Some reflections on violence, reconciliation and the “feudal revolution.” Fredric L. Cheyette



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(to appear in Conflict in Medieval Europe, ed. Piotr Gorecki and Warren Brown ( Ashgate, 200X)


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copyright 2002


Some reflections on violence, reconciliation and the “feudal revolution.”
Fredric L. Cheyette
When Georges Duby died, I was moved to read once again the book that first made his reputation and that for many medievalists represents his masterpiece, La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise .1 This book was in many ways the fons et origo of two generations of French medieval social history, the model for untold numbers of theses on “la terre et les hommes” in one region or another of Europe, many published and many more that will probably never be completed.2 For the social and political history of the tenth and eleventh centuries in France, the Mâconnais created what we may call the “standard model.” Although Duby himself was very cautious about using the word “feudal,” out of his description of the transformation of Burgundian society around the year 1000 eventually came the dominating picture of the mutation féodale, Englished as the “feudal revolution.”3

Violence and the social means by which it was controlled, if not a major topic in the pages Duby devoted to the tenth and eleventh centuries, figure prominently among the assumptions that guide his argument. They continue to lurk — quietly or not — on the fringes or at the heart of many discussions of the “feudal revolution.” The path from the Mâconnais to the subject of this conference, therefore, inevitably leads to a detour through the terminology and definition of “feudalism.” In following this side road, I do not intend to go back over the ground long ago plowed by Elizabeth A.R. Brown and more recently by Susan Reynolds concerning the use of the words “feudal” and “feudalism” and the concepts they refer to.4 But before I turn to the large question of how our developing understanding of the processes of violence and reconciliation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries destabilizes what has been for over a generation the “standard model,” I want to reflect for a moment on why we have so long bothered with ‘feudalism,’ the mutation féodale or ‘feudal revolution,’ and why we should stop doing so.

It is now a commonplace to recognize that the concept of ‘feudalism,’ if not the word itself, gradually emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and was given a major impulse in the writings of eighteenth-century lawyers. The particular form that has so long afflicted historical studies, however, is the child of the intellectual and particularly the scientific world of the nineteenth century. The model of scientific rigor and intellectual progress was then biology (or “natural history,” as its practitioners usually called it), an endeavor then dominated by the concept of species. The task of the naturalist was to define the characteristics and particular structures of individual species, class them in relation to each other, and then describe their usefulness to man. Adam and Eve naming the plants and animals in the Garden of Eden were the model of the scientist at work. Typologies, in consequence, were the preeminent form of scientific thought. As geology and its sister science paleontology slowly opened up a world of vanished species, naturalists had to face the question of how and why some disappeared, others survived, and new species came into existence. That was Darwin’s question, and the theory of natural selection with which he eventually answered it revolutionized Western understanding of the history of living beings on this planet. Only in our own days, however, has biology gone through the second revolution that allows us to understand the genetic mechanisms on which natural selection operates and thus explain how evolution occurs. Taxonomy still thrives, but in the course of this second revolution in the biological sciences, the concept of species has been transformed; species have lost their fixity. No longer is a species considered a group whose similarities can be precisely defined and measured; no longer can one imagine finding a perfect specimen of a species. For a species is now thought of as a population, one that is reproductively isolated and inhabits a specific ecological niche.5“Darwin's influence on modern thought,” Scientific American, 283 no.1 (July 2000) 78 83 . We now know that if we wish to explain the dynamics of biological populations, if we want to understand evolutionary processes, it is the variability of the genome within a given population that we have to comprehend, not the fixity of form. Genetic variability is what makes evolution possible.

For nineteenth-century historians and sociologists, biology was the scientific model to follow: to be scientific one had to define the species of social organisms and eventually trace the succession or transformations through which one turned into another. For the historian as for his scientific colleagues, to define these sociological species meant above all to specify their structures, their fundamental characteristics, the sociological equivalent of the beaks of birds or the bone structures of mammals. And of these species, feudalism and capitalism were among the most important.6

Species taxonomy preoccupied our illustrious predecessors. Marc Bloch was working within the direct line of this tradition when in his Feudal Society he defined the classic feudalism of the lands between the Loire and the Rhine, and the curious “variants” that appeared in Occitania, Spain, and Germany. So was Georges Duby when he set about defining the essential characteristics of late-Carolingian society in the Mâconnais whose disappearance led to the rise of castellans, the emergence of the knightly class, and the development of banal lordship over the peasantry. Both would have learned from Durkheim to think of social history as a sequence of species,7 defined as structures or types in which economies, family organization, and “collective sentiments” (the mentalités of the later Annales school) were all functionally related. Whether directly from Durkheim or Marx or under the influence of these French masters, the habit continued in the next generation. I recall with wry amusement how much time I spent as a graduate student fathoming the complex typologies of feudalism and manorialism and, as a teaching assistant, trying to convince my students of these typologies’ importance. Among some of my colleagues as among those of an older generation, Marxism only increased the grip of this preoccupation. It too was a product of nineteenth-century science, and Marx and Engels had learned their sociological anthropology from the same masters as Durkheim: from Henry Maine, Lewis Henry Morgan, J.M. McLennan, and their supporters and opponents.8 The proponents of mutationisme — whether in its soixante-huitarde, its royalist, or its liberal form — are only the most recent practitioners of this type of historical sociology, little touched by the transformation of the science that their distant predecessors once imitated.

