The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined

The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined

by Georges Duby

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University of Chicago Press
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Copyright © 1980 University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-16772-5

Chapter One


We begin, then, with two sentences: "Here below, some pray, others fight, still others work ..."; "from the beginning, mankind has been divided into three parts, among men of prayer, farmers, and men of war." Three types of action: orare, pugnare, agricolari-laborare. Two speakers.

They are important personages. Hence not all memory of what their lives were like has been lost. Adalbero, the elder of the two, is also the more famous for the role that he played-that of traitor-in the transfer of the French crown from the Carolingians to the Capetians. Nephew of Adalbero, the archbishop of Rheims, and cousin-german of the dukes of Lorraine, he belonged to a very powerful family with representatives throughout the vast province of Lotharingia, where it had gained control of a goodly number of counties and bishoprics. It was a family of the highest nobility: Adalbero knew himself to be of royal blood, a descendant of Charlemagne's ancestors. In this lineage, the name he bore was given to boys destined to become bishops. It was customary that they bide their time in the cathedral chapter of Metz until an episcopal vacancy should appear. Adalbero seems to havecompleted his education at Rheims, where his uncle, the great prelate of the family, was archbishop. In any case, Lothar, the Carolingian king of western France, soon made him his chancellor and in 977 established him in the see of Laon.

Gerard was born of the same stock. Recent marriages, moreover, had tied his family more closely to Adalbero's: the latter was cousin-german of Gerard's mother. Gerard, too, studied at Rheims. He made his career, however, not in the western kingdom but in the east. In the chapel at Aix he joined the group of well-born ecclesiastics who served the emperor Henry II. With the support of Adalbero's cousins, that sovereign was endeavoring to restore the power of the German kings in Lotharingia. In 1012, the bishop of Cambrai, a town on the border of the French kingdom, lay dying. Even before he had drawn his last breath, Henry granted his bishopric to Gerard, thus forestalling the count of Flanders, who wanted to replace the dying man with one of his relatives. Along with the bishopric went the title of count, an adjunct it had acquired some five years earlier. All this was given to Gerard-a young man, perhaps, but a trustworthy one.

Thus the two men who, so far as we know, were the first to make use of the theme of social trifunctionality were close cousins. Both had been educated at Rheims. In that metropolitan town, in the presence of the archbishop to whom both were suffragans, they met frequently: they spoke together, or at least within each other's hearing. Members of the Lotharingian aristocracy used by the French king against the German and vice versa, Adalbero and Gerard were caught up in the vicissitudes of a common political situation. Their roles were identical. And if both of them spoke of the three functions, the reason was first of all that both were bishops.

On the threshold of the eleventh century, it was amid the vestiges of a Roman town that a bishop's see, or throne (cathedra), was to be found. From the city his power extended as far as the frontiers of the civitas, boundaries originally laid down in the late Empire, which separated the various dioceses. Within each of these territories, the bishop was the pastor, responsible for his flock. The true God had entrusted his faithful to him. The bishop presided over the celebration of the mysteries on behalf of the entire populace. His hands dispensed the sacred. Two centuries earlier, barring mischance, he would have been regarded a saint; he would have continued his good works after death, appearing in dreams, preaching, giving warning, issuing reprimands; from his tomb he would have distributed curses and benedictions. By the year 1000, times had changed. Yet it remained important that the biship be a nobleman, that his blood carry the charismas which predestined him to play the role of intercessor. The fact that all the bishops of Metz and Rheims were named Adalbero and were offspring of the house of Ardennes had more to do with magic than with family politics: only certain lineages were thought to possess the power of communicating with the invisible.

Still, this potential power had to be activated by a rite: the rite of unction, anointment. The bishop was a sacred personage, a Christ, the Lord's Anointed; passing through his skin, mixing with, penetrating his entire body, the chrism impregnated him forever with divine power. In particular, he was able to delegate the sacerdotal function to others by anointing them with consecrated oil. He ordained them. Under the bishop's control, men ordained by him exorcised demons in the villages of the diocese. Within its boundaries, no one made sacrifices, no one performed rituals, no one uttered propitiatory formulas that he himself had not instituted. The bishop begat the clergy (clerus). Over it he held the authority of a father. By spiritual filiation, the sacramental acts emanated from his own hands.

