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Cambridge University Press
The Norman Frontier in the Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries

The Norman Frontier in the Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries

by Daniel Power


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521571722
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 10/15/2004
Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought , #62
Pages: 664
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 8.98(h) x 1.61(d)

About the Author

Daniel Power is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of numerous articles on France and England in the central Middle Ages and co-editor of Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands 700-1700 (Macmillan, 1999).

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The Norman Frontier in the Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries
Cambridge University Press
0521571723 - The Norman Frontier in the Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries - by Daniel Power


In the twelfth century the borderlands of the duchy of Normandy enjoyed an importance reaching far beyond the rolling hills and narrow rivers that skirted the duchy. Thanks above all to the astounding achievements of its most famous ruler, William the Conqueror, Normandy had emerged in the previous century as one of the most powerful and important principalities in western Europe. However, its land frontiers were often troubled by warfare between the dukes of Normandy - who were more often than not also kings of England - and their neighbours, especially the Capetian kings of France. These conflicts imbued the province's borders with exceptional political significance. Just as significant, however, was the complex relationship between the duke and the aristocratic élites that dominated the frontier districts, which had far-reaching consequences for the history of the duchy and its neighbours.

The Norman frontier has often attracted the attention of historians of Normandy as one of several distinctive facets of the Norman 'state',1 but much less attention has been paid to the societies that inhabited the marches of the duchy. The period of Plantagenet or Angevin rule in Normandy (1144-1204) has been particularly neglected, despite its importance to the history of the Angevin 'empire'. Count Geoffrey of Anjou overran Normandy in the 1140s with the aid of the lords of the southern frontier, establishing a dynastic 'empire' that under Geoffrey's son Henry Ⅱ (king of England 1154-89) and grandson Richard Ⅰ (1189-99) would surpass all others in western Europe in its brilliance and power. Sixty years after Geoffrey's conquest of Normandy, the collapse of Angevin supremacy also owed much to developments upon the Norman frontier. In April 1202 King Philip Ⅱ Augustus of France (1180-1223) declared that the duke of Normandy, King John of England (1199-1216), had forfeited his possessions in France. In March 1204, after one of the most famous sieges of the Middle Ages, the fortress of Château-Gaillard in the marches of eastern Normandy fell to a French assault. Encouraged by his success, within three months Philip Augustus subdued the whole duchy, ending its effective independence and breaking up the Angevin territories. King Philip's triumph was only possible because ducal control over the frontier regions of southern and eastern Normandy had already crumbled over the previous decade. So the Norman frontier lies at the heart of the rise, greatness and fall of the Angevin empire. The political society of the Norman frontier in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries forms the subject of this book.


'Frontiers' and 'frontier societies' have become a popular subject for historical investigation in recent years.2 As the dominant statist paradigms of nineteenth- and much twentieth-century historical writing have fallen into disfavour, the history of societies at the fringes of cultures or territories has grown in popularity. Many such studies have been inspired by North American notions of frontiers as zones of transition between a settled and an unsettled area, or, by extension, between civilisations; others have concentrated upon frontiers in a conventional European sense, as the physical and imagined divisions - whether linear or zonal - between settled populations, usually determined by political allegiance.3

Political frontiers reveal much about the polities which they delimit. Rulers often face the greatest tests at the fringes of their territories, where their control can be challenged most easily by neighbouring powers, and the measures that they adopt in response demonstrate the overall effectiveness and limitations of their power.4 The study of frontiers also has a role to play in the history of ethnic and political identities. It is no accident that many of the greatest national leaders of the past, from Joan of Arc to Napoleon, came from regions that lay at the extremities of the territories with which they chose to identify; their fervent espousal of that identity indicates that at the fringes of a kingdom or province, identity and conceptualisation of territory are not vague optional ideas but a fact of daily existence.5 For their part, frontiers of settlement or cultural interaction have proved enduringly popular with historians ever since the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his 'frontier thesis' at the end of the nineteenth century, as zones where the mingling of cultures reflect settlement patterns and agriculture, language, social customs and law.6

