Feudal Transformations XI: Chris Wickham takes still another (at)tack

The last time I could get into London for a short while was Monday 17th November, and I dithered over it but eventually went because the occasion was the Institute of Historical Research‘s Creighton Lecture, which Jinty Nelson told the attendees was, they liked to think, the most important lecture in history in the UK, and more to the point, speaking was Chris Wickham, to the topic, “The Culture of the Public: assembly politics and the ‘feudal revolution'”. Conrad Leyser had the week before asked rhetorically if anyone still thought the feudal transformation was an interesting topic, and I realise this sits ill with my posting record but I half wanted to agree with him that it isn’t. The trouble is that although it has become somewhat tedious even to me, we still haven’t solved it. Something does happen to Europe in the centuries either side of 1000, and we don’t seem to be able to agree on how much, what, or what importance it has. Yet, as I’ve argued, there must be an effect of the collapse of such a superstructure as the Carolingian Empire. What is it, and why is it so hard to pin down? The answer to the latter question of course lies in local diversity, but the former we haven’t yet got.

The Great Hall in King's College London, arrayed for another occasion

The Great Hall in King's College London, arrayed for another occasion

Once having settled in a rather under-populated Great Hall at King’s College London (the IHR doesn’t have enough space for this large a gathering, though it might have been able to cope with the numbers who actually turned up), I was not a little pleased to find Chris saying very similar things, but he has a new way into it, or at least perhaps a more profitable one than my various attempts have so far been. Observing that something that changes that almost all parties agree upon is the state of balance between public and private authority, he was looking at the main forum for expression of such things, the assembly. Referencing a particularly lucid article of Timothy Reuter’s, which explains the whole idea of assembly politics in the Middle Ages in a way that we’re very happy to point students at but mostly have to disagree with from our own material (reminds me of GCSE), Chris started from his recent work on Rome to ask in more detail what changes in assembly politics over this period and whether it helps us explain anything.1

Ruins of the Roman forum as they stand today

Ruins of the Roman forum as they stand today

His key points were, roughly, that the ideal of an assembly of free men giving you as ruler legitimacy in your actions is always important, and that throughout the Middle Ages someone doing something can add legitimacy to their action by arranging that it happens in public before witnesses.2 Despite this, large-scale public assemblies stop.3 Local courts remain roughly the same, but the top stratum of the social stratification is lost. (You see the similarity to my earlier pitch.) The new assemblies of, for example, counts and their followers, don’t have the same function of placing actions in public, because they are closed; the ‘public’ are disenfranchised and it doesn’t seem to matter, although in Rome at least some of the ‘closed’ gatherings get so big that they arguably include most of the political actors, and for Italy generally the commune is just such an organisation, of all those with power if not the whole public. They don’t do public judgements, but there are other ways of involving a (more restricted) public; they do political debate, the rather more repressive old Roman Empire had used processions and spectacles for the same kind of public access to the powerful, and of course bishops continue to use such tactics throughout the Middle Ages when they need to take some action onto a higher level, the best examples being the councils behind the Peace of God. So there are many ways to deploy a public gathering in the pursuit of the reinforcement, or indeed the destabilisation, of power.

A depiction of the Council of Clermont from the <em>Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer</em> of <i>c. </i>1490, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, here found on answers.com

A depiction of the Council of Clermont from the Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer of c. 1490, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, here found on answers.com

His conclusion was however that the most effective assemblies are regular ones. An assembly that someone knows is going to happen gives them stability. They can bring the case then, so they don’t need to ravage your lands now; they will be able to protest, albeit in a stage-managed fashion, so violent action now is both less legitimate and less necessary. On the other hand, ad hoc assemblies show weakness, and are often disrupted or produce unexpected results (“Dieu le veult! Dieu le veult!“) With observations like this, and more work on how assemblies are used both by their organisers and participants, we might have another wedge with which to open up this topic over which we continue unwillingly to trip.

1. Timothy Reuter, “Assembly Politics in Western Europe from the Eighth Century to the Twelfth” in Peter Linehan & Janet Nelson (edd.), The Medieval World (London 2000), pp. 432-450; Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, 400-1200 (London forthcoming).

2. As often happens, it seems, I am already reading about this somewhere else, in an article that I’ll come back to next post, Isabel Alfonso, “Judicial Rhetoric and Political Legitimation in Medieval León-Castile”, transl. Carolina Carl in Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 51-87.

3. Chris here referenced a book I now apparently have to read which I only recently discovered, Thomas Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton 2008).


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