Should historians care about that transformation? Now that biologists have replaced the old taxonomic methods of natural history with the study of population genetics, should we abandon the old taxonomies of social species? That is a question that surely deserves extended consideration, though this is not the place for it. One aspect, however, is directly relevant to the story of a “feudal revolution.” Nineteenth-century naturalists, strong in their belief in the fixity of species, were hard put to explain the appearance of new species in the geological record. Some, eager to retain their belief in the truth of the Genesis story of creation, asserted that these new species were evidence for God’s continuous presence in the world: each was an individual act of divine creation. Others, following Lamarck (and ignoring the work of Mendel), believed that acquired characteristics could be inherited, and in this way species adapt themselves to changes in their environment. Either way the change was abrupt: an old species vanished and was replaced by a new one or turned into a new one.

And so with social species, for Durkheim as well as Marx. Here is Durkheim on the passage from “mechanical solidarity” to “organic solidarity”:

[Organic solidarity] rests on principles so different from [mechanical solidarity] that it can develop only in proportion to the effacement of that preceding type. ... No doubt, when this new organization begins to appear, it tries to utilize the existing organization and assimilate it. ... But this mixed arrangement cannot long endure, for between the two states that it attempts to reconcile, there is an antagonism which necessarily ends in a break. [Organic solidarity] can grow only by freeing itself from the framework which encloses it. ... The social material must enter into entirely new combinations in order to organize itself upon completely different foundations. But the old structure, so far as its persists, is opposed to this. That is why it must disappear.9

The argument is not only totally a priori, it stems from Durkheim’s reification of his two analytical constructs. The need for a sudden, revolutionary, alteration comes not from an observation of any phenomena in the real world, but from the manner in which he has constructed his social species, from the internal logic of his categories. The similarity between this passage and the Communist Manifesto could reflect Durkheim’s reading of Marx, but could just as easily derive from their use of identical intellectual methods. Like the concept of “social structure” to which it is closely tied, any notion of a social “species” in this nineteenth-century manner must inevitably have recourse to a sudden break, a “revolution,” or a “mutation” (in the nineteenth-century naturalist rather than the late-twentieth-century geneticist sense), in order to explain how a new social species replaces an old one. It is inherent in the conceptual logic of the old notion of species. It is there before the historian reads a single charter.

This may be one of the reasons that “feudalism” and the various narratives of the mutation or transformation that brought it into being have over the years been unable to accommodate the discoveries of detailed research in the sources. For me to catalogue all these moments would be a work of supererogation. I will recall only a few. The identification of ‘feudal society’ — whatever dates we want to put on it — with fief-holding among the elite was called into question by Duby himself, when he showed in the Mâconnais that until the thirteenth century most elite property in the region was alodial. That phenomenon has now been confirmed in many regions. Among many other achievements, it was a first step towards understanding that the land-holding arrangements of post-Conquest England — or at least a certain image of post-Conquest England — were not the model for all of Europe. Duby also helped to dismantle an alternative definition of “feudalism” when he showed that peasants in the Mâconnais also had alodial property and owed few if any labor services, a fact noted here and there over the years by a number of cartulary editors but rarely if ever mentioned in general histories. If the Mâconnais in the eleventh- and twelfth-century was a “feudal society,” located between the Loire and the Rhine and thus within Marc Bloch’s core area of classic “feudalism,” then this particular social species could not be identified with serfdom and labor services either.

More recent attempts to single out the fundamental characteristics of “feudal” society have also foundered on more exhaustive examination of the evidence. The process of incastellamento and the rise of castellans, the building of castles and the grouping of new village centers with subject populations around them, is one of the more recent alternative narratives for the birth of feudal society. Investigations on the ground, however, has shown that while some villages did gather around castles between 1000 and 1200, far more seem to have gathered around churches. A recent survey of the villages of the Mediterranean plain between the Rhone and Roussillon, has shown that the flood plains of the Hérault and Orb rivers where Monique Bourin traced the process of village incastellation, are the only areas in this region where it occurred widely. What we might call inchiesamento is the predominant pattern elsewhere on this part of the Mediterranean plain.10 Meanwhile — based on her work in southern Scandinavia, where compact villages also developed during the same period without any castles being present — one student of the subject11 has suggested that the primary push towards village formation was a change in the organization of peasant agriculture, having little or nothing to do with lordly constraint. As for the identification of ‘feudal society’ with banal lordship, that may have a longer shelf life, though we may be sure that the standard interpretation of this phenomenon as well will eventually come under scrutiny.

