why my work as a historian matters.

It’s very unlikely that my friend will ever read my academic work, or probably even this blog, but their situation resonates with two of the key themes of my forthcoming book: that gender is socially constructed (masculinity and femininity have no innate characteristics but vary vastly between societies), and that Christian precepts have always been interpreted and adapted to suit the existing morality of society around them. These themes of my book are in no way new, but my work forms one extra data point to demonstrate them, one more piece of evidence that so-called eternal truths aren’t. And it’s this drip-drip of evidence that many of our beliefs aren’t ‘natural’, that, I hope, contributes in a tiny way to non-conventional gender norms becoming more accepted in society.

I’m not an activist: I don’t have the skills or the personality for that. I’m a historian, and to a certain extent, a writer, and I think my most useful political contribution is to use those particular abilities. There’s been a recent debate inspired by an important early medievalist on the extent to which historians should be more politically engaged in their academic work. It’s not a new debate: the issue was recently raised, for example, in a rather more irenic manner by Judith Bennett in her book History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism.

In my discussions on Bennett’s book, I wrote then about this issue of mainstream versus explicitly feminist historical styles. In my work, one of the things I have been trying to do is to take women’s history and gender history into the mainstream of early medieval history, get them read about and thought about by people who aren’t normally interested in the topics. So I’ve deliberately written a book for CUP about masculinity that isn’t going to scare the horses, that isn’t yelling about my own feminism, but that will, I hope, get some medievalists, who might not otherwise read about such topics, thinking about the social construction of gender and John Boswell’s ideas on gay/non-gay, for example.

In other words, I’m playing by the established academic rules in order to get a hearing for my work. Is that the right approach? I can’t be sure: my work probably isn’t very important, but it is, as far as I’m aware, the first book on gender that’s been published in the series Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. Even if people don’t accept my ideas, they can’t be so easily dismissed simply as modish irrelevance or political correctness gone mad if I place my work within a solid and deliberately non-polemical scholarly tradition. The use of ad hominem/ad feminam attacks on historians’ political/social views as a tactic has all too often been used to exclude the voices challenging social hierarchies. While politically activist historians have produced some marvellous work, I think there is also a role for those of us who are less explicit in our condemnations.

So what should my role be? I know that some of the articles I’ve written, some of the material I’ve translated, are already being used to teach students, show them a world in which women face systematic disadvantage, but also the opportunity to show agency. If I keep on playing the game as an academic historian, more of what I want to say on these themes of morality and sexuality and women will, I hope get read, not just by professional historians, but a wider range of students. Similarly, I know that this blog is read by a small number of people on at least three continents. Writing about these themes, in a way that tries to explain them to people who don’t necessarily share my political or religious beliefs is one way of getting people to start thinking about why they hold the attitudes they do. And that is one of my tiny contributions to making the world a better place for people like my friend.

Early medieval consensus and the prisoner’s dilemma

I’ve been thinking for a while about a post by Guy Halsall in which he expressed scepticism about the recent emphasis on the ‘consensus model’ in early medieval politics, and dived briefly into game theory to argue that the struggle for power in the early Middle Ages was in material terms, pretty much a zero-sum game: if you had land/animals, someone else didn’t. I don’t want to get into arguments about Guy’s wider point on whether or not an early medieval state existed (which relies crucially on how you define ‘the state’). But I do want to think a bit harder about the extent to which the early medieval struggle for power is a zero-sum game, because I’ve been arguing in terms of attitudes towards Carolingian masculinity that there is a lot of consensus and co-operation within the elite.

As a technical point, if you’re going to argue that it’s really a zero-sum game, you’re saying that there was no growth in resources at all in the early medieval period, which is a very strong statement to make. The material evidence suggests that there is population growth, increasing wealth (as seen in coinage etc). I don’t, however, think that this invalidates Guy’s argument. If economic growth is very slow (and even today, annual GDP growth in the UK can be on the order of 1-2%), for practical purposes, Guy is right that you do have a zero-sum game. You can’t easily and quickly recover from serious material losses in battle, for example.

But you can accept that a zero-sum game is a reasonable approximation of the overall situation in one society without that implying that kings and aristocrats necessarily have opposing interests. Partly this is because ‘aristocrats’ as a group are not a player in this game – particular aristocratic individuals/families/collectives, etc are. And also because kings and magnates aren’t the only players in this game – so are individual peasants and peasant collectives. That’s why someone like Chris Wickham, who certainly doesn’t believe the early Middle Ages is all sweetness and light can accept the model of consensus politics. It’s just that he sees this as a conspiracy between members of the upper classes in order to oppress the peasants more effectively. (It’s certainly noticeable that whenever there’s a peasant rebellion later in the Middle Ages, or the early modern period, aristocrats previously at each others’ throats start to co-operate in putting the lower orders back in their place).