Since historians have identified so many different types of frontier, the validity of this term as a tool for analysis is open to question. There is a danger that treating a particular area as a frontier from the outset can be too deterministic.7 It may appear anachronistic to speak of a frontier at all for the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, since the English word and many of its cognate terms did not evolve until the late Middle Ages.8 In addition, all medievalists are aware of the existence of enclaves and pockets of jurisdiction, liberties and rights (whether seigneurial, communal or ecclesiastical), ties of lordship and dependence that were unterritorial in nature, vast stretches of uncultivated lands and 'waste' separating villages, all of which existed in recurrent situations of weak political control and prevailing violence. Medieval power often appears very diffuse, easily slipping away to hitherto peripheral regions, so that a 'frontier' could be rapidly transformed into a core territory or 'metropolis'. Thomas Noble, for instance, has depicted the ninth-century Carolingian lands as a core of Frankish territories surrounded by a ring of client regna: but he also suggests that the two chief successor states to the Carolingian Empire that emerged in the ninth century, the future France and Germany, were founded upon three of these same peripheral regna, Bavaria on the one hand and Aquitaine and Neustria on the other, whose rulers divided the old Carolingian heartlands between them.9 In other words, the centre of the Empire, those Frankish Kerngebiete that had been a fulcrum of western European politics since the sixth century, were now coming to be dominated by their frontiers. In the following century the Ottonian dynasty was transformed from the defenders of the Saxon March into the rulers of the East Frankish kingdom within a generation. Furthermore, between the late tenth and the early twelfth centuries, power and authority disintegrated across much of Europe, in the process known as encellulement (literally 'breaking up into cells') that in the eyes of many historians tended to reduce effective power to the level of the castelry.10 Could the borders of the kingdom or of its constituent principalities be of any importance when power and authority were often so fragmented and devolved?11

Yet 'frontiers' of sorts did exist in the Middle Ages. While no one can deny the ease with which scholars, traders, warriors and peasants moved across the territory between the Pyrenean region, the Alps and the Rhineland, this same period of Latin Christian expansion was also one in which the division of western Christendom into separate kingdoms proved lasting. The divisions within this territory could have great political and social significance and contemporaries were also often very aware of them. Medieval political frontiers often proved to be very durable indeed, and the interaction of a dominant power with local élites at the fringes of its territory could be very distinctive. Rulers frequently had to appease the landowners at the fringes of their territories in order to retain and cultivate their loyalties, or to give their local commanders a freer hand in dealing with the military exigencies that arose at the frontier. As a result, the frontier lord could accumulate power and privilege from the advantages of his location. Paradoxically, for some other frontier regions the very reverse was true: the ruler resorted to ruthless suppression as the best means of controlling his borderlands. The Welsh Marches represent a fair example of the first set of developments,12 while the Norman Vexin in the twelfth century more closely resembled the second;13 but in each case, the political and social institutions of the region were affected because it lay at the frontiers of a principality.

As for the term 'frontier', much of the difficulty with the English term arises from the variety of concepts which it evokes. It tends to imply zones of strong contrasts, usually located at the limits of colonisation and settlement, whether literally in a wilderness, or metaphorically, as in the case of Latin expansion in the Mediterranean. Cognate terms in other European languages, however, invoke rather more restricted concepts and tend to have much stronger political than demographic connotations. Frontières and Grenzen may divide densely populated territories which are similar in most respects, but separated from one another by political organisation and by a rhetoric of difference. Although most of these terms have acquired their modern sense in the context of early modern statebuilding, their more restricted connotations allow them to be used, with qualification, for medieval political divisions, whether linear or zonal.14

Care is therefore needed both in the use of frontier terminology and in the treatment of so-called frontiers and frontier zones. In the following pages it will often be necessary to resort to these expressions as shorthand terms for the districts at the limits of the territory which the dukes of Normandy ruled, whether or not there was a recognised delimitation of territory such as a river or boundary markers. This generalisation has some regrettable but necessary shortcomings. Terms such as fines and marca in Latin or marches in French were frequently used in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries to indicate the borders or borderlands of Normandy,15 but the full significance of the political divide between Normandy and its neighbours requires a much broader swathe of territory to be considered here than the districts immediately abutting the boundaries of the duchy (where these existed).

In modern English the term 'frontier' also conveys wider figurative meanings of conceptual division, the view of 'like' and 'unlike', 'same' and 'other'. While the term was not used in this sense during the Middle Ages,16 it has enabled historians to draw comparisons and contrasts between very different countries and ages. The rhetoric of Norman identity forms an important aspect of the history of the communities who dwelt at the fringes of Norman territory.