* * *


How have studies of violence and dispute-processing entered into this unfolding critique of the concept of “feudalism” and the “feudal revolution”?

It seems to me that what lies behind much of the “problem of violence” in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is the profound belief, shared by many historians as well as sociologists and political scientists, in the ideology of state sovereignty, an ideology with strong Hobbesian coloration. This belief may have been fostered in our own age by the absence of an international authority capable of preventing two world wars, but its academic roots lie deep in the early history of the social sciences. It is the belief that, without constraint from above, society will fall into anarchy, without constraint from above the strong will do what they wish and the weak will suffer what they must, a belief explicitly propounded by Durkheim, from whose pages the founding generation of Annales social history absorbed it. Duby in the early chapters of the Mâconnais is quite explicit; it is a proposition that, for him, needs no demonstration, a simple assumption that underlies his description of the first emergence of “feudal society,” of the world of the castellans.

After the weakening of comital authority in the eleventh century, the aristocracy, now bound only by feudal institutions, finds itself freed from all real constraints. The most powerful enjoy total independence. The lesser nobility, though constrained by the services due from their fiefs, are also largely free to do what they wish. If they commit a wrong, there is no precise tribunal to judge them, none to punish them. For the upper class, feudalism is a step on the way to anarchy.12

Without this belief the standard model of the “castellan revolution” and the mutation féodale, derived from Duby’s Mâconnais, would have a shaky foundation indeed.

Added to this are the presuppositions of what Herbert Butterfield long ago called “Whig history,” and its equivalents in the historiography of non-English-speaking countries, presuppositions that are deeply imbedded in what has long been the standard textbook narrative of the Middle Ages. If one projects the teleology of the nation-state backwards in time as well as forward, the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, the centuries “without a state,” have to be centuries of violence, not because the state-builders of the twelfth century, people like Henry II and his sons, or Alfons “the Battler,” or the emperor Frederick I, were such a violent crowd, but because of the violence perpetrated by the unrestrained masters of castles and by all those unruly barons and rebellious cities the aggrandizing kings had to put down.

The research that led to my 1970 article on arbitrating disputes13 came directly out of a subset of the Whig narrative, which along the way had become fused with what we might call the pre-Mâconnais feudal narrative. The standard model of the development of medieval royal government that held sway fifty years ago assured us that royal justice had made its way as a rival to baronial justice, which had long preceded it. This baronial justice, of course, was exercised in “feudal” courts, attended by the barons’ vassals. In the mid-1960s I headed off to Narbonne, which has a rich thirteenth-century archive, to investigate the means and methods of this royal takeover. What I discovered was that the standard model had nothing to do with what was in the archives. It was a figment of the imagination of several generations of medievalists. I really should not have been surprised. Duby had in fact discovered the same thing in the Mâconnais, though he labeled what he had found — dispute resolution by arbitration and compromise — “private justice” and placed his description of it in the uneasy neighborhood of “feudal anarchy.” That, I suppose, blinded me at the time to what he was in fact talking about.

We now know far more about the processes of dispute resolution before the advent of royal justice, before the imposition of sovereign control. We also know that those old processes did not easily disappear even after the advent of royal justice.14 Thanks to this work it is now hard to remember what the standard model of the history of judicial institutions once was. One part of the old Whig narrative, the old feudal narrative of baronial courts, has largely vanished. It has been replaced with an ever more complex understanding of the slow imposition of royal and great princely power on the emerging kingdoms and great principalities of western Europe, and — even more importantly — with a more complex understanding of the societies on which that power was imposed.

In contrast, the earlier part of the Whig narrative, the one projected backwards from the thirteenth century (I am tempted to say, “from the eighteenth century”) is still — at least in some quarters — solidly in place, despite the siren voice of Dominique Barthélemy and despite Duby’s own rejection of some of its more dogmatic assertions late in his career.15 The narrative is familiar to all of us. First comes the breakdown of royal power in the tenth-century wars of rival claimants to Carolingian legitimacy and the renewed incursions of Vikings, Saracens, and Magyars. The old public order, however, remains alive under the rule of the counts. Then, in the decades around the year 1000, the last vestiges of that public order collapse, and in its absence, power falls into the hands of those strong and rich enough to build castles and dominate the population roundabout. The age of the castellans, the age of evil customs and the seigneurie banale is upon us. The old unfree of the Carolingian world are replaced by a new subject population, those subject to banal lordship, while those who escape this new subjection become the seed of the new warrior elite.