Anointment brought with it another gift: sapientia, a gaze capable of penetrating behind the veil of appearances to reach hidden truths. Only the bishop possessed the keys to the truth. This was a priceless privilege, whose concomitant obligation was to disseminate that truth, to teach it to those who knew it not, to punish those who strayed from the true path-by means of the word. The bishop was master of the word, and in particular of language of a very special kind. The language he used was a very old one, incomprehensible to most other men, but which by virtue of translation had become the language of Holy Scripture some seven centuries earlier in an Imperial Rome at long last converted to Christianity. Because the bishop was the interpreter of the word of God, and because, in this part of the world, that word was couched in the noble Latin of the fourth century, the bishop was the repository of classical culture. In his dwelling-place amidst antique ruins, what survived, in the year 1000, of the ordered and regular language of books, of pure Latin, was preserved, beleaguered on all sides by rustic barbarism. From the episcopal see a continual renaissance of Latinity flowed forth. This cultural labor was carried out in the school, that workshop that stood alongside the cathedral-there, a small crew of men of all ages set themselves to copying texts, to analyzing sentences, to dreaming up etymologies, endlessly exchanging what they knew with one another, constantly working over that most precious raw material, that treasure of homilies and incantations, the words of God.

One of those Latin words, the verb orare, summed up both aspects of the episcopal mission: to pray and to preach-which amounted to the same thing. Anointment had placed the bishop right at the point where heaven and earth were joined, between the visible and the invisible. His words were addressed sometimes toward the one and sometimes toward the other, sometimes to persuade, sometimes to coax some sign of benevolence. The bishop pleaded his case as in another age cases had been pleaded at the forum, and so he looked to Cicero for the techniques of effective discourse. Orator, he served up words as offerings to heaven, in the hope of provoking reciprocal outpourings of grace, or, alternatively, words intended to make known on earth what sapientia had revealed. Because of his median, intermediary position, the bishop bore a special obligation to contribute to the restoration of harmony between the two worlds, that essential concord which Satan strove ceaselessly to disrupt. With the assistance of the clerks he had ordained and educated, the labors of pruning, of separating wheat from chaff, of pushing back the darkness, occupied him constantly. He enlightened and he admonished-and to do so fie called upon a second personage for aid. Like the bishop, this personage was prelatus, designated by God because of the virtue in his blood. God had set him over the rest of mankind as their leader. But, in this case, their leader in the domain of the earthly, the material, the carnal: the personage in question was the bishop's leading parishoner, the principal object of his moralizing lectures-the king, or, if not the king, the prince, the man who "by the grace of God" held the principalis potestas and who, in the king's place, bore responsibility for that part of the flock that subject to the bishop's tutelage-distinct, that is, from the clergy, or clerus-which was known as the populus, the people. In the Carolingian tradition, eleventh-century bishops felt obliged to offer kings and princes a mirror in which they might see themselves, a mirror not unlike the polished metal sort then in use, which might reflect the face rather poorly but nonetheless showed up its defects and so helped in correcting them. When episcopal discourse was addressed to the princes of the earth, its purpose was indeed one of correction: it aimed to remind them of their rights, their duties, and of what was not done in the world. It also aimed to incite them to action, to reestablish order-that particular order whose model the bishop found in heaven. It was a social plan. In the Carolingian tradition, the episcopate was by nature the producer of ideology.

Now, both Adalbero and Gerard were Carolingian bishops, the most Carolingian of all. They were Carolingians not only by blood, but also because the ecclesiastical province of Rheims, to which both their dioceses belonged, lay at the heart of Francia, the country of the Franks. Remy, archbishop of Rheims, had baptized Clovis. His successors were at this time laying claim to the exclusive right to anoint the king of the western Franks. A century and a half earlier, as the imperial dignity itself was ineluctably slipping away toward the east, toward Aix-la-Chapelle and Rome, archbishop Hincmar of Rheims had garnered the finest fruits of the Carolingian renaissance from Rheims to Compiègne, from Paris to Laon (the "Mont Loon" of the chansons de geste, the last retreat of Charles, son of the last Carolingian sovereign, whom Adalbero, archbishop of Rheims, had deprived of his rights, in 987, by designating for royal election the usurper Hugh Capet, and whom our Adalbero, bishop of Laon, had betrayed). Metz occupied no more than a marginal position on the fringes of this mother-province: it was an exposed outpost surveying the Austrasian wilds. But the policy of the other Frankish kings, those of the east, of Germany, of establishing clerks from Lorraine in the bishoprics of Rheims, Cambrai, and Laon, had been designed expressly to regain this outpost, to recover this cultural conservatory. The cathedrals of Cambrai and Laon, as well as that of Rheims, should be looked upon as repositories of Frankish political forms. The memory of these forms remained more alive than elsewhere in their literary storehouses, couched in the Latin of the rhetors. It fell to the bishops of these cities to preserve that memory, to draw from it inspiration for the oratory that constituted their contribution to the proper government of the realm.

