Medieval Civilization came of age in thunderous events like the Norman Conquest and the First Crusade. Power fell into the hands of men who imposed coercive new lordships in quest of nobility. Rethinking a familiar history, Thomas Bisson explores the circumstances that impelled knights, emperors, nobles, and churchmen to infuse lordship with social purpose.
Bisson traces the origins of European government to a crisis of lordship and its resolution. King John of England was only the latest and most conspicuous in a gallery of bad lords who dominated the populace instead of ruling it. Yet as Bisson shows, it was not so much the oppressed people as their tormentors who were in crisis. Covering all of Western Christendom, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century suggests what these violent people-and the outcries they provoked-contributed to the making of governments in kingdoms, principalities, and towns.
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About the Author
Thomas N. Bisson is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of Medieval History Emeritus at Harvard University.
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The Crisis of the Twelfth Century
Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government
By Thomas N. Bisson
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
MEDIEVAL civilization came of age, so to speak, in a series of thunderous events on the eve of the twelfth century: the Norman Conquest of England (1066 and after); the Investiture Conflict (1075–85) with its settlements in France (1107), England (1108), and the empire (1122); and the First Crusade (1095–99) with its sequel of expeditions to the East. It would not be difficult to extend such a list — so as to include, say, the Christians' capture of Toledo (1085), the killing of King William Rufus (1100), or the murder of Count Charles the Good (1127) — for these, too, were events widely noticed by clerks and monks keeping records of faith. Our own perceptions are derived through these sources from the interests of contemporaries in the greater world about them, a world they could see daring new enterprises, expanding, outgrowing. And it is safe to say that what most interested people who lived through these conspicuous events was their witness to the experience of power.
There was something portentous about them. Normans and English alike knew why the 'long-haired star' had appeared in April 1066: it presaged the most successful dynastic enterprise of the age. Starkly scandalous was the spectacle, a decade later, of the king of Germany prostrate before an inexorable pope, for was not the king the Lord's anointed? Something of their zeal had to be spent before cooler heads could devise the compromises in which lay and spiritual powers came to be distinguished with new conceptual precision. And it was the palpably momentous phenomenon of fighting men in successive waves taking up their crosses in Christ-imitating self-denial that inspired a flock of chroniclers to write of the First Crusade: a 'strong movement [motio valida],' remembered one of the knights, 'through all the Frankish regions.' These were events capable of striking people with wonder, with fear. Many felt vaguely that their collective destinies were affected. Moreover, these events projected great men to admire. Countess Adèle of Chartres had a tapestry depicting the Norman Conquest, her father's immortal exploit, hanging over her bed; she who would have to urge her husband Count Stephen to return to the crusading expedition he had ignominiously abandoned. Valour, however problematic in mortals, created power, became the celebration of power in the exploits of those who won battles or kingdoms. One wrote of them, of their 'deeds' (gesta); sang of them: of William the Conqueror, of the Angevin counts, of Boleslaw 'Wrymouth' of Poland, of the Cid, of Prince Louis of France; — of Charlemagne. One took little interest in their means to power other than military exploits. Power tended to be conceived personally, charismatically. Indeed, it attached mysteriously to those who had it, who embodied it; to those who might themselves be 'powers' (potestates); to others, more numerous, who shared or aspired to it. Heroism was for these 'powers' to exemplify, for the masses to admire.
It was not necessary to be a hero to rule in this world. A more concrete form of power, something more like 'force' (French: puissance) had come to be the qualitative test of nobility: the power to command and punish, to coerce. This was, theoretically and historically, the power of kings, and remained so towards 1100. It was, accordingly, official power, an attribute of the royal function objectively defined. Kings (and emperors) topped the hierarchy of powers in Christendom. But dukes and counts were also 'powers (potestates)'; so were marquises and (in most regions) viscounts: all those, in short, whose attributes and (as a rule) blood perpetuated the administrative and social elites of pre-millennial times. In some highly problematic way the powers exercised by the old aristocracy were official and public as well as patrimonial; and we shall need to consider where in the conceptual spectrum their more specifically feudal action falls, for that was an issue for them as well as for us. But power was felt more than it was analyzed. While it may be of moment that some sense of public order persisted, even in heavily feudalized zones, we may also imagine that peasant-tenants and vassals experienced a great noble's will or disposition in variable ways having little to do with status, and that patrimonial circumstances — hereditary right and the economic viability of estates and matrimonial and parental fortunes — could be hardly less important qualitative determinants of his power. Of a great lord's power. For it goes without saying that powers judicial, fiscal, coercive, and paternal were, above all, powers of lordship.