Duby’s manner of telling this story was deeply seductive and eventually swept the previous standard narrative into the dust bin. It was indeed so seductive that no one, to my knowledge, ever checked out Duby’s database, the early volumes of the Cluny charter collection and the cartulary of St-Vincent of Mâcon, to see how he had read the documents, though it would have been easy to do so, as François Ganshof had surveyed the same materials twenty-five years earlier.16 What one finds in those volumes is that the documentary basis for his description of the tenth century world — the world that was transformed in the decades around the year 1000 — is very thin indeed. Duby went to these documents with a picture already set in his mind of what the late Carolingian world had to look like, including the still functioning public institutions, notably the public court whose viability maintained the clear distinction between the free and the unfree. Because he went looking for this, this is what he found. The evidence for such a picture, however, amounts to little more than the use of the expression “in mallo publico” in nine tenth-century documents that record dispute settlements, and the settlement of disputes in the presence of the count or a viscount in eighteen other tenth-century documents and two from the early eleventh century, some of them recorded following the standard Carolingian placitum formulae. (As far as I have been able to determine, only fifteen of these documents are actually cited by Duby in his footnotes, though the others may be cited in other contexts.17) I say ‘dispute settlements’ rather than court judgments because the vast majority of these documents are quitclaims (notitiae guarpitiones) as they will continue to be in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In the small number of cases where a trial is actually described, it is on one occasion a trial by battle followed by a quitclaim,18 in another all that is reported is that the count, the bishop and all their fideles declare that the cathedral of Mâcon is in the right,19 and in almost all the others the proof is by oath on relics. These are not the only dispute settlements among the more than 2400 tenth-century documents in these two collections. I have found thirty-eight others, in the presence of the bishop, the abbot of Cluny, or other monastic officials. Except for the reference to the public mallus, usually in the context of the standard Carolingian placitum form, and the occasional mention of scabini, little distinguishes the texts that mention the mallus from the records of dispute settlements that do not mention it, and little distinguishes the corpus of tenth-century dispute settlement as a whole from the equivalent records I am familiar with in eleventh- and twelfth-century Languedoc or those contained in later volumes of the Cluny charter collection. When Ganshof looked at these same texts in 1928 he concluded that they showed Carolingian institutions “in full decay.”20

The membership of these tenth-century courts also differs little from that of the eleventh- and twelfth-century gatherings to settle disputes that I am familiar with elsewhere. Far from being “all free men” as Duby insisted, those who man the courts in the Mâconnais can easily be identified as the count’s and bishop’s friends, their entourage. On occasion, some of them are specifically named their fideles.21 They appear in the company of the count not just in the public mallus, but when he is giving lands to the church; and he sometimes appears as witness when one of them is a donor. On occasion, and probably more often than my limited means allow me to tell, the witnesses to quitclaims that are not made in the count’s presence are members of the same small group of fideles.22 Duby, in other parts of his discussion, in fact identifies many of these men as the ancestors of those who will be the great castellans of the eleventh century. Already around 920 some of these fideles are called miles, a half century earlier than Duby thought the term first appeared.23 Should they not be considered the powerful men of the city and countryside?24 The documents tell us little about what gifts these faithful may have received from the count, but there is plentiful evidence for the precaria they received from the bishop of Mâcon and the abbot of Cluny. For donors of land to the church the practice was already a sufficient problem in the mid-tenth century for some of them to specify that their donations could not be alienated in that manner and to call down the curse of God on anyone who did so.25

A few of these tenth-century precarial grants are quite explicit about the reasons for giving them. Here is one from the quill of abbot Mayeul in 974: “Spiritual men should treat their fideles well (fidelibus in posterum consulere) in order that they be more prompt in their deference and that their services not be made use of without temporal compensation.” Four years later the abbot gave land to the bishop of Lyon, “that he may be our aid and defender, our guardian and most faithful hope.”26 The first text echoes a standard phrase in imperial grants of benefices.27 In the second, we immediately recognizes the biblical language. Gift and companionship, gift and service, gift and protection: the familiar combinations are already there in the tenth century. They are the actions and values that already hold these communities of great lords and powerful followers together. They are projected onto the next world, as well, when St Vincent of Mâcon and the abbey of Fleury establish their brotherhood through an exchange of land, “that by enriching with earthly goods they may enjoy heavenly companionship.”28 These values are at the heart of what we might call the “culture of fidelity.”

Powerful men surrounded by their fideles, who are well compensated with grants of land; powerful miles among the followers of bishops (and doubtless also of the much less well documented counts); an ideology of deference, service, and largesse binding lords to lords and lords to followers: we expect to find practices and sentiments like this in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The “standard model” of the mutation féodale, however, assumes a very different picture of the tenth century. Should we then simply move the date for the mutation upstream to 900 or earlier? I don’t think that would be a good idea.

