How Dangerous was Tenth-Century Politics?

Even if no-one uses the phrase ‘feudal anarchy’ anymore, its spectre haunts the tenth century. This was, after all, the century for which the term ‘dark ages’ was invented, and the French kingdom is supposed to have been the worst. Even among scholars, the idea that violence was endemic and all-consuming still holds its ground. It fits nicely with the period’s reputation as a hot-bed of treachery and murder.

Problem is, it’s not true. Or, at least, it needs to be quite finely nuanced, because there’s two different concepts which get fudged together. The first is that violence was more widespread in this period than previously; the second is that being a political actor was more dangerous. The first question is a matter of some debate – some scholars, Thomas Bisson being perhaps the most notable, argue that lordship became a matter of rule-through-violence and little else, meaning that the average peasant family was at more risk of having their cottage burned down in 1000 than in 850; others, such as Dominique Barthélemy, have argued that this is basically a trick of the light caused by changes in monastic record-keeping practice, and there’s no reason to believe that there was more violence in 1000 as opposed to more complaints. My sympathies in this case lie more with the latter than the former, but for the second question, which is what I’m more interested in, it’s actually irrelevant which is right.

Violence in general doesn’t necessarily mean that political elites are at risk. It certainly can mean that – in the Soviet Union under Stalin, for instance, the Politburo was at much at risk of losing their status and lives as anyone else – but it doesn’t have to; odds of a senior Bolshevik ending up against the wall under Lenin was rather less, even though Russians on the street might still end up a victim of the Cheka.

Bearing this in mind, it is remarkable how safe politics was in tenth-century France. Certainly, there was an extended period of civil war between about 920 and 965, but even then, for people of comital rank and above, odds of dying in battle were slim: other than Count Herluin of Montreuil, whose death is recorded in a much later source, the only member of the West Frankish elite to die in battle was Robert of Neustria, and that battle was so unusual that it’s one of the few events from Charles the Simple’s reign that is reliably noted in virtually every chronicle. Equally, being murdered wasn’t much of a threat either – with one significant category of exceptions, which I’ll go into below, assassination was basically non-existent. To put that in perspective, being a West Frankish noble between 900 and 1000 was less hazardous to your health than being a US president between 1865 and 1965.

Equally, permanent loss of status was unusual. To take one example, when Count Arnold of Douai lost control of Douai, he was given Saint-Quentin to hold by Count Heribert II of Vermandois, keeping his status as a player in the political game. One might lose individual strongholds, but rarely did nobles lose everything; even strongholds were usually able to be at least contested, if not reclaimed.

A 15th-century MSS illustration of William Longsword’s murder. (link)

As I mentioned, there are exceptions to this, and that seems to be people who get on the wrong side of the counts of Flanders. The murders of Archbishop Fulk of Rheims in 900 and Duke William Longsword in 943, exhibits A and B for people arguing that West Frankish politics were unusually dangerous, were both carried out by Flemish counts, and seem to have been controversial at the time – even deliberately-taciturn sources like the chronicler Flodoard of Rheims, who usually a) was no fan of the Norman dukes and b) tried to keep his annals as inoffensive as possible, disapprove of William’s killing, for example. What we’re looking at, I think, is less a general West Frankish culture of violence at the highest level, and more a peculiarly Flemish brutality.

This is not to say that no-one got hurt in forty plus years of warfare, merely that the violence did not extend all the way up to the top of society. In this way, the West Frankish kingdom in these years presents a contrast to, say, late ninth-century Lotharingia, where the tat-for-tat violence begun with the murder of Count Megingoz in 892 was a feature of the political scene for over a decade. It might not have been peaceful, but if you were a count, a duke, or a king, the odds of dying in your bed with all the accoutrements of your status were pretty good.

(If you disagree, please let me know – I’m curious to hear counterarguments to this viewpoint…)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s