'Lordship' in this book refers diversely to personal commands over dependent people who might be peasants in quasi-servile status or knights or vassals having or seeking elite standing; the word also denotes the value or extent of such dependencies (patrimony, dominium). The lordship held by nobles accounted for much of the exercise of licit power around 1100. It is tempting to include in this category the temporal dominations of prelates: bishops, abbots, priors, and the like. These were often the brothers or nephews of the old elite, nobles themselves; and even those of lesser blood, ever more numerous in time, must have been influenced by models of clerical office. But the complication here is that, as a rule, prelacies of this age were electoral and thereby exempt from one of the temptations to exploitative lordship. The question will arise how far clerical principles of associative action and decision-making affected prevailing structures of lordship in the twelfth century; but it will be safe to begin by recognizing that deference and obligations amongst the clergy were profoundly influenced by the recognition of qualitative differences between men. Power attached to persons, to repeat, and this was so even when, as conspicuously with the clergy, self-proclaimed unworthies held offices by God's grace. Offices, however real in theory, were animated by lords (kings, bishops, counts, etc.) whose power was effluent in expression, affective in impact. As for human collectivities, it does not appear that they were yet normally powerful as such. Associations and communities could be found everywhere in the age of the First Crusade. They had legal or even administrative functions notably in the uplands and peripheries, cultural functions (as in drinking gilds) perhaps more widely but more silently. But in the great European heartlands, communities were more or less suspect to those with (licit) power. Only clerical congregations living according to rules were fully acceptable: that is, associations subject to lord-prelates or themselves exercising lordship, attaining collectively at best to some recognition of rights as distinct from powers. Yet for all this the empowerment of communities becomes part of the story before us.
Seen in this way, the ordering of powers was marked by systemic stability. People knew their place in the hierarchies of church and principality, secure in the assurance that 'there is no power but from God' (Romans xiii.I). The religious and secular orders remained mutually reinforcing even as they became jurisdictionally distinct following the Gregorian reform. While many thought spiritual power intrinsically superior to secular, everyone could see that the church depended on the support and protection of lay men for its survival. Nor could anyone doubt — least of all following an apparently radical proposal in 1111 to divest imperial churches of their regalian possessions — that the church was an aggregate of landlords. Like the temporal world. A tendentious reflection had it that society was formed of three orders of people — those who fight, those who pray, and those who work. Peasants, the many who worked, could hardly have arrived at such a view.
But they could understand it. Power was order. People celebrated order in processions, assemblies, councils. Still in the twelfth century, as in the ancient church, bishops vied with one another for visible precedence. These were not political disputes; they were concerned with status, not process. Much the same might be said of the attitude of great lords, lay and spiritual, towards their domains: God-given wealth to be used, described, retained. Domesday Book was more than a descriptio (and was surely a stupendous achievement), but how much more? What could one do with it? Could the order it projected be suffered to change? And a further question, even more pertinent, arises here: were there people with power but without status? Any who wished to change existing order? One fact should be underscored: the concept of the three orders, so far as we presently know, lost ideological force towards 1100. It seemed descriptive, not polemical; it was not challenged as such. There was something ideal about the order of elite powers that flourished in the twelfth century. The empire recovered, the monarchies grew richer and stronger and fostered more sophisticated theories and means of power. Or so it seems. Was it really so? Let us rather ask whether contemporaries thought it was so. Was this elite order exempt from the spectre of disorder?
* * *
Few can have thought so. The epigraphic events we started with were not only expressions of power but also, diversely, tests of, threats to, or violations of social order. They were, indeed, manifestations of violence, although this would have been less obvious to contemporaries than it is to us. All societies think of disruption when recalling salient events; with us, too, assassinations of the great vie with wars for notoriety. What Hannah Arendt spoke of as the 'arbitrariness' of violence was even more commonplace in the eleventh century than today; and the commonplace was easy to overlook by those exempt from the suffering it caused, by the few with power, and by us. Power was exercised violently in the societies that concern us, so that if the cruelties incident to conquests and crusades seem epiphenomenal, they were nonetheless expressive of a preponderant reality of human experience. Allusions to violence are so deafeningly frequent in records of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that historians have been tempted to tune them out as self-serving clerical exaggerations; it has been proposed that violentia may not always mean what it seems in the sources. But it is safe to say that those astride horses and bearing weapons routinely injured or intimidated people in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Not always without purpose. Violence was a means of attaining as well as exercising power. The horsemen of Old Catalonia threatened and seized from peasants to create lordships and win knightly respectability. The Erembald clan in Flanders, having achieved power without respectability, murdered the count they feared might undo them. The social crisis that ensued may be likened not only to the virulent collapse of royal protectorates in Galicia (1112–17) and in England (1139–50) but also to a series of symptomatic urban uprisings: Cambrai (1076), Le Mans (1077), Laon (1112), and Santiago de Compostela (1117). It is usual, and hardly unjustified, to interpret these latter as anti-seigneurial revolts; but it looks as if the rebels merely thought the wrong lords were in power. So we pass from violence to social stress, to normal situations of less or more repressive order vulnerable to assaults from the castle above or occasionally, if seldom, from the people below.