As starting point for my argument I will take a placitum, an account of a dispute involving the monastery of Nouaillé, not far from Poitiers, heard and resolved by a judicial assembly in 834. The text as it has come down to us follows a standardized form that was employed throughout the Carolingian world from Bavaria to the Pyrenees.29 It tells how the monastery’s advocatus complained that a man named Agnaldus had come with his slaves, tenants, and free men to a village belonging to the monastery, violently beaten the monastery’s men, forced them to leave, and taken their goods. King Peppin, it goes on, sent a missus to hear the complaint, and Agnaldus, unable to deny that he had committed these wrongs, gave security to return the goods he had seized and do whatever else that justice required.30 What makes this event pre-mutation? There is a king, we might respond, and he has sent his agent to hear the complaint. After the mutation there would be no king active in Poitou. Or, we might say, because Agnaldus has slaves. Each answer would match a well-known definition of the mutation féodale. Yet what the monastery is complaining about looks very much like what post-mutation monks complain about: the depredations of the strongmen in their neighborhoods. Agnaldus himself looks very much like Duby’s description of an eleventh-century castellan, except that no castle is mentioned. He is clearly a local potentate. He commands not only slaves and tenants but free men as well. Furthermore, the document carefully specifies that the king’s missus is Agnaldus’s brother. What better indication of Agnaldus’s status? The family connection, and the fact that the document takes care to mention it, suggests that some social processes are taking place behind the scenes that the placitum is not talking about, processes that may be similar to those that Warren Brown has described in ninth-century Bavaria or those we know so well from eleventh- and twelfth-century documents.31 Perhaps there was a disputed inheritance, a dispute in which the monastery had become involved, but whose resolution the placitum does not mention because it was irrelevant to the monastery’s rights; perhaps the village was this brother’s, or another’s, gift to the monastery, and Agnaldus claimed it as his own: we might imagine any number of scenarios in any number of permutations.

There are individuals who act like Agnaldus in the early-tenth-century Mâconnais as well, strongmen whose behavior cannot be distinguished from that of later castellans (and who are probably their ancestors), though the age of the castellans had supposedly not yet arrived. Among the charters of Cluny we can spot a Humbert, probably of Beaujeu, who sometime in the 920s or 30s became a monk and quit “the evil customs and unjust demands” that he had been making. Sometime around 960 there is another Humbert, probably his nephew, to whom abbot Mayeul granted the protection of four priories. The good abbot states that he is doing this “in place of the satisfaction and repayment we demanded for the innumerable evils that you did to us and for which we wanted to excommunicate you, and in return for your giving up what you took from us.” Humbert agrees not take any “customs” from the priories. If invited to do so by a monk, he may dine there with ten fighting men and then go his way.32

Is the presence of the king and of slaves in that text from Nouaillé sufficient to make the Carolingian world another species of society? Does the mention of the royal agent and the mallus publicus over which he presides, whether in Aquitaine, in Burgundy, or in Bavaria, necessarily conjure up a generically different institutional world, as Duby in the Mâconnais and the mutationistes would have us believe?33 We must take this as a methodological problem before we turn it into an historical problem. To what extent can we safely read tenth- and eleventh-century documents literally, as transparent representations of contemporary realities? And what kind of realities to they tell us about? Specifically, to what extent should we conceive what appear to be technical terms in these texts as having institutional or legal referents, in this case using “mallus publicus” or the presence of “scabini,” to construct in our minds an abstract locus of power and authority distinct from the personal power and authority of the individuals who composed it? Answering these questions requires in turn that we first answer two other quite different questions, one concerning the practices of the clerical scribes who recorded the documents we read, the other concerning the relevance of our own conceptual vocabulary to the society of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The scribes who produced the early medieval documents were notoriously conservative in the words they chose to pen on parchment. Copying Merovingian and Visigothic formularies or documents that were ultimately dependent on those formularies, they carried late Roman legal formulae along through the centuries like flotsam on a stagnant pond. The mallus as the name for a court goes back to the early Frankish kingdom.34 Its appearance in tenth-century documents may be a conscious archaism, like the mentions in the guarantee clauses at the end of sale and gift contracts of fines to be paid in gold, or the references to legal rituals that were already archaic in the later Roman world.35 The mentions of the mallus in tenth-century Burgundian texts, the use of the centuries-old placitum formulary, may have been nothing more than the way monastic or capitular scribes or the scribe employed by the count36 gave greater weight to the dispute settlements they were recording; there may have been no difference between the dispute-processing assemblies where the term was used and those where it was not. Indeed, the fact that scribes recording twenty such Mâconnais assemblies where a count or viscount presided did not use the phrase in mallo publico (as against nine where they did use it) suggests that its presence or absence does not mark a legal or institutional distinction but rather a rhetorical choice.37 Sometimes the bishop was present at these judicial gatherings alongside the count. Did the presence of the bishop without the count place the gathering in a different category?38 And if the bishop presiding does not put the gathering into a different category, why should the presence of the abbot of Cluny or another monastic official?

This brings us to the critical distinction that Duby and, after him, the mutationistes make between “private” and “public” dispute settlement. Warren Brown’s description of the judicial activities of archbishop Arn of Salzburg early in the ninth century suggests that the reality of power and authority in these judicial assemblies, even in those recorded as a public mallus, resided in the individuals who composed them and those individuals’ connections with other power centers, the Carolingian court and the local aristocracy. To argue thus is not to argue that Arn’s activities, or the activities of others like him, were “private” as distinct from “public,” nor does it turn all judicial assemblies, even those called “mallus publicus” into “private courts.” It simply recognizes that in the Frankish world as in the Late Roman world, all power was personal (as Karl Ferdinand Werner has so cogently argued).39 The spread of placitum procedures may have cloaked older “informal” methods of dispute settlement with more formal procedures, but, as Brown has demonstrated in Bavaria, those informal procedures were never suppressed and soon enough began to contaminate the placitum itself.40 This could happen easily, because the reality of power was not in the abstract “institutions” described by so many generations of legal historians and historians of social “structures,” but in personal status, networks, and relationships and the familiar practices that embodied them. To borrow the words of General DeGaulle, “Institutions? Men first of all.”