The city of Laon fell under the jurisdiction of the western kingdom, Cambrai under that of the kingdom of Lorraine, which had merged with the German realm. The kingdom of the west Franks, i.e., France, and the east Frankish kingdom, i.e., the Empire: two states, separated by the Escaut and the Meuse, whose two sovereigns, cousins, both heirs of Charlemagne, equal in prestige, regarded by writers in the early eleventh century as the twin pillars of Christendom, were called upon to embrace one another in brotherly love and to meet periodically on their common frontier, where they were jointly to attend to the problems facing all the people of God. In 1937, T. Schieffer described Gerard of Cambrai as a German bishop: political passions carried that excellent scholar beyond the limits of the reasonable-Gerard was from Lorraine, not Germany. He spoke Romance, not German. To be sure, he had been in the chapel of the German king, and was loyal to him; in 1015 he labored to convince the count of Namur and the count of Hainaut, his cousins, to recognize the authority of the new duke of Lower Lorraine, his cousin; his principal enemy was the count of Flanders. And the city of Cambrai did belong to the :Empire. But to this city was attached the ancient city of Arras, and this belonged to the kingdom of France. So that, as the chronicler Sigebert of Gembloux said, among the Lotharienses only Gerard was dependent on the parrochia francorum. Thus he was also tied to the king of France, and this, as much as his culture, inclined him toward Francia. When the Capetian monarch summoned all the prelates of his realm to his side, Gerard made haste to comply. At Easter in 1018, he was at Laon, in the company of the lung, Robert the Pious, and, of course, the bishop, Adalbero. In 1023, he participated in the great assembly at Compiègne, convoked by Robert to reform the Church, that is, the world. As the occupant of two episcopal sees, one of which was royal, Gerard of Cambrai-Arras was a member-though no doubt a less intimate one than Adalbero of Laon-of the circle of bishops who gravitated toward the Capetian king. As "orators" they spelled one another in insuring that the monarch was exposed to an uninterrupted disquisition on morality, or, rather, that he was engaged in a continuous moralizing dialogue.

For the king in the year 1000 had this in common with the bishops: he was sacred. Since the middle of the eighth century, the Frankish king's body, like the bishop's, had been impregnated with holy oil. And therefore his spirit was impregnated with sapientia. He was a sage, mysteriously informed of the intentions of Providence, as one of the oratores. Adalbero put it clearly to Robert: "The capacity [facultas] of the orator is given to the king," reminding him that he must follow the example of the bishops by investigating, by rooting out those among the populace who might deviate from the straight and narrow, meting out reward and punishment as God would do on the Day of Judgment. Yet the position of the royal personage was ambiguous. In addition to the sceptre, the sword, too, was to be found in the king's hand. A considerable portion of his time had to be devoted to arms, and this diverted his attention from the school. If he possessed "wisdom," he did not fully possess culture. It was no doubt customary to educate the heir to the throne in the same manner as future bishops: when he was still only duke of France, Hugh Capet (and this says a great deal about his hopes) had placed his son, Robert, in an episcopal school-the one at Rheims, in fact. The king therefore knew how to read from a Latin book, and could chant his prayers. But he did not know enough to take full advantage of the illumination coming to him from heaven. He had need of assistants to help him decipher the message. This necessary assistance was provided by the other oratores, who unlike the king himself were not distracted from meditation upon things sacred by military concerns. Their function was to put into words what the ritual anointment enabled the king to perceive indistinctly. For the bishops had the advantage over the sovereign of being experts in the art of rhetoric. This justified their feeling that with regard to the king they were predominant. Strictly speaking, theirs was a magisterial position. "Rhetoric, based on civic morality, is the source of all civilized life": this paraphrase of a passage of Cicero's De inventione was uttered by Gerbert when he was director of the school of Rheims, where Gerard may have heard him lecture. In any case, the intellectuals of the cathedral chapters held that rhetoric was a means of governing, and in the first place of governing what princes did, these personages being regarded as subjects (subditi) of the episcopal word. As Adalbero believed and stated with perfect clarity: "all mankind He [God] has made subject to them [the priests] by precept; 'all,' meaning that no prince [princeps] is excepted." Adalbero of Laon and Gerard of Cambrai considered themselves the masters (magistri) of Robert, the king of France, just as Alcuin had been Charlemagne's master, and Hincmar, Charles the Bald's. They regarded their mission as one of revealing to him the principles behind his worldly actions, and, in particular, the hidden structure of human society, i.e., its tripartite division. The two bishops, cousins by blood, made the same point to the same personage. Were their voices joined in chorus, in unison? The next question to ask is one of timing: when did they speak of the three social functions?


Excerpted from THE THREE ORDERS by GEORGES DUBY Copyright © 1980 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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