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…

16 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.

      • Or indeed in the 980s, when King Lothar tries to create a sub-kingdom for his teenaged son, the future Louis V, after marrying him off to Adelaide-Blanche of Anjou, widow of Stephen of Gevaudan. As Richer of Rheims seems to make clear, this wasn’t just because of the maturity gap between the spouses (echoed in the marriage of Matilda of Canossa to Welf the Fat a century later) but because “the royal title, however, did not avail them enough to allow them to exercise any of the prerogatives of kingship over the magnates of the region” (Richer of Rheims, The Histories: Volume 2: Book 3, edited and translated by Justin Lake, Harvard, 2011, p 163). King Lothar of course realises that none of this is working to plan, and so in 982 sends a coterie of knights to pick up his son, take him home and put him back on pocket money from dad. Contrast this to Richer’s description of King Raoul making a brief visit to the borders of Aquitaine fifty years earlier. He describes how as soon as the royal entourage reaches the Loire, the magnates of Septimania, Toulouse and Rouergue approach him and “placing their hands between his, they pledged their military service to him and swore faithfully to do as he commanded” (Richer of Rheims, The Histories: Volume 1: Book 1, edited and translated by Justin Lake, Harvard, p 153. He then progresses a bit further into Aquitaine and meets a Gascon called Lupus Aznar who has a 100 hundred year old horse “still in perfect health”, and after he hands over control of his province to Raoul, Raoul restores it to him and legitimates his rule over it – this anecdote is mentioned in Flodoard’s annals for 932 as well. So there’s plenty in Richer to suggest Konigsferne in action – rather than wanting to become autochthonous semi-independent princes , the southern magnates want all the royal legitimation they can get for their power. They just don’t want the king breathing down their necks all the time, and when Lothar tries to do that with his son Louis V, they’re not at all happy.

        Indeed, I’ve come up with an alternative model for the the West Frankish kingdom in the tenth century to the old model of a patchwork of semi-independent principalities, which seems to be back-projecting the eleventh century situation onto the tenth. Instead, how I see it is that the West Frankish kings have an area of intensive lordship stretching from Montreuil in the north to Dijon in the south and from the left bank of the Meuse in the east to the right bank of the Seine in the West, to which they sometimes try to add Lotharingia to as well (as the reign of Charles the Simple shows, the Lotharingians, in particular the Reginar dynasty, prefer Konigsferne to Konigsnahe). In the intensive lordship zone they hold most of their estates, regularly itinerate around, hold royal assemblies, tax, issue charters and diplomas, appoint bishops and counts etc, Neustria, the Norman territories and ducal Burgundy are a kind of intermediate zone, and Flanders, Aquitaine and Catalonia are definitely in the extensive lordship zone where the magnates still see their power as deriving from the king, but otherwise want to be left alone unless they need him to interfere as a neutral third party. How this exactly becomes the situation c.1031, I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect the Capetian regime’s failure to properly establish legitimacy coinciding with all the other factors in the historical magimix as per your feudal transformations paradigm coming together/ picking up pace might be behind it all.

        • Well, Louis V in Aquitaine is a subject where I currently tread carefully, because I know from numerous conversations with him about it that Fraser McNair is formulating views. A decade ago I saw it as part of Lothar III’s attempts to bring the south back into (the new shape of) regular rule by reminding them of their allegiances and what was owing from them, and that what Louis V’s débacle showed was either that he himself was not the man (or boy) for the job or that Aquitaine was already too far gone towards preferring a distant king, if a king at all (Gascony probably never needed one, for example). Thanks to Fraser I now suspect that the local context is more explanatory than the global one, and also probably have to admit that numbering Lothar III thus makes no real sense, and that leaves me as yet unready to formulate a new position.

          A small response I might make, though, is that I think Lotharingia’s élites were quite divided over whether Königsnähe and Königsfern was preferable in at least the late tenth, and to be honest early eleventh century, not least because of the prolific choice of kings available, and that the kings did their best to exploit that division, but often found that this made them as many enemies as it won them followers.

          • “and also probably have to admit that numbering Lothar III thus makes no real sense”

            !!!Scholarly achievement!!!

            But as regards Louis V in Aquitaine, as a strange coincidence would have it that’s what December on the blog is largely going to consist of on my end – in fact, the first post would already be up if I weren’t delaying it until Saturday in solidarity with the strike. The short version is that the problem with his kingship isn’t that no-one wants him – it’s kind of the opposite. Lots of people there want him, but that’s because every single one of them is caught up in ongoing local wars and think he can help. He and Lothar are relying on them to be the foundations of his regime – and have spent years buttering up some of them, like Bishop Guy of Le Puy – but because these foundations are already split in twain, when Louis comes in he comes in as a player in the game rather than an umpire and so his kingship is curdled.

            • Not unlike what I was suggesting for Lotharingia, then! But then I probably also got that suggestion from talking with you…

            • Thanks so much for that response Fraser, and it certainly explains helps explain better what Richer might have been alluding to when he said that he struggled to exercise the prerogatives of kingship there. Likewise, as regards Lotharingia, I think I was mistaken to talk about Konigsferne there, certainly before Godfrey the Bearded in the mid-eleventh century. And I really look forward to those upcoming blogposts of yours on Louis V and, as you’ve hinted at in some of your previous blogposts, that upcoming book on the political history of the tenth century West Frankish kingdom – it would be a godsend to all of us who work there.

    • 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.

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