Duby’s account of the Carolingian public institutions that gave way with the demise of royal and then of comital power depended entirely on his reading of the handful of placitum texts in the Cluny and St-Vincent charter collections and his assumption that the use of the term mallus publicus in the tenth century demonstrated the continued unaltered existence of an impersonal institutional locus of power and authority. We now see that this is an account built on sand. Some features of the world that supposedly only came into existence after the year 1000 were already present a century earlier; others, and in particular the most widespread form of aristocratic dispute settlement, were present even in the age of Charlemagne himself, with all the social rituals and values that they imply. The powers of counts and bishops were not dependent on their offices but on their connections upward to the royal court, outward to their fellow high aristocrats and downward to their networks of fideles. Those faithful men were already important landholders, and — as the example of Agnaldus suggests — they doubtless commanded their own troops of faithful armed men and rewarded them well for their service and the “promptness of their deference.” And they were as liable as their eleventh-century descendants to use an iron fist to assert their rights. For the militarization of society was already an established fact in the sixth century, as is abundantly evident in the titles of magister militum, vir spectabilis, and vir illustrissimus proudly borne by so many “barbarian” warlords in the fifth- and sixth-century Roman court, evident in the archaeological record as well, in the “privileged burials,” the reoccupation of iron-age hill forts, and the creation of new ones in the sixth century.41 The Franks, like the Goths and other competitors, could not have built their kingdoms and their Empire without those aristocratic military forces, and along with the profits they brought Carolingian rulers they also fomented endless troubles.42

Thus, the “stateless” society of the eleventh century did not suddenly appear around the year 1000; it had already existed for half a millennium. For a brief time it was overlaid with the powers and the wealth-redistribution networks of the Carolingian court and the imaginings of public authority that Carolingian intellectuals produced, but that overlay was thin and fragile.43 The most visible long-term effect may have been the creation of a new aristocratic class, but there is no evidence that the values or practices of that class were new.44 Carolingian practices neither suppressed pre-Carolingian practices nor, in all likelihood, seriously modified them. This “stateless” society was not, however, a state of anarchy, for it had its own ways of maintaining a modicum of order. The spread of castles in the tenth and eleventh centuries introduced a new form of military technology, but was that enough to create a new type of society? I find this no more convincing than Lynn White Jr.’s old argument that the invention of the stirrup caused the rise of feudalism.

To me, all these arguments seem cause enough to abandon “feudalism,” the “mutation féodale,” the “feudal revolution,” and all their works and blandishments.

What shall we replace them with? That has always been the medieval historian’s cry of alarm. It is hard to abandon old habits and even harder to throw away old lecture notes. My answer will not be a miraculous cure. It may, in fact, suit no one but me. If that is the case, it will be all to the good as long as the search for replacements goes on. For it may be time to abandon the very idea of a standard narrative, to recognize that the sources allow a multiplicity of possible narratives, any of which may be capable of illuminating in a new and interesting way a past that will never be fully known or fully explained.

“Feudalism,” like all other “-isms,” asks us to define a particular distribution of power, a particular social “structure.” I suggest that instead of looking for structures or species with all their implied fixity we look at particular ways of doing things: social habits, practices, processes, each of which may have a multiplicity of meanings and a multiplicity of effects, and each of which may follow its own time-line, have its own particular history. We might think of these processes and practices as forming a “population” of behaviors, functionally connected, perhaps, but never stable, always variable in time and place, presenting to us an image in a kaleidoscope rather than an engineering blueprint or a succession of blueprints. At the risk of returning to bad nineteenth-century habits, I suggest we might think of these behaviors as capable of varying like the beaks of Darwin’s finches.

* * *

As an example of such practices I will take one that all medievalists are familiar with — oath-taking. Narratives such as Galbert’s account of the murder of Charles the Good are filled with them, and when teaching this text I have often urged my students to think of the society he describes not as “feudal” but as “oath-taking.” My examples, however, will not come from northern Francia but from Occitania.



