Odo of Cluny on the Difficulties of Earlier Medieval Governance

It should probably be said right out somewhere on this blog that medieval government was difficult. In terms of relative scale, it was rather harder to govern a Frankish kingdom in the tenth century than to govern the entire world today – in three days, I could leave my apartment and, with enough money, be anywhere in the world; in the 990s, Richer of Rheims took three days to go from Rheims to Chartres (although he notes that that was a particularly difficult journey). Even with the much more limited practical ambitions of medieval governance, preventing your political hegemony from devolving into ultra-fragmented clusters of tiny village cells was a constant effort.

Chris Wickham has this thing he talks about called ‘capillary’ governance, the idea being that you have these local communities as ‘cells’ and then processes which pull them into larger units, and those larger units are in turn pulled into yet larger units by higher-level capillary processes. These processes take different forms in different societies – so in the Roman Empire, for instance, it might be tax collectors coming and assessing your province for tax; in Lombard Italy, it might be new issues of a law code coming to be used in your local courts; and so on. But what about the West Frankish kingdom, where there was no Roman-style tax system and no real ‘legal system’ as we would think of it today?

A neat little window into this is provided by the Vita Geraldi, which at one point has a vignette of its hero, Gerald of Aurillac, being politically courted by William the Pious of Aquitaine. Odo of Cluny, author of the Vita Geraldi, portrays Gerald as a very strange man, largely because he was trying to effect large-scale moral change amongst a lay audience; but to do that he had to drop Gerald into recognisable situations, and he had in fact grown up at William the Pious’ court, so it’s a glimpse into William’s SOP by someone who knew it quite well.

Image of William from a Cluny manuscript, c. 1200, BNF MS Lat 17716 (source, image from Gallica)

What Odo shows is William trying (and occasionally failing) to win Gerald’s loyalty by a variety of measures. He tries and fails to entice Gerald into commending himself to him, despite Gerald’s position as a royal vassal – he fails, interestingly enough, because Gerald has only recently taken the title of count, and presumably needs the royal connection to validate it. He offers to marry Gerald to his sister, only to be thwarted by Gerald’s vow of chastity. He talks to him often and takes his counsel. The two men go on long walks together. They fight together, and build up military camaraderie. All of this shows three things: first, that William was not the lord of all Aquitanians just by default; second, that the degree of his authority of Gerald was extremely negotiable; and third, that it require constant maintenance.

This is entirely typical. William’s Aquitaine was built out of little bundles of local rights, connections and lands, and pulling them together required constant activity, cajoling, threatening, and bribing the people in his following to stay in his following. Exercising real power in the earlier Middle Ages was exhausting work!


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