A Time of Origins in Aquitaine: The Peace of God, Ducal Power, and the “Vita Amabilis”

So I recently had cause to be in Cambridge, and whilst catching up with the University Library there I discovered a fascinating new document which provides insight on Auvergnat history and the Peace of God, and I’d like to share it all with you. You see, I went back to Christian Lauranson-Rosaz’s L’Auvergne et ses marges. This is a very large book, and I’ve never read it cover-to-cover because in addition being very large it’s also quite blinkered and in a lot of ways a bit weird. But you can’t fault it for comprehensiveness, and so it was that I turned to the passage on early eleventh-century Auvergne and found reference to the Vita of St Amabilis of Riom.

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A fifteenth-century image of Riom (source)

What does it say? The relevant portion of the text opens with a reference to a Bishop Stephen of Clermont, whom everyone loved. He was a great pastor, and he got everyone in Auvergne to swear an oath to him on holy relics. However, the Devil inspired them to leave the path of peace and they called on William, count of Poitiers and Aquitaine, who attacked Stephen and besieged Riom, although they couldn’t take it. Eventually, Stephen was able to overcome William despite his smaller forces and the count returned home empty-handed.

Now, Lauranson-Rosaz dates this text – as far as I can tell entirely arbitrarily – to the reign of Duke William the Great, around 1015-ish. But I read the excerpts in the footnotes and went ‘Count William of Poitiers fighting Bishop Stephen of Clermont in the Auvergne? That sounds familiar!’ and rushed off to Gallica to check the text. And it turns out if you read the Vita Amabilis, a) there’s no reason at all to put is in c. 1010, but b) there are hints that it is a tenth-century composition. First, the William in question is described as comes Pictavensium et Aquitanicum. By the eleventh century, the counts of Poitiers have been claiming to be dux Aquitanensium for several decades – the terminology is unusually consistent. But right in the 960s, at the very beginning of the dukes’ claims to be dukes, they’re a bit more fluid, and William Towhead is at one point comes ducatus Aquitanici, much closer to the version in the Vita. This is far from proof, but it is suggestive. Just as important is the other name the text gives, that of a cleric named Ragenfred. I was able to look through my charters, and as it happens there isn’t anyone named Ragenfred recorded in the early eleventh century, only in the late tenth. It could still be that this is an otherwise-unrecorded Ragenfred, of course, but personally I’m fairly confident that this is a text written in the 960s.

As a description of Auvergnat politics in the 950s, in addition to according quite well with the other sources, it sheds some extra light. First off, it raises a very exciting possibility about the earliest origins of what would become the Peace of God. Most historians see the Peace as reactive, a response to… well, something, it’s debated, but often social disruption or knightly violence. What the text seems to suggest though is that at its earliest point, swearing an oath to a bishop within a discourse of peace was itself an act of disruption. This makes sense to me – as we’ll see in a couple of weeks, I’m happy seeing the peace tradition, small-p and big-P, not as a pragmatic peacekeeping measure so much as a claim to local or regional authority, so the idea that it started as a hegemonic gesture by Stephen II fits that neatly. This is also probably what annoyed the Auvergnat magnates – as far as I know, taking general loyalty oaths is a royal thing, and Stephen may well have been perceived as a usurper, especially given how tied in he was to royal legitimacy. It’s a shame that we can’t fit it too closely with that 958 charter, because it would be nice to know how the ‘princes of the Auvergne rebelling against one another’ matched with this document’s chronology… (I suspect the 958 charter is after these events, which puts Stephen’s oath-taking in around 954, which is very interesting timing, as King Louis IV would have recently died… More to think on here.)

What it also shows is William Towhead taking advantage of Auvergnat dissension to try and increase his own power there. The counts of Poitou, as we’ve seen before, had no history in the Auvergne and no reason to intervene there – unless they were drawn in. In short, this text might also be an important insight into the origin of the wider hegemony of the dukes of Aquitaine in the early eleventh century as well as into the very beginnings of the Peace of God. Watch this space!

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