Modern commentaries on medieval oaths have often turned them into contracts — especially the oath of fidelity, which generations of textbook writers have turned into the “feudal contract.” Out of that notion has come the standard question to ask about them: what specific obligations and responsibilities do they place on each of the parties? The textbook answer is usually taken from the well known letter from Fulbert of Chartres to the duke of Aquitaine. Anyone who has read through medieval charter collections knows, however, that oaths of fidelity were not contracts. They have not the slightest verbal similarity to the contracts that fill our cartularies. The contexts in which oaths were taken, the physical actions surrounding them, the high solemnity added by the relics that guaranteed them, the fixity of their language — unchanged over 200 years in the collections of oaths that survive from what is now southern France, and doubtless already fixed long before those first survivors — the forceful rhythms of the vernacular texts, like proto-poetry or chant, all mark them as rituals, more akin to traditional baptism or wedding ceremonies than to buying a house or hiring an employee; or to use medieval comparisons, more like the daily round of the canonical hours, or the processions and ceremonies that marked the passage of the year, or the sacraments that marked the major passages in life.45

The oaths of fidelity — known to those who swore them as oaths “of life and limbs” — were highly formulaic. Historians have long focused on their wording.46 What might the occasions on which they were sworn tell us about what they meant to contemporaries? Almost all those that survive from Languedoc (and there are many hundreds of them) concern castles or cities. They were sworn every time one of the partners — the one taking the oath or the one to whom it was given — changed. For the young castellan taking the oath as successor to his or her parent (for women were also castellans) it was thus a political coming of age, a highly charged and doubtless highly emotional moment. For the overlord receiving the oaths on her or his succession to power it was also highly charged, for this was the moment when ongoing relationships with followers or fellow lords would have to be renegotiated. And what one side in these negotiations may have thought were legitimate claims, the other side might call usurpations. The actions one side took to assert those claims the other would call violence and evil deeds.

Here is one such story. When Richard of Millau became archbishop of Narbonne early in the twelfth century, the first reforming bishop to take the see, such renegotiations were much in order, for the see had been in dispute for over 20 years. According to Richard, after the death of his predecessor Guifred, three bishops back, the lord of Termes joined forces with the simoniacal archbishop Peter of Rodez and invaded the church of Narbonne, usurping the castle of Villerouge. He then mortgaged it to the lord of Peyrepertuse. To recover the castle, Richard excommunicated both lords, but only when the lord of Termes died did he succeed. That was Richard’s version. From other sources we know that both lords supported Peter of Rodez in his attempt to take over the archbishopric. We also know that the lord of Peyrepertuse swore fidelity for Villerouge to archbishop Richard’s immediate predecessor, as had another man who can’t be identified. Usurpation and violence were thus in Richard’s eyes but not necessarily in the eyes of others. We need to ask ourselves how many stories of evil deeds, usurpations, and evil customs come from just such moments of succession and renegotiation.

How often did such moments occur? Far more often than I think we normally imagine. As the story of Villerouge already indicates, in Languedoc, at least, castles often, and perhaps always, had multiple castellans. And these castellans were also castellans in many castles. One example. At the border town of Mirepoix, where the interests of the counts of Foix encountered those of the family that held Carcassonne, five men at least (three of them brothers) swore fidelity to the widowed Ermengard of the Trencavel clan in the late 1070s; some eighty years later, in 1159, eleven lords of Mirepoix swore fidelity to the count of Foix. One of those in the 1070s was William of Alaigne, a potentate from the high Corbière hills south of Carcassonne towards Roussillon who took the title “viscount.” He was also castellan at four other castles in that mountainous region. At Mirepoix, the other castellans also swore oaths of fidelity to him, and doubtless he to them, though the records no longer survive. Fragmentary evidence for the same multiple holdings and multiple oaths can be found all over the region. Each time there was a succession to one of those positions of castellan the ritual would have been repeated. Each time a holding changed, through succession, gift, sale, confiscation, or grant, each time a dispute was negotiated and an agreement drawn up to end it, there would have been a new round of oath-taking. It is a simple exercise in permutation to calculate how many are represented by the one document that records the oath of eighteen "knights of Montreal" to Raymond Trencavel and his son Roger in August, 1162; if each of these knights at some moment had sworn his fidelity to each of the others it would have been 306. Each oath taking could have been a focus for claim and counter-claim: among those who shared the lordship of the castle, an argument over how large a share each should have; among those who might have been excluded, such as married sisters, what their share might be.

Just as men and women shared their castle lordship with others and did so in several castles, and at each took oaths of fidelity not just to their overlord but also to their fellow castellans, so likewise the local fighting men swore oaths in turn to their own castellan. A document from 1203 describes the ceremony in detail. The castellan hands the keys of the castle to his lord’s agent (in this particular case, it is the vicar of the count of Toulouse), who seals them. This act is recorded as a gift of the castle in alodem. The castellan swears his oath of fidelity, the keys are returned to him, and he unlocks the castle gate. This in turn is recorded as a grant of the castle in feudum. Then the fighting men who serve in the castle take their oaths of fidelity to the castellan. All of this, of course, in the company of the priest with the relics, the scribe with his parchment, quill and ink, and the friends and neighbors who are sometimes called upon to put their X on the parchment as witnesses.

