This man has got the idea

Every now and then there is a need for an article or paper that states a lot of stuff that we sort of already knew. Often there is new evidence involved, but even if there wasn’t, sometimes it’s just really useful to have many people’s work concentrated. It’s also really handy to set for students. If I were teaching medieval frontiers or property or territory, for example, I would set this:

One could live according to the customs of a province without coming under the jurisdiction of its prince. Every person knew what the border of his property was and what belonged to his neighbour. But such a property could have been divided between two or more rulers. The owner of the property knew to whom he was obliged to pay taxes and offer gifts on religious holidays, who would try him if he committed a heinous offence and who would try him if he committed a lesser offence. In the event of war, he usually knew where danger lay and on whose side he should be in order to fulfil his auxilium duties. But all these spheres did not necessarily overlap.

I don’t think you’ll find that in a clearer paragraph anywhere.1 Lots of people have said it before, but rarely if ever all together like that. And it actually helps, it helps me a lot because it’s a fairly complete bunch of things that someone in some kind of power could have expected to demand, from various subjects, and which of them are ‘public’ and which ‘private’ would be very hard to call. If a count has rights of high justice and military service over a settlement’s inhabitants, but has installed a castellan who takes the immediate revenues and has the rights of low justice, and can also demand limited public service, who is the public representative? What about if the castellan stops letting the count into the castle on demand? What if it’s not a castellan but the count just sets someone to whom he owes a favour up on revenues from an estate, as the Carolingian kings did with so many followers? Is that person getting public revenues or have they been privatised? More importantly, does it help to think in these terms? I find that, actually, it doesn’t. And the bundle of that paragraph is basically why.


1. Ronnie Ellenblum, “Were there borders and borderlines in the Middle Ages? The example of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem” in David Abulafia & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 105-118. The whole volume is really pretty good, it seems to me; I may reluctantly have to spend money on it.

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6 responses to “This man has got the idea

  1. I finally got to look at this. Tremendous article. Thanks for pointing me to it.

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