Normandy has no natural unity. This basic fact reverberates through the history of the duchy. Its cohesion was founded upon naked political power and tradition, not topographical features. Upper (eastern) Normandy, geologically part of the Paris Basin, is predominantly a land of arable agriculture and nucleated villages; the Evrecin and Norman Vexin can even be regarded as tongues of the great wheat-growing plain of northern France. In contrast, Lower (western) Normandy forms part of the Armorican Massif, linking it geologically to Brittany rather than Upper Normandy. Now a country of orchards and cattle-rearing, its settlement is characterised by scattered hamlets. In addition, the Avranchin, Cotentin and Channel Islands enjoyed numerous contacts with Brittany, and the Norman coastal districts with England and Flanders. The southern frontier did not then approximate to the northern limits of French viticulture, as it does today. 'The vine is not unknown there', Dudo of Saint-Quentin commented rather diffidently in his description of the province.17 Today vines are cultivated around Vernon, and in the twelfth century the stretch of the Seine valley extending from there downstream to Gaillon was the most important wine-producing part of the duchy; but other areas, notably the Sélune valley near Avranches, were also well provided with vineyards, and only the Cotentin, Pays d'Auge and Pays de Caux produced no wine at all.18

The duality between east and west would have political, social, economic and cultural significance. Upper Normandy, based around the valleys of the Seine and its tributaries, was oriented towards Paris and the Ile-de-France. The records of Jumièges, Saint-Wandrille and other abbeys in the Seine valley abound with privileges and concessions from the lords of Francia who controlled traffic upstream, and show that there was a lively trade along the great river and its tributaries.19 In contrast Lower Normandy was drained by the Sarthe, the Mayenne and their tributaries which linked Domfront, Argentan or Alençon with the Loire provinces of Anjou and Touraine and beyond to Aquitaine. There are other manifestations of cultural differences between the east and west. The romanesque Frankish suffix -court is confined to placenames in Upper Normandy and neighbouring provinces, whereas the central medieval suffixes -ière and -erie are primarily western phenomena, found in Brittany, Maine and Anjou, and western Normandy without regard for the border of the duchy.20 So Normandy was subject to many different, often contradictory cultural and economic influences. It is a testimony to the Normans' sense of political and cultural identity that the duchy was so cohesive, for geographically united it was not.

If the duchy had no natural unity, nor did it enjoy 'natural frontiers' - so far as such a phenomenon can be said to exist anywhere21 - apart from the English Channel. Physical features certainly served as boundaries but were not major obstacles to communication and contact between neighbouring populations. There are several deep river valleys along the Norman borders, such as the lower courses of the Epte and Eure; but in some places the boundary rivers barely dent the surrounding plain, notably the Avre above Verneuil. By far the greatest river valley and natural obstacle in the region, the valley of the Seine, runs more or less at right angles to the borders of Normandy and formed the focus of the province and a link with Normandy's eastern neighbours, not a barrier between them. The hills and forests of Normandy's southern borders may at first sight appear to be a natural obstacle, and the forests skirting the duchy were indeed more extensive than today.22 According to Orderic Vitalis, the castle of Bréval (between Ivry and Mantes) lay 'in silvestra et deserta regione' in 1092, and the treasure-train of Geoffrey of Anjou was ambushed in the wood of Malèfre near Alençon in 1136; yet all trace of these woodlands has disappeared.23 Nevertheless, the idea that there was a genuine 'forest frontier' by 1135 seems hard to maintain; even the great wooded ridge that extended from the county of Mortain to Perche, marked by high-founded fortresses such as Domfront and broken only by the valley of the Sarthe, was more likely to serve as a notional limit comparable to the rivers in the east of the province, rather than an insuperable natural barrier. Toponymic evidence from one of the more remote areas along the southern frontier, the Passais, shows that it was already relatively densely settled by 1000.24 In the mid-thirteenth century herdsmen were accustomed to driving their beasts from Ambrières in northern Maine to pasture at Tanques, west of Argentan, and we may suppose that this practice dated back deep into the region's history.25

The frontier was of relatively little importance in some other ways. It is true that, in contrast to the lands to the east, there was no servitude in Normandy, a characteristic imputed at least in part to its Scandinavian inheritance;26 Normandy also had its own system of land measurement which more or less halted along the borders.27 Other economic factors point to the integration of the duchy into northern France, however. Norman coinage never had a monopoly in the province in the way that the penny sterling had in England: even after the money of Anjou became the dominant coinage in the second half of the twelfth century, the money of Le Mans continued to be used regularly for accounting purposes in the southern half of the duchy, while in the east, the coinages of Paris, Dreux and Beauvais were also all used regularly, a challenge to Angevin hegemony within the duke's own territory.28