In any particular castle, some of those taking oaths will be local toughs — such as the nineteen "men of Arifat" who, "at the command" of four other "lords of Arifat" swore to guarantee the oaths of one of the lords to the Trencavel viscount and his wife — others, like William of Alaigne whom I mentioned a moment ago, belonged to a regional nobility at the very least; and some spent their lives in the company of the great. Two of the eighteen castellans who swore fidelity for Montréal in 1162 were William of St-Felix, sometime vicar of Carcassonne, and close confidant of the Trencavels from the 1150s into the 1180s, and another leading member of the Trencavel entourage from the 1160s into the 1190s, Hugh of Roumegoust, who was successively vicar of Carcassonne and vicar of the Razès (the mountainous region south of Carcassonne). This was one of the ways in which the ultimate overlords, the counts and viscounts, assured the strict loyalty and subservience of the strongholds that in turn assured their dominance.

Oaths of fidelity were thus far more than individual "contracts" or even the markers of political and generational coming of age. They created, repaired, and remade communities.

Among the most obvious of these communities were those formed by brothers, who so often appear as joint oath-takers as well as actors in disputes and agreements concerning castles; whatever may have been the division of their father's other properties, brothers held their patrimonial castles in common, for this was the very stuff of status, and joint holding continued to travel down the generational tree to succeeding groups of cousins, keeping alive the memory of their common ancestry; that (as well as donations and dowries) is the most likely explanation for the halves and quarters of castles that people held, occasionally expressed as occupancy for two, four, or eight months out of the year. Sometimes the communities included sisters as well when, whether by testament, dowry, or intestate succession, they too became castellans.

No less visible was the entire community of the castle, the "lords of the castle," such as those at Arifat and Montreal, whose unity was assumed in all the promises to deliver and defend, a unity that in time of war was, of course, indispensable. It was a community whose loyalties one great lord could deliver to another as a dowry, as security, or as a peace offering along with the towers and stone walls its members protected.

Implicit in the oaths, and perhaps the most basic of all, was the community of those who lived by their faith, whose only subjection was by their freely given oath, and whose only obligations were those of honor. Taking the oath permanently separated those who took it from those who would never take it; the oath drew a line around a consecrated elite. Within this elite there were enormous differences. The distance between a modest village lord and count of Toulouse, a Trencavel viscount or an archbishop of Narbonne must have seemed as great and as untraversable as the distance between themselves and the villagers who respectfully addressed them as "my lord." Some were subservient to those to whom they swore, many more exchanged oaths with those who were their equals. What did they share that made it important for them to swear not to harm someone else, which was the essential content of the oath of fidelity?

For each of them the answer would have been the same. Everyone who swore fidelity belonged to a community — of siblings or fellow castellans, of followers with their lords, of allies, of fellow city rulers, or of recent enemies. Most of the time, these were the people one rubbed shoulders with in camp and in court. In the political world of Languedoc, as, doubtless, everywhere else, these communities were fundamental. Control of territory and success in warfare depended on their stability; we might guess (though the documents do not reveal it), that ordinary social life beyond the household did so as well. Yet, at the same time, these communities were fundamentally fragile. Brothers and sisters, once they had shared the paternal inheritance might be pulled in different directions by their marriage partners and their alliances; fellow castellans even more so. Allies might in time become enemies, depending on the flow of dynastic politics; and enemies even if reconciled could (and most often did) become enemies again.

The magic of the oath and the aristocratic values it served to internalize worked, however haltingly, to counteract those threats of disintegration. The oath-taker repeated "non tolrai .. non decebrai," "I will not take, I will not harm, I will not deceive," because within those communities injury and deception were what were most feared. They were what would pull those communities asunder.

And pull apart they did, in the sorts of conflicts that have concerned this conference. At such moments all social and political pressures concentrated on one goal — to recreate the community that was lost. And in the arguments and complaints, in the bitter words and recriminations, as well as in the gestures by which friends and lords sought to heal the breach, we can see fidelity not only as sentiment but as process as well.47 We can see the refined connections it was expected to create between emotion and cohesion, why violence was equated with anger, and why another word for fidelity was "love."

That is why to initiates, the songs of the troubadours, whose most memorable theme was love, invited far more than thoughts of play, erotic or otherwise. They invited their listeners to be attentive, above all, to the way these songs played upon the deepest issues of the political world in which their hearers lived.



* * *

These brief notations, drawn from a detailed study of Occitan society, are no more than a snapshot of aristocratic practices in one area over a span of about two centuries. Given the variable nature of medieval customs, other regions doubtless would present significant differences, as indeed does Occitania a century or so later. And surely cultural variability and change over time is what we should expect. That variability and change should not, however, blind us to long-term similarities and continuities in social habits, as the vocabulary of “crisis,” “mutation,” or “revolution,” and the narrative of social “structures” as a succession of “-isms,” have a way of doing. The narratives that result will surely become more complex, less easy to summarize in the lapidary concluding sentences of a textbook chapter, but that too is a result we should all applaud. Our all too familiar chronological landmarks, the legacy of hundreds of years of fascination with “periodization,” may vanish from our practice, if not from our course titles. Are we capable of keeping change and continuity simultaneously in view? I would hope so.




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