A. Introduction

Course Description and Rationale

The Period

Though it takes in some of the late Roman background to the early Middle Ages, this course is primarily concerned with the six centuries between c.450 and 1025 A.D. This period saw the disintegration of the Roman state, the collapse of the most developed economy to emerge in western Europe prior to the eighteenth century, and the fragmentation of the Greco-Roman cultural consensus. It was a time of great conflict - conflict between barbarians and Romans and conflict between rival faiths - that is, between pagans and Christians, between Christians and Muslims, and among many subtly different versions of Christianity. Yet, it was also an age of experimentation as newly emerging peoples and their leaders attempted to find ways of coping with these great catastrophes - as in differing ways in differing regions the cultural and institutional baggage of the past was re-worked to met the challenges of the moment.

The Area

The course is focused on the experiences of one people in particular, the Franks, who were the most influential and powerful of the new ethnic configurations to emerge in western Europe during this period. Its geographical focus, therefore, comprises the lands that would come under Frankish rule during the early Middle Ages. At the height of their power, in the eighth and ninth centuries, the kings of the Franks ruled a vast empire that extended from the River Elbe in what is now eastern Germany to the River Ebro in what is now north-eastern Spain. In modern terms their empire comprised all that is now part of the low countries, France, Catalonia, western Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. But note that I say that History 213 is focused on this area. We will also have need, from time to time, to consider adjoining regions (such as Denmark during the Viking period) and the frontiers that separated them from this empire, since what was happening in these areas is important for understanding what was happening within and to 'Frankia' itself.

The Frankish Empire in 800 A.D.

Map: The Frankish Empire, c.800

The Rationale

As an Option A course, Warlords and Holy Men is concerned with 'change and continuity': it is, to be precise, concerned with the long process by which a new civilisation took shape in western Europe between 400-1000. This period saw the transformation of older Roman structures leading to the emergence of a largely new order - that is, a society organised according to new principles. I say largely because there was still much continuity, but the principles according to which this new civilisation was organised may be defined as follows:

  1. It was an order whose defining political community was 'the kingdom'. The kingdom was in theory an ethnic rather than a territorial (or spatial) entity: that is, the king - the single ruler or monarch - was the ruler of a 'people', of a single ethnic group. The period also saw rulers who claimed power over more than one ethnic group, but such persons were typically regarded as kings of multiple kingdoms, one for each of their subject peoples.
  2. As the previous paragraph implies, this society was segmented by the existence of diverse ethnic identities, most of which were of alleged Germanic origin. In this new order 'ethnicity' (and a largely new set of ethnic identities formed amid the invasion of the Roman Empire by the Germanic tribes) replaced 'citizenship' as the basis on which people defined the community to which they belonged.
  3. This new civilisation was also defined by its people's adherence to a shared religion: that is, by their adherence to a distinctive 'Latin' version of Christianity which came, gradually, to have a pervasive influence upon the prevailing social and cultural norms. I say gradually because the process of 'Christianization' was longer and torturous, but by around 1000 it is possible to speak - as Maurice Keen does in the introduction to his History of Medieval Europe - of western Europe as a 'republic' united by a common religious teaching: 'At different times within the medieval period different views were prevalent as to where the ultimate authority in this republic lay; some believed it lay with the emperor, others with the Pope, others again with a general council. Many were prepared to fight for their views, yet the sense of unity remained.'
  4. These words bring us to another important point about this 'new order', which is that it was a 'fragmented theocracy'. Theocracy literally means 'the rule of the religious'. In the high medieval West rulers of all kinds, 'secular' as well as 'religious' (i.e. kings and lords as well as popes and bishops), claimed that it was their task to deliver religious goals - the goals of the Christian church. (This is why the terms 'secular' and 'religious' need to be put in inverted commas: in practice, all lords were to differing degrees 'secular' and 'religious' authorities.) There was never a time, moreover, when a single ruler could claim an effective monopoly on religious and/or secular authority - rather the various claimants co-existed in a state of potential conflict. This course will give particular attention to the slow and convoluted evolution of secular claims to theocratic authority until they reached their fullest form around the year 1000.
  5. As the previous paragraph implies, this new order was characterised by the fragmentation of political authority: kings and rulers of all kinds, shared power and authority with many other persons and institutions. In theory, the king was entitled to unquestioning obedience from all his subjects, but in practice his authority was anything but 'absolute'. Indeed, the effective exercise of political authority depended upon eliciting the cooperation of the great and on the maintenance of social networks among this broad community.
  6. A final defining element of this new order was the pivotal role which the guarantee of one's rights over land - i.e. the promise to protect one's property - played in establishing political and social relationships. Given the ferocity of scholarly debate over the meaning of the term, one hesitates to label this aspect of the new order 'feudalism'. (You will find that the textbooks use this highly controversial term in a bewildering variety of ways, and it is often best avoided, especially when speaking of the early Middle Ages.) But the essential point is that the role of guaranteeing a person's rights as a landholder became a pivotal function of secular authority at all levels - the peasant's reward for his labour services is the guarantee of his own plot of land; the retainer's reward for his military service is the protection of his rights as an heir and as a landowner. (In this world land tenure was much weaker and less individualised than it is today or was under the Roman Empire, but it was far less precarious than it had been in the Iron Age! Or, at least, forms of tenure were emerging that offered 'intermediate' forms of security.) In the present course we explore the implications of these guarantee-relationships for the development of early medieval society.

Our course is concerned, in short, with the emergence of this new order and with the gradual erosion and transformation of the 'Greco-Roman' order that preceded it.

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