The Norman frontier represented no great divide in terms of dialect either. It is true that the Romance tongue of northern France categorised as 'Old French Ⅱ' (c.1100-c.1350) was highly regionalised, and in the mid-thirteenth century Norman was regarded as one of the main dialects, with specific cultural connotations which were noted, for instance, by Roger Bacon.29 It is also apparent that by the accession of Philip Augustus (1180), the spoken language of the Capetian court was regarded as in some ways superior to that of other provinces: 'My language is good, for I was born in France', Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence assured his Canterbury audience in c.1173,30 while the baron and poet Conon de Béthune complained that he was mocked at the Capetian court on account of his Artesian dialect, 'for I was not brought up in Pontoise'.31 However, it is impossible to know what the distinguishing features of twelfth-century dialects were, where and when exactly they occurred, and how sharp the divide was. The very notion of a linguistic frontier was refuted by one of the leading experts in the study of Old French.32 Individual traits which have been discerned from extant texts do not necessarily follow political borders: one of the supposed indices of the divide between Francien (the dialect of the Ile-de-France) and other provincial dialects united northern Normandy, including Caen and Lisieux, with Picard dialects, but separated this part of the duchy from the southern districts of Normandy, Brittany, Maine, the Chartrain, and the Ile-de-France.33

In any case, none of the provincial dialects used in Old French literature was 'pure'. It has been suggested that this reflected a prevailing desire to imitate the written bon usage of Francien,34 but few 'Francien' texts survive before the mid-thirteenth century: most of the literature of this period is written in what are regarded as primarily Norman, Anglo-Norman, Champenois, Picard or Tourangeau dialects.35 With such poor evidence, it is impossible to demonstrate that the Norman frontier had a linguistic significance. Much of the groundbreaking categorisation of Old French dialects in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries presumed that the triumph of the dialect of the Ile-de-France as a national language was as assured as the rise of the French monarchy.36 The tendency of sociolinguistics to minimise traditional classification of dialects also greatly reduces the significance of regional difference.37 Even the Norman-Breton border had no linguistic dimension, for the eastern parts of the duchy of Brittany were fully integrated into the northern French world in the Angevin era; the Breton language was largely confined to the western ends of the peninsula.38

The chief significance of the Norman frontier was in terms of power. The borders of Normandy passed through a variety of districts, each with its own characteristics, and differing combinations of forests, rivers, hills and human habitation. To dwell close to the French king's fortresses must have been a very different experience from living in a remote corner of the hills east of Domfront. Between Verneuil and Neufmarché, the Norman border was normally a 'hot' frontier, subject to raiding and siege warfare with a depressing regularity. The reason was simple: Paris and Rouen, the chief cities of the two most powerful princes in western Europe, both lay within forty miles of the Epte, Eure and Avre, and no landowning noble could ignore that basic fact. Elsewhere, the Norman frontier was often far less strife-torn. The Breton frontier might sometimes be disturbed by localised violence, but after 1064 the only major reported conflicts occurred in 1173, 1196 and 1202-4. The border with Perche, ill defined and violent in the late eleventh century, probably remained at peace for much of the twelfth century but 'heated up' from 1150 onwards. What held these different regions together was their common place on the peripheries of the Norman principality. Their political communities, the aristocracy who dominated local affairs and who dealt with the Norman dukes and neighbouring princes, are the key to understanding the character and significance of the Norman frontier in the last century of ducal Normandy.39


When Jean-François Lemarignier, Jean Yver and Lucien Musset sought to explain the precocious development of the Norman 'state' by comparison with other French principalities, the Norman frontier was an integral part of their theories.40 As early as the eleventh century, they argued, the province's limits were defined with unusual precision, more often than not using much older divisions such as the boundaries of Carolingian pagi, and within this delineated zone the dukes enforced their sovereignty. Lemarignier and Musset acknowledged that there were areas such as the 'Avre Triangle' or certain southern Norman borderlands where ducal sovereignty was slower to develop, and others from which Norman power soon receded, but such exceptions served to highlight the success of the Norman rulers elsewhere in developing their state.41 The early history of the Norman 'frontier' is therefore closely related to the origins and evolution of Normandy itself, and is no less controversial.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Introduction; Part I. Princely Power and the Norman Frontier: 1. The dukes of Normandy and the frontier regions; 2. Capetian government in the Franco-Norman marches; 3. The church and the Norman frontier; 4. The customs of Normandy and the Norman frontier; Part II. The Political Communities of the Norman Frontier: 5. The aristocracy of the Norman frontiers: origins and status; 6. The concerns of aristocratic lineages: marriage, kinship, neighbourhood and inheritance; 7. The lesser aristocracy; 8. Religious patronage and burial; Part III. The Political Development of the Norman Frontier: 9. The structures of politics on the Norman frontier; 10. The Norman frontier in the reign of Henry I (1106-35); 11. The Norman frontier and the Angevin dukes (1135-93); 12. The Norman frontier and the fall of Angevin Normandy (1193-1204); 13. The Norman Frontier after 1204; Conclusion; Appendix I. Genealogies; Appendix II. The campaigns in eastern Normandy of 1202.

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