Guy, however, is arguing that this alliance between local elites and the central power isn’t necessary. Whether or not it’s necessary, I think in some cases we do have evidence that it existed, at least by the Carolingian period. Einhard’s letters, for example, show how a courtier is able to get favours for his friends from the king, and his letters end up being used as a formulary, which suggests that this is fairly standard practice. But I want to look at consensus from a rather different angle, looking specifically at Guy’s argument about warfare as a zero-sum game.

Guy makes his point with a simple example:

By way of a hypothetical illustration let us suppose that territory X, a component of Kingdom A, can support 200 warriors from the surplus generated by its land. If access to Territory X is lost by the King of A, either through conquest by Kingdom B or the secession of the local Governor of X, then the King of A loses 200 warriors, whose control is gained either by the King of B or the Governor of X.

This is accurate in as far as it goes: King B gains, King A loses. But in practice, this isn’t really how things works. There is always collateral damage in war: so B probably loses at least 5 of his own warriors gaining this land, which may well have been harried enough that its productivity has declined temporarily. In other words, any war is likely to lead to an overall loss of resources.

If you like at it like this, what you have is a classic prisoner’s dilemma game. The best overall solution (the one that preserves most resources) is if A and B don’t fight. But the best solution for either A or B is a successful attack on the other. However, this risks the worst overall solution, which is that you end up with dozens of warriors dead on both sides and the land you’re fighting over rendered useless. When you have warfare between two relatively evenly-matched parties, it’s possible that everyone loses: in that sense it’s not a zero-sum game.

This doesn’t simply apply to warfare, either. In any game with rules, it’s always preferable if you’re allowed to ‘cheat’ and the other players aren’t. People are naturally anti-Kantians: they want rules and also want personal exemptions from them. (My ideal library, for example, is neither a reference library, nor a normal lending one, but one from which I and only I am allowed to borrow). But competition between powerful men, is always particularly prone to escalate in destructive ways, whether it’s potlatches, or spending on political campaigns, or revenge killing.

This is where consensus politics come in. It’s not a fluffy, bunny-hugging hippy idea, but one of a number of tools used to stop powerful men with retinues going for each others’ throats and ripping society apart. The preferred mechanisms vary, according to the polity and the scale involved. ‘Stateless’ societies (such as early medieval Iceland or Patrick Geary’s C11 France) could still have some complex mechanisms for preventing resort to customary vengeance and for dispute settlement more generally. In polities with rulers, other patterns are also visible, such as the ruler as a supposedly neutral arbiter between disputing parties, and there are pre-emptive attempts at bonding, encouraging magnates/warlords to co-operate rather than slaughter one another. The same patterns can sometimes be seen between kingdoms as well, reaching its extreme in the interminable struggles between Carolingian rulers in the second half of the ninth century. Agreement and co-operation between rival rulers wasn’t something that could be expected spontaneously, but instead was something deliberately and laboriously created.

Going back to the game theory aspect, the outcome of the prisoner’s dilemma is very different if you have repeated games. The most effective strategy in any one game is to ‘defect’ (to cheat or resort to violence), but in a repeated game, co-operation (and a limited willingness to forgive others) is more effective. Looked at in this way, consensus politics is an attempt to encourage some co-operation. It’s not surprising that such an attempt wasn’t always successful, given the short-term temptations for individuals of resorting to violence, but in the slightly long term, such a strategy could benefit the ruler and the aristocracy.

Not only did such consensus politics potentially prevent damaging internal conflicts, but co-operation developed within a polity could also provide the military basis for expansion. Agobard of Lyons in 833 (Liber Apologeticus 1-3), criticising Louis the Pious in 833, deplores the preparations being made for civil war:

when the army ought to have been sent against external peoples, and the emperor himself should have fought against barbarian nations, so that he might have subjected them to the faith and extended the boundary of the kingdom of the faithful

Consensus politics in the early Middle Ages, I would argue, never excluded the use of violence. It was just a question of who that violence was used against.

