Reform, Communication and Titulature

Back when I was an undergrad, the big debate over the attempts by Charlemagne and his immediate successors to transform government, culture, and society was ‘did they work?’ There are a lot of terribly ambitious texts from the late eighth and early ninth centuries, and there was a lot of scepticism about how they were put into practice. So the question about which we had to write essays was something along the lines of ‘All this was just court bumph which never made a difference to society at large. Discuss’.

Nowadays, that debate has been more-or-less entirely resolved in favour of ‘yes, but’. I’ve been trying to read around the latest scholarship on Carolingian reform for an article I’m redrafting – and so far I haven’t been able to find a mis-en-point for really up-to-date work, so this post could come off as terribly off-base – and a number of things are emerging. The first is that it’s now clear that the exhortations and plans of action produced at the royal court went far down into the localities – work on things like priests’ handbooks has made that abundantly clear. The king said ‘priests need to be educated and highly-trained’ and we have manuscripts of books for training priests which show that going down to the village level. The second is that the slightly more old-fashioned image, where Charlemagne et al were trying to create something like the USSR with popes – consistently and bureaucratically governed in an institutionalised and uniform manner in accordance with a strict and unyielding ideology – is rather off the mark anyway. Carolingian reformers seem to have been aiming at something more fundamental but less rigid. Given that I’m taking what follows more-or-less directly from Charles West anyway, I may as well quote him at this point:

Certain aspects of [Carolingian] reform could be legitimately and helpfully construed as working to make social relations clearer… Clear communication was everywhere the aim, in the expectation… that once this was achieved, all other problems would dissolve… The institutions which are most visible to us [and West mentions, among others, oath-taking, writing, and liturgical kingship] are best viewed as conduits for an underlying process, not as categories in themselves. (West, Reframing the Feudal Revolution, p. 103)

What that means is that the Carolingian reformers weren’t working per se to make sure that all court cases took place at the count’s tribunal or that royal missi were regularly supervising local nobles or what have you. These were all ways of (to paraphrase West again) getting society in order and keeping it there – making sure that no matter what anyone was doing precisely, they were all on the same page about what they should be doing.

Charlemagne's Practice of Empire
The front cover of Davis’ book, available here where I got the link from.

On the flip side, Jennifer Davis has recently argued something which – in my reading, anyway – looks rather different. She argues that Charlemagne’s rule was fundamentally need-driven, with consistent goals but no consistent policy. Hence, so long as it kept conflict, expense and trouble to a minimum and kept the royal court in the loop, Charlemagne felt free to try different things in different places: ‘they insisted on an ultimate overarching political culture centred on the court, but then nuanced their efforts to rule to local circumstance’ (Davis, Practice of Empire, p. 432). His rule was ultimately pragmatic and driven by local circumstances. Now Davis is talking about Charlemagne specifically and West about the ninth-century Carolingians, but this comes across like a major difference between a Carolingian reform which is about implementing an ideology and one which is about a bone-deep pragmatism.

For this article – which is going back to the Carolingian advocates of Saint-Martin – both of these are nice springboards to talk about why advocates show up when and how they do. Advocates at Saint-Martin look very different to advocates in, say, Sankt Gallen, or even closer to home in Poitou. So why are these very different people called the same thing, ‘advocates’, in all three places? Why even have advocates in Saint-Martin when the brothers had been doing perfectly well without them for decades? Davis’ point about regional variety is key here: Neustrian circumstances required a specifically Neustrian response – it couldn’t be finally and fully integrated within Carolingian political society otherwise, and the ongoing failure to integrate the region over the ninth century meant instability, war, and territorial loss. Equally, though, integrating Neustria under the Carolingian aegis meant buying into the court’s discourse – making sure that communication was clear rather than muddied through endless local proliferation of discourses. Hence, Adalmar of Saint-Martin was an advocate specifically, not a ‘lawman’ or a ‘knight of the Church’ or ‘St. Martin’s Go-To Headbreaker’ or whatever, because the differences I’m interested in – things like geographical competence or social and institutional status or precise legal function – weren’t relevant to Carolingian advocati. They were laymen standing between the Church and the impure world in doing legal things – they were advocati, so that everyone was clear what they did. How they did it, precisely, could vary based on regional circumstances.

This also has interesting repercussions for a topic dear to this blog’s heart, the assumption of comital titles by local potentates. The very first time this came up, we were talking about Gerald of Aurillac, and how he was called a count because people thought he was sufficiently powerful and important. What I didn’t mention is that there’s a diploma of Charles the Simple to Aurillac in which Gerald acts as the petitioner, and he is called a count there. This is one of the way Carolingian rule is supposed to happen – the royal centre acknowledging and giving weight to local claims of status. Now what’s interesting is that by the eleventh century, counts are almost everywhere, including places they weren’t in the ninth century. Clearly, lots of men who a hundred years before would have had no stable title are deciding to call themselves counts. This represents, I think, the continuation of those Carolingian ideals of clear communication: these people are counts, not praeses or optimates or hypersebastes, because ‘count’ clearly communicates the status they’re claiming. The difference is that the royal court doesn’t act as an arbiter anymore – the count of Brienne (for instance) can be a count now because who’s going to say otherwise?

This raises one interesting question, which is: are there any failed counts in the late ninth century? That is, people who we can see trying for comital rank but not getting it? As it happens, the answer to that is probably ‘yes’. Raculf, viscount of Mâcon, shows up in one charter as a ‘venerable count’, but not otherwise. Raculf is in contact with kingship, probably – he shows up in a diploma of Charles the Bald as the brother of a vassus – but none of them ever validate his comital title and he never vindicates it. I bet you a hundred years later he could have done.

Anyway, this post is more of a sketch than usual – this is right up-to-the-minute work in progress (it actually bumped a post about arengae down the planning order a few weeks). Not so much the comital stuff, which is just musing on the wider implications, but the reform stuff; so please let me know what you think so I can fiddle with it before it goes to beta readers/peer review!

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3 thoughts on “Reform, Communication and Titulature

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