Seminary LXVII: don’t call it corruption, call it a cash-rich political system

I am falling behind with blogging generally and with seminars particularly, though I’ve also started falling behind with going to the things so this may yet balance out. I am also in two minds about whether to blog the Oxford Medieval History seminars, as while they’re looking likely to continue being interesting, some of the people presenting are quite junior and at least one of the papers (mine) has been somewhat rapidly-prepared. I think I can safely get away however with talking about the first one of the term, because Chris Wickham has featured here before and knows this, and so when on the 11th October he attracted an audience of eighty people to hear him talk to the title, “The Financing of Roman Politics, 1050-1150”, he probably expected that fact to end up here.

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

The tenth- and eleventh-century papal court is famous for two things, really, isn’t it? Gregorian reform and at the other extreme, corruption on a massive scale. Chris was talking about the latter, and trying to take a non-judgmental look at the systems that were operating that left this impression on our sources. Certainly, as he admitted and found many examples to prove, money was vital to political campaigning in Rome and deployed in huge amounts, while candidates for papal office or other high dignity who ran out of money also ran out of backing very quickly. This is clear in the sources and deplored by many across Europe, perhaps most noticeably John of Salisbury, who said as much in a letter to a pope, indeed, Hadrian IV, a fellow Englishman. Hadrian refused to take offence but preferred to point out how much good the money could achieve when correctly directed. It’s tempting just to stop the judgement there, but Chris, as an economic historian, wanted to know how this all actually worked. What he came up with for us was a picture of a medieval economy where, unusually, very little land was in play. The popes were big landowners in Rome and thereabouts but they weren’t big on an international scale; much of what they claimed was also sometimes claimed by the Empire and a great deal of it (as I’d heard from Chris before) was tied up in fairly binding leases to the nobility. On the other hand, their cash income was huge, from pilgrim gifts especially but also the rents from those leases, various other ground-rents in the city, international token payments from far-off monasteries that mounted up all together… This means that money was the primary available form of patronage. None of our sources have a problem with gifts of land in exchange for support, after all, so what’s the problem with cash? Well, it gets spent. Land is permanent, and can’t really be used up, which makes obligations pertaining to it long-term things, but not so with money. This means that people don’t stay bought; also, people don’t stay wealthy, whereas a lot of land keeps you that way rather better. That’s not available in this game, and so the players at the top of the table rotate a lot more. The result is something that our sources feel is corrupt, and which even the participants sometimes did, but which is explicable in its own terms at least, and when there are strong morals in play in our sources of course it’s very necessary to carry out this kind of enquiry.

Interior of St Peter's, Rome

Interior of St Peter's, Rome; must have cost a bit...

Mark Whittow raised in questions an obvious parallel to the court of Constantinople, which also ran on money a great deal and about which Liutprand of Cremona has similar things to say, though only on the embassy when he couldn’t persuade the emperor to include him in the handouts… Other interesting questions were raised about the exchange rate of money for favours—plenty of rulers offer precious goods for support as well, in various places (not least Heorot!) but these are often worth more than what they eventually buy, for the sources at least, a complication that is yet to be explored. It also seemed to Chris that this money did not, except in, well, exceptional cases, serve to recreate this kind of politics at a lower level; there was a super-rich threshold that the popes were, and would-be popes had to be, above, and below that one was too vulnerable to the actions of the super-rich to amass the same sort of patronage clout on a smaller scale. That sounded as if it could also use some testing, to me, but the big system view still makes a lot more sense to me at least than writing the whole thing off as corruption; even if that’s what it was, it was also a working system that needs to be understood as such, and that’s what Chris gave us.

5 responses to “Seminary LXVII: don’t call it corruption, call it a cash-rich political system

  1. Interesting post – thank you. Sounds like you’re swamped right now.

    You may have already said this with, “What he came up with for us was a picture of a medieval economy where, unusually, very little land was in play.” I wasn’t sure if this referred to the economy overall or the Papal court.

    I look at the use of cash by the Popes as one aspect of a huge move of medieval society toward a much more moneyed economy. The Crusades seem to have had a big impact on this. Land wouldn’t pay to ship an army East – it took cash. The period saw the start of the various taxations to raise money to fund expeditions and the Templars started amassing wealth. A lot was land but they could come up with money to help fund crusades too. It wasn’t long after this when the banking houses started to form. The Papal Court use of cash seems to have been one aspect of a big moneyfication (love making up nonexistent words) of society that was taking place around that time.

    • The land-poor cash-rich bit was specifically about Rome. It’s difficult to separate that from the papal court by this stage because the papacy does actually in some sense own almost all of the land in the city and its hinterland, though most of it is either rented or leased and not really available.

      As to the monetisation of society (sorry, but there was already a word…), the rise of banks and credit is an interesting thing: it seems to start earlier than this, but to start being accessed for political purposes later, as far as I know anything about it. The Genizah documents and some stuff from Barcelona show credit operations going on in the early eleventh century but almost all the First Crusaders got their money from the Church. By the thirteenth century, though, it’s a very different picture with national debts to bankers all over the place and Dante decrying usury as one of the seventh-level sins… I don’t know how we get from one to the other, but I would guess that while the papacy is far from the only court to raise huge loans (or indeed offer them) it’s probably no coincidence that the biggest banks are Italian for a long period.

      And, swamped, well, yes, but if I was managing to work a few days ahead rather than merely tackle the next obvious deadline as they line up, I’d be doing rather better. I can see this goal but getting there is a different matter.

  2. Very neat. I like internal consistency in an explanation.

    This fits with what I’m reading and thinking about at the moment – which is the nature of medieval system/s of patronage and brokerage. You may have read/like to read Michael Gelting’s tidy summary of same in the “Law and Power’ volume from the Carlsberg conferences. I recommend it.

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