Strategies of noble expansion in the early Middle Ages

This post has been lurking at the back of my mind for some months, but I’m prompted to bring it forward now by a post at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. Jon Jarrett has been trying again to wrestle with the problem of the ‘Feudal Revolution’, drawing on many of the papers from his recent trip to Kalamazoo, and extensive reading. I, on the other hand, didn’t go to Kalamazoo and have little time currently for keeping up with the literature, so I’m sticking to half-digested management theory. (Anyone who wants to argue at this point that such theories are not applicable because medieval nobles were not economically rational needs to remember recent events).

If modern companies want to expand, they have two main routes to take. One is what is often called organic growth, which is the process of gradually expanding your current business: opening up one extra shop, buying the piece of equipment that will increase your output etc. The alternative is expanding via mergers and acquisitions, where you suddenly take on a whole new area of business. The M&A route can get you big gains quickly, but it’s risky, because you’re moving into unfamiliar territory. Organic growth is slower, but in theory is safer, except that if one of your rivals goes the M&A route and gets a lot bigger, it can then swallow you up.

What does all this have to do with early medieval noblemen? They too want to expand, in the sense of gain more wealth and power. And we can also see two main strategies for how they do this. One focuses on expansion, particularly via war or royal favour. The other is more locally focused, aiming to exploit their current lands and the peasantry on them to the maximum, while gradually buying up or taking over adjacent property. Call these imperial and local strategies.

It’s important, first of all, to notice that it’s hard to combine the two strategies. If you’re spending all your time focused on your local area, you don’t have free time for being at court in the king’s presence, or carrying out the other kinds of networking that you need to gain royal favour. Conversely, if you’re reliant on royal favour, you need to be willing to go where the king wants you. If you’re given charge of the Pannonian frontier, you relocate there, you don’t just stay where your ancestors were. But you then have the fundamental medieval problem of the delegation of power. If someone else is managing your lands for you, and you’re not on the spot, how do you ensure they don’t either rip you off financially or even usurp the land? You can’t easily mix and match the two approaches.

Generally speaking, the local strategy is a conservative one, in the sense of more likely to keep what you already have (whereas king’s favourites can come to very sticky ends). It also fits better with both hereditary office and castles, as I’ll explain in a moment. But first, I want to emphasise one point: that discussions about what (lay) noblemen want too often ignore the anti-Kantian nature of their ideas. Medieval noblemen, like most of us, often really want rules that apply to everyone except themselves, or only to them, not to others. So it’s misleading to say that nobles always wanted offices to be hereditary. They wanted the offices they held to be hereditary, but not necessarily the ones that other men held, because that would make it harder for them to get their hands on those. If offices are becoming hereditary, that suggests an aristocracy worrying more about holding onto their current offices than acquiring new ones, which goes with a local strategy.

Castles are also more effective for a local than an imperial strategy. Castles enable a small number of warriors to dominate a local area, which is handy if you’ve got to terrorise the neighbouring peasants into coughing up higher rent. On the other hand, if you have to delegate control of the castle, because you’re busy on the other side of the kingdom, it’s all easy to come back and find your castellan is now setting himself up as an independent lord. (Modern management may have its problems, but at least if you have an uppity subordinate, you don’t end up having to besiege a branch office to regain control).

So how and why does a nobleman chose between these strategies? Most don’t actually really have a choice, because they’re not important or lucky enough to be able to seek royal favour. They’re stuck with local, seigneurial, strategies. It’s only the higher levels of the nobility that really get a choice, and that depends on a number of factors. Some of them are cultural: as Chris Wickham points out, Merovingian magnates seem to have regarded it as being beneath them to exploit their peasants to the maximum extent. You get more glory (and references in poetry) from plundering than ratcheting up the rent on your tenants by a few pence, even if long-term it’s less financially rewarding.

But there are also practical factors. How much wealth do the rulers have to give (in terms either of war booty or fiscal land)? Are you going to be able to gain royal favour, or are a few families monopolising it? How risky is it to back a particular king at a particular time, especially if your far-flung possessions might end up in another king’s kingdom? Part of any solution of the feudal transformation has to be looking at when and why nobles decide that a local strategy is better than an imperial one. There’s an interesting paper by Regine Le Jan, ‘Le Jan, Régine, ‘L’aristocratie lotharingienne au Xe siècle: structure interne et conscience politique’, in Herrman, Hans-Walter, and Schneider, Reinhard, (eds.), Lotharingia – Eine europäische Kernlandschaft um das Jahr 1000 Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Saarländische Landesgeschichte und Volksforschung, 26, (Saarbrücken : Saarbrücker Druckerei, 1995) , also reprinted in her Femmes, pouvoir et société dans le haut Moyen Age, (Paris: Picard, 2001), which looks at why regional principalities didn’t develop in Lotharingia in the tenth century, when they did in both France and Germany. Sometimes it gets a bit teleological, assuming that Lotharingian nobles simply missed their chances. But she also points out that some families, such as the Reginarids were blocked from developing independent principalities by their close ties to the Ottonians. Other Lotharingian families focused on gaining bishoprics, again tying themselves into imperial structures, rather than locally-based lineages.

