Feudal Transformations XIV: Königsferne

In the aftermath of the great Kalamazoo saga I found there was one particular theme that had threaded through for me, and it seemed to me worth making it explicit, even it’s not very insightful. It was brought to my mind by Cullen Chandler’s paper about whether or not the marquises of the Spanish March of the Carolingian empire rebelled in search of Königsnähe or not, that being literally nearness to the king, access to royal power. No, he concluded, and this made me think, not for the first time but in new words, that what would better describe that situation is not that word but another one that I didn’t know existed, something like Königsferne, distance from the king.1 Do you know what I mean? What the Spanish marquises, albeit not the ones Cullen was talking about, come to want is a king who won’t bother them but to whom appeal can still be made when there’s a need.

The regions of France in the eleventh and twelfth century

The regions of France in the eleventh and twelfth century

At several other points in the Congress, the same idea seemed to come up. It was not unlike the French appeals to the pope made by the people of Anna Trumbore Jones’s and John Ott’s papers the next day, people who really didn’t want the pope to actually try and change anything in their areas but for whom he was a useful source of ideological backing for their more local plans. It was implicit in the way that Hajnalka Herold saw the hillfort of Gars Thunau in Austria, as an aristocratic power centre that had few detectable connections to a wider power system. Some of the parts of Alemannia that Karl Heidecker discussed on the Saturday would have fitted too, as far as they were able to escape kingship that much. And, of course, it worked for my paper because it’s studying that area that’s made me think it.

A contemporary depiction of Otto III

A contemporary depiction of Otto III in full royal style, I mean tent

I think we could use reifying this concept in the same way that we have Königsnähe. Certainly, the great deal of work that’s been done on kingship and legitimacy is quite right to to stress the importance of access to the king, once the court’s a centre of attraction anyway. One of the things we now accept as crucial, as a result of the work of people like Jinty Nelson and Matthew Innes, in the Carolingian effort (and the Merovingian one before it, if you ask the right people, and the Ottonian one after it if you can stop people arguing about ritual…) is the ability of the king to get people to look to him to answer their needs, whether it be for war leadership, justice, lands or honour and status, whatever, and the question of who can get those for whom is obviously vital to how the whole kingdom works in that way. But what about when it doesn’t? When we hit situations like these, where a king best serves the interests of his subjects by not being too close to them, how do we explain it?

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Obviously, one of the answers has tended to be the same as for every other major social change between the years 900 and 1100, to wit, “it’s the feudal transformation innit?” though this aspect of it at least has tended more to be cause than effect. That probably needs rebalancing, and the scholarship that’s remained interested in that question has tended towards the bigger economic answers, but it still wants verbalising simply, I think. The Carolingian court stops working as a unifying and centripetal force; what happens? Some possible answers:

  1. Civil war discredits the lineage (unlikely given the Carolingian-reverence that continues after Fontenoy).
  2. The fragmentation of the empire makes people used to having a local and less powerful king; the court only really draws at full power when there’s one of it only and it can usefully reach everywhere (a combination of Regino of Prüm and Matthew Innes here, trying to explain why Charles the Fat doesn’t make it.
  3. There are some very ineffective rulers who don’t make this apparatus function at full power, or, Louis the Pious overdrives the whole thing and one way or another jumps the legitimising shark (somewhere between Mayke de Jong and Stuart Airlie here).
  4. The kingdom becomes less relevant as more and more economic resource is accumulated at the local level and people can achieve the local position they want using their own property and that they can appropriate from their erstwhile public offices (Duby and Bonnassie, and therefore the rather less convincing Poly & Bournazel; with some deeper causation and a greater place for inability at the top I suppose this is roughly also where I stand, for now).
  5. A variation of the above: the fossilization of the structure of empire has made it vulnerable to local aggrandisation by the holders of power in the localities and it ceases to be the king who can carry out the actions people need help with in those areas (Dhondt).

There are probably more. The point is, these models all suggest that kingship should become irrelevant, and we have seen in these cases of the search for Königsferne that that isn’t what is necessarily going on. There is a place for the king in these systems, and the cunning king can still play that position and win some of his power back. I maintain that Lothar III does this in the West and the Salian kings show it even more sharply, I’d hazard, by having both huge successes and improbably huge failures in this rôle of providing what the subjects want their king to do and getting back from them what the king wants in terms of service and loyalty. The people who don’t come to court, but still want a king, are a big part of the explanation for this collection of associated phenomena we resist calling a transformation, and maybe we should be thinking about the Königsferne as much as the Königsnähe. These are, if you like, the swing voters, whom a successful king has to secure once he’s got enough the actual courtiers on side to ensure that he can do anything at all. Some of them never do, of course, and some never work beyond the court, and there might be reasons for that far beyond pure personality and acumen of course, but it still needs thinking about, not least by me.


1. Theo Riches, in one conversation, assured me that this word does actually exist in scholarly German, so there we are. Now I shall have to find out where…

About these ads

9 responses to “Feudal Transformations XIV: Königsferne

  1. Yes… I’ve been thinking on this same issue of and on for quite some time now. It strikes me that that’s what’s going on in the March, right? I mean in terms of counts using regnal years of West Frankish kings in their documents, abbots seeking royal confirmation of immunities, etc. They need a king to some extent, but prefer him to be far away and not meddle until asked to.

    Is this line of thinking in your forthcoming book? Or shall we raise it in a series of article-volleys?

    • It’s not in the book, but it’s definitely going to be in forthcoming work; it’s touched on in my 2008 Haskins paper I will finish for print Real Soon Now, for example, but I haven’t verbalised it so explicitly there. So as soon as I’m ready to serve, volley away, or else take it up yourself… I was going to send you a draft of that paper for comment and information, I think, wasn’t I? I must get on that. After Leeds… (where indeed this line of thought will also be pursued).

      • Ah, very interesting. I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to catch up on loads of reading during the summer away from teaching. Unfortunately, I still have so much to do to prepare for classes and fix up the house that it’s going slowly.

        I will have time to read drafts of papers, so send it to me if you wish. Meanwhile, I’ll be reading up on ‘how to handle charters’ and such things.

  2. A very interesting post. I certainly see what you’re getting at and it makes me think a bit about some of the problems Henry IV faced. After all, Henry gets into trouble with the Saxons when he tries to maintain too close control of Saxony, which had been the main base for the Ottonians, but was increasingly seeking distance from the king by the later 11th century. I guess to use German terms Henry was trying to make a region ‘königsnah’, when the locals would have preferred to be ‘königsfern’.

    • I’m glad you think that works as a parallel, because I wasn’t sure if it did! I think that it may also be a way of explaining the trouble the Carolingians have in doing the same thing to Aquitaine two centuries earlier, too.

    • You may be interested to know that I have just found an example the term Königsferne in German scholarship. Roman Deutinger speaks of the ‘Königsferne Ottos in der Zeit Ludwig des Kindes’ in his ‘Königsherrschaft im Ostfränkischen Reich’, p. 297, n. 74.

  3. Pingback: Leeds 2011 report two at last « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Pingback: Leeds 2012 Report 2 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s