What most profoundly threatened the existing structure of power was the dynamics of social and economic change: increasing population and wealth and the multiplication of people with the means and will to coerce others. In the old passing world nobles had ruled, and nobles were few. In the burgeoning new world of the First Crusade more and more castellans and knights were pretending to noble powers and, inevitably, status. Characteristically, their ambitions exceeded their resources, thus predisposing them to the use of coercive force not only against their own peasants so as to secure a sufficient patrimony for the militant ease they craved, but also against the lands and peasants of others so as to entice fighting men to the rewards of their service and fidelity. Men fought for lordship, or for shares in it, and they learned to despise the peasants they felt compelled to exploit. Incipient nobility could be pitiless — and precarious. Were lord-princes to resist such vicious men? — or co-opt them?
In the event, they did both, appointing them to vicariates, shrievalties, or even curial functions against promises of fidelity, while seeking, almost everywhere in vain, to control the building of castles. The militant 'new men' were arguably more critical to the making of medieval government than the clerical ones made famous by Orderic Vitalis and his modern interpreters, for the former had to be taught the difference between fidelity and competence. And this lesson courtiers of whatever station found hard to teach, and often, it seems, hard to learn. They were used to thinking in terms of largesse, generosity, and the custom of fixed patrimonies; were quite unused to the concept of 'increase [incrementum]' and its economic implications. The men who supplied the lord-count's table or who provisioned his entourage must often have been as tempted to overlook the failings of a customary system from which they themselves profited as to recommend a new way of reckoning that would enable their master to profit from patrimonial growth.
And there was a deeper level of tectonic stress. New notions of militant lordship had taken root in societies more nearly converted to Christianity than ever before. This produced a contradiction that distressed principled clergymen, who questioned not only a seemingly worldly trade in altars but also the deportment of prelate-lords with tenants, vassals, and pretensions. When their reform movement was carried to the extreme of attacking the king's customary control of episcopal appointments, the conflicting ideals of opposed conceptions of power were speedily deployed in conflict. The Investiture Conflict was the first and most celebrated incident of a prolonged crisis of power. Marking a newly self-conscious maturity in European affairs, it had many facets, as historians have well seen; two of these have notable bearing on the theme of this book. First, the conflict was destructively violent, undermining royal authority in Germany while subjecting the people of Rome to merciless pillage by the pope's Norman allies. Second, writers drawn to justify actions or claims gave expression to ideas about authority, office, election, and competence (or suitability) that were to win renewed currency in the twelfth-century church and must be supposed to have influenced those, themselves often clerics, at work in kingdoms and lay principalities as they were fitted out with institutions. Out of this 'crisis of church and state,' to employ the usual but problematic term, came the organizing of ecclesiastical government. Might not a crisis, in considerable measure the same crisis, have played its part in the beginnings of lay governments?