What this suggests is that although in the long-term, most nobles would probably end up with a broadly similar strategy to your rivals (if something seems to be working, everyone will pile in), in the short-term, different groups might try different tactics to get a temporary advantage. This is where we get back to Jon’s Königsferne, which I think we again need to understand as anti-Kantian. What such nobles really, really want is a king who is distant from their local rivals, but still accessible to them personally, so that they are the only ones who benefit. In a largely local game, a small amount of an imperial strategy can give you an edge. If we start looking more comparatively at strategies by different families (including in different regions) and the relative success of these families, we might get some interesting clues about why relationships with rulers change.

The disadvantages of the religious marketplace

I’ve recently been trying to get to grips with some current academic work on sociology of religion; it’s full of interesting insights, but there are times I start feeling slightly like I’m a bird reading a book on ornithology. One of the most interesting bits has been reading some stuff on rational choice theory (RCT) of religion, which I hadn’t known much about before. This is one of those theories that is like a Swiss Army knife – at first it seems to provide an answer to everything, then you start realising all the situations it doesn’t really work for. RCT is a theory that works pretty effectively for the US, where it was developed, and far less well for many other areas of the world.

What really interests me, though, is how its supporters tend to use RCT not only as a descriptive frame (there is a marketplace in religions), but as a normative view: that this is what a society should aim to have. In particular, they seem to take as axiomatic three propositions:

1) That there should be multiple religions, all competing for adherents
2) That a person’s religion should be chosen by them and not determined by birth.
3) That there should be no state religion.

All these three propositions come historically from a particular strain of non-conformist Protestantism, most prevalent in the US, but they also have sound liberal arguments for them, as well as fitting well with contemporary capitalism. Who could be against freedom of religion and religious choice in this way? Yet what hasn’t been considered so carefully is some of the disadvantages such a religious marketplace creates. We need to be more aware of these problems, even if we still conclude that the free religious marketplace is better than more regulated alternatives.

1) Religious competition
Views on the effects of multiple religions (or sects/denominations) competing with each other have been mixed. There is a long history of religious conflicts leading to particularly bloody wars. Adam Smith, however, argued that once you had societies divided into hundreds or thousands of different sects, they would be small enough to have to be pacific and moderate, and this is a view that still has many adherents today. (See the quote from Smith in this paper by Laurence Iannaccone.

Neither the argument that the multiplication of sects/religions necessarily leads to more extremism/violence or necessarily leads to moderation holds up from empirical evidence. More realistically, what a religious marketplace tends to create is more homogenous religious groups, both theologically and socially. If it is normal for religions and churches to split, there is less incentive for anyone to stay and protest if someone is taking a movement in a direction you don’t like. Instead, you leave it and found your own church, with other like-minded people.

If you spend all your time with like-minded people, there is less likely to be any challenge to your beliefs and prejudices: instead, you are likely to reinforce each others’ views. This process therefore creates a strong sense of an in-group and an out-group: other Christians (or other Muslims or other Wiccans) are no longer You, they are a different Other. You are likely to feel less sense of community and solidarity with them, which is itself a social loss.

Market place religion thus produces a greater diversity of religious groups and less diversity within them. You end up with niche theologies of wildly different kinds. It’s easier to develop racist theology in a church which has only one race represented in it. It’s easier to decide that women priests are OK if most of the misogynists in the congregation have decided to go elsewhere, rather than engage in thirty years of negotiation with them in the hope that they’ll come round. But it’s also easier for those who have a religious outlook based on hate to gravitate together into a shared sect based on hate. And modern technology gives such a sect the ability to carry out terrible atrocities.

The politicizing of religion is also more likely in a religious marketplace. The language of politics, business and religion inevitably tend to merge when both are trying to win over ‘floating voters’. But religious-based marketing of politics is also made much easier once churches/sects have become homogeneous and identifiable social segments. It’s much easier to create policies/political marketing that will appeal to most Southern Baptists, rather than most Protestants, let alone most Christians.