* * *
Violence, disorder, stress: the problems of traditional powers in western medieval lands arose chiefly from societal growth and change. They might indeed be called 'growing pains' were it not for the inadequacy of the developmental metaphor. There was a confused old head on this young body, addled with conflicting venerable views of world order that had been incompletely reconciled in the compromise over investitures. The bellowing anger of a lord-king could provoke the murder of an archbishop as late as 1170 — and two other archbishops would suffer Becket's fate in the next quarter-century. Here again libertas ecclesiae rang forth, the old issue of the two powers; but what really links the aftershocks in England and Catalonia is a new distress about fidelity, oppression, and remedies for violence. And if, as has been plausibly argued, John of Salisbury wrote about tyranny with the young Henry II's fiscal exploitation of the English church in mind, then his Policraticus merits a conspicuous place in a flood of complaints against wilful violence, to say nothing of its well-known contribution to the new genre of courtly satire. John's equivocations about tyrannicide may be said to betray a learned clerk cowering before the lord-king he would correct. But if the Policraticus is thus an ideological witness to the excesses of lord-rulership, it also helps us to understand why disorders and tensions of this age other than that of the two powers have not much interested historians. In John's philosophical exposition, ideas seem disengaged by comparison with the polemics of the Investiture Conflict and of Becket's exile. This appearance may not be entirely justified, but it is true of so much else written about power in the twelfth century as to suggest one considerable heuristic difficulty of this inquiry: a certain discrepancy between the structural integrity of lordship as represented in theory and the perceptibly problematic character of lordship as we know it in practise.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations xvii
Usage and Conventions xix
I Introduction 1
II The Age of Lordship (875-1150) 22
Old Order 25
The Quest for Lordship and Nobility 31
Constraint, Violence, and Disruption 41
Cultures of Lordship 68
III Lord-Rulership (1050-1150): The Experience of Power 84
The Papacy 87
West Mediterranean Realms 95
León and Castile 95
In Sight of the Pyreness 104
Imperial Lands 111
Northern Kingdoms 155
Capetian France 158
Norman England 168
IV Crises of Power (1060-1150) 182
Uneasy Maturity 183
Dynastic Anxiety 183
Anxious Fulfillments 191
The Church 197
Troubled Societies 212
The Saxon Revolt and Its Consequences (1073-1125) 213
Castled France (CA. 1100-1137) 229
Troubles on the Pilgrims' Road (1109-36) 243
Flanders: The Murder of Charles the Good (1127-28) 259
England: 'When Christ and His Saints Slept' (1135-54) 269
An Age of Tyranny? 278
V Resolution: Intrusions of Government (1150-1215) 289
Great Lordship in Prosperity and Crisis 293
'Shadows of Peace' 306
Aquitaine: Princes of Ill Repute 308
Anjou: The Tyranny of Giraud Berlai 310
A Tyrannical Bishop(?): Aldebert of Mende (1151-87) 312
The Justice of Accountability 316
The Accountability of Fidelity (1075-1150) 322
Prescriptive Accountancy 325
Towards an Accountability of Office (1085-1200) 328
A Dynamic of Fiscal Growth (ca. 1090-1160) 329
Towards a New Technique (ca. 1110-75) 336
England: Pipe Rolls and Exchequer 336
Flanders: The Grote Brief and Its Origins 339
Sicily: Pluri-Cultural Conservancy? 343
Catalonia: From Exploitation to Agency 345
Constraint, Compromise, and Office 349
Charters of Franchise: Some Lessons 350
Thresholds of Office 358
In Sight of Our Lady's Towers 362
Working with Power 369
The Roman Church 415
VI Celebration and Persuasion (1160-1225) 425
Cultures of Power 430
Sung Fidelity 431
Courtly Talk 438
Learned Moralising 445
Expertise: Two Facets 456
Knowing How 462
The Capuchins of Velay 475
Politicised Power 484
The Crisis of Catalonia (1173-1205) 499
The Crisis of Magna Carta (1212-15) 515
States and Estates of Power 529
The States of Troubled Realms 530
The Great Lordship of Consensus 541
Towards Estates of Associative Power 548
Towards a Parliamentary Custom of Consent 556
VII Epilogue 573
What People are Saying About This
In this persuasive work of comparative European history, Thomas Bisson overturns received ideas about change, 'Renaissance,' and 'government.' He enables us to feel almost physically the oppression of castles, the violence of horses, and all that was, even before its own crisis, the power of the lords ruling Europe. This masterpiece crowns a prolific career in history. It will stand as a great classic.
Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
Bisson's view is that power as lordship was not 'political' in this period but personal, patrimonial, self-indulgent, and above all violent. This book is a major contribution to the field, not only because it is the fullest development of Bisson's learned position, but because of the prodigious amount and varying character of the sources he commands and his deftness in deploying them.
Edward Peters, author of "Europe and the Middle Ages"
This is an excellent book. In it, Bisson sums up a life's work and offers a grand narrative on major socioeconomic and sociopolitical changes in the central Middle Ages. There is no recent book that even attempts such a task as this. It is a very considerable contribution.
Chris Wickham, author of "Framing the Early Middle Ages"
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Thomas Bisson specializes in the XIIth century with knowledge and a masterful narrative. Superb.