2) Religion as choice, not inheritance
Last year the Atheist Billboard Campaign had a campaign under the slogan Please Don’t Label Me, which complained about the practice of calling children Catholic, Muslim, Protestant etc. I felt like pointing out that this wasn’t now what happened, that you heard the expression ‘Christian child’, for example, only in nineteenth century hymns. Then I looked at a booklet on admission criteria for Hertfordshire schools that I had at the time, and realised I was wrong. The Church of England schools might be giving preference to children from Anglican or Christian families, but the Catholic and Jewish ones were happily talking about Catholic and Jewish children.

That was when I realised I was committing the religious fallacy of thinking like a Protestant (and so were the atheists who had planned the campaign). It’s a particularly Protestant understanding of religion to see it as involving assent to particular doctrines, an assent that can only properly be given by reasoning adults. If you instead imagine religion as more about a cultural/social inheritance than specific dogmas, then it’s no more unreasonable to bring up a child to be a Jew than it is to bring them up to be Welsh-speaking or a classical music lover, or someone who supports Luton Town football club.

The assumption that the only proper religion is that chosen by adults tends to weaken the religious landscape in several ways. Firstly, by losing the vital resource of such figures as secular Jews, cradle Catholics etc. These are often people deeply committed to a religion and its ethos, but not necessarily to its current manifestations, and thus more able to challenge the religion’s leaders. The challenge offered by unorthodox intellectuals such as Andrew Sullivan or Tariq Ramadan to their respective religions would be greatly weakened if they could not rightfully claim Catholicism and Islam as their respective inheritances. It would also be weakened if they left their faith communities, as a religious marketplace would suggest: ex-believers do not have much influence in most congregations. In contrast, converts are rarely critical of their new religion, and where they are (such as Tony Blair on Catholicism and homosexuality) tend to be told to shut up fairly fiercely. Even those who are brought up in a religion, but who abandon it as adults, can bring some of its better values into a wider world. How much of current western intellectual thought, for example, comes from the contribution of secularised Jews?

3) Established religion
Opponents of established/state churches are often working with an implicit model of an established church based on eighteenth century England or fifteenth century Spain. Yet as Grace Davie points out in ‘The sociology of religion’ (pp. 172-3):

the crucial point lies in appreciating the difference between an historically strong state church, which almost by definition, becomes excluding and exclusive, and its modern somewhat weaker alternative. A weakened state church is in a different position, frequently using its still considerable influence to include, rather than exclude, becoming de facto the umbrella body of all faith communities in Britain.

A state religion that is therefore tied to a political elite looks very different in a democracy with religious pluralism than in an absolutist/aristocrat state. A pluralist democracy means that the representatives of state religion cannot be too politically partisan or out of step with public mood: they must be willing to co-operate with an elected government of any type. At the same time, however, representatives of an established religion have a legitimate claim to speak independently on political matters and to be listened to. The result is that the Church of England has normally worked as a moderating political influence in the recent past. For example, it ended up being one of the most prominent opponents of some of the more extreme forms of Thatcherism in the 1980s (at a time when the Labour party was in disarray). Such a moderating influence may not always be ideal: some non-established churches have been able to oppose warfare more consistently than state churches, for example. But it can act as some kind of check on governments, in a politically strong state, such as the UK.

As Grace Davey suggests, a state religion can also, paradoxically, provide a way of protecting religious minorities. Certainly, the French treatment of minority faiths is substantially more unfavourable to them than Britain is: here, ideas about ‘laicite’ have been used to justify considerable discrimination against Muslims, for example. Not all formally secular states are hostile to religion, but the US separation of state and church also seems to have a negative effect on education, resulting in the polarization of a private system of religious schools without any effective checks, opposed to a public school system where religion is barely taught. I suspect I learnt considerably more about Sikhism or Islam in my Church of England school than I would have done in most parts of the US system.

Established churches, then, however, reprehensible in theory, in modern practice can potentially act as a way of including the religious moderate within the mainstream of society, without threatening the liberty of the non-religious. When I was an evangelical Anglican back in the 1980s I wanted a disestablished church, one which rejected the privileges of a relationship with the state, but also wanted to escape the constraints this brought. Nowadays I am less sure that a Church of England which lost its theological and pastoral constraints in that way would necessarily be a positive development.

As I said at the start, all these disadvantages of the religious marketplace don’t necessarily invalidate it as a vision for society: it may, like democracy and capitalism, be the worst system apart from all the other ones. But I think we do need to be more aware of the potential paradox that a situation which is undoubtedly better for most individuals may nevertheless end up with less good outcomes for society as a whole. But perhaps that’s typical for an ideal such as the religious marketplace so strongly marked by capitalist ideology.