Bestriding the World: The Politics of Hegemony in Francia and China

In May 823, Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) held an assembly at Frankfurt. Much of the business at hand concerned his neighbours to the east. These included the brothers Milegast and Cealadrag, two kings of the Wilzi, a Slavic people who lived on the Baltic. The older, Milegast, had been deposed by his subjects in favour of the younger and the pair now came to the Emperor for arbitration. Louis decided in favour of Cealadrag, judging him to be the true choice of the Wilzi, but softened the blow by giving them both gifts. The brothers swore oaths to keep the agreement, before being sent home. Next on the agenda was (the confusingly similarly named) Prince Ceadrag of the Abodrites, the people to the west of the Wilzi. Not for the first time, Ceadrag had failed to attend the assembly, and he was accused of treachery to the Franks (probably with the Danes). Envoys were sent to the Abodrites to investigate further. The prince moved quickly to rectify this breach, sending messengers promising to attend upon Louis the following winter. When he did so, Ceadrag was able to mollify the emperor with acceptable excuses for the years he had been absent, and was allowed to go home with gifts.

The Wilzi and the Abodrites were two of a number of client states that ringed the Carolingian empire under Charlemagne (r. 768-814) and Louis the Pious. They were particularly common on the eastern frontier. When Louis held an assembly in Frankfurt in the winter of 822, he received offerings from the ‘Abodrites, Sorbs, Wilzi, Bohemians, Moravians, and Praedenecenti, and from the Avars living in Pannonia’. As the events of 823 indicate, their kings were expected to act in a matter that benefitted Frankish aims and to regularly attend upon Carolingian rulers to show their submission with tribute. Louis acted as the court of final appeal for internal disputes, but otherwise the client-kings operated with a great deal of domestic autonomy.

Classical International Relations theory finds such arrangements hard to deal with. The dominant realist school views diplomatic relations as something that happens in conditions of anarchy between states that are acting entirely independently of each other in their own self-interest. In this view, if Louis was sufficiently strong to compel the Abodrites, he should have sent someone after Ceadrag, and not waited to hear his excuses. Likewise, if Ceadrag was powerful enough to put off the Franks, why did he submit to Louis at all? This school of IR thought emerged out of Europe in the nineteenth century, where multiple great powers ruthlessly jockeyed for position in a rotating set of alliances that sought to balance against any single state that looked like it might achieve a dominant position. Whether it analyses even that world accurately is unclear to me. It most certainly doesn’t help us with the assembly of May 823.

This is frustrating, because I genuinely think that other disciplines have a lot to teach medieval histories about our approach to our subject. Early medieval sources are often terse, with the Carolingian annals very rarely explaining why people did what they did. A school of thought that gives us analytic tools to expand these gnomic utterances would be extremely useful. Likewise, there’s a danger of burying oneself too deeply in one particular space and failing to notice what makes it distinctive or interesting because the lack of alternative examples makes you assume that what you see is universal. With this in mind, I went looking for a different model for the way states might interact.

I found it with the help of my friend Joshua Batts, whom I met when we were both fellows at Darwin College, and who does fascinating work on relations between the Tokugawa in Japan and the Spanish empire. At some point over lunch in college several years ago he drew my attention to a recent(ish) book by David C. Kang entitled East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (Columbia University Press, 2010), which I read, and has been floating around in my head ever since because it gave me a model for a what a long-term stable system of hegemony might look like, as an alternative to Westphalian anarchy. My ignorance of East Asian history is vast, so what will follow will contain mistakes, none of which are attributable to poor Joshua, who did his best to educate a barbarian medievalist.

Kang begins his book with the observation that between 1368, when the Ming dynasty began to rule China, and the First Opium War (1839-1841), there were only two wars between China and its most important East Asian neighbours, that is, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Apart from the Chinese invasion of Vietnam (1407-1428) and the Imjin War when Japan invaded Korea (1592-1598), these four states existed in peace with each other for the best part of five centuries. Other conflicts still happened, including civil wars, Chinese wars against seminomadic peoples on the north and west frontiers, and battles against wakō pirates. But unlike late medieval and early modern Europe, the great powers of East Asia did not routinely go to war with each other.

Kang attributes this stability to the hierarchical tribute system that structured relations between these four states, with Korea, Vietnam and Japan orbiting the Chinese sun. This system was built on the simple fact of overwhelming Chinese power. First, China was so enormously strong and rich that it was effectively invulnerable to its neighbours, something that all parties knew. Second, China’s wealth and cultural confidence meant that it didn’t need anything from these neighbours. Commercial, political and cultural contact and exchange were minor luxuries. As a consequence, what Chinese governments most wanted from these neighbours was the surety that they weren’t going to start any trouble and regular demonstrations of respect in the form of tribute that served to reinforce China’s understanding of itself as the centre of the world.

It didn’t come from Korea, Vietnam or Japan, but how was I possibly supposed to resist this picture of a giraffe presented to the Ming court from India in 1414?

For their part, the rulers of Japan, Korea and Vietnam were mostly willing to go along with this. They had practical reasons. None of them wanted to antagonise China, and all benefitted from Chinese protection. Access to carefully guarded Chinese commercial markets was also of immense importance to them. But Kang suggests that we shouldn’t underestimate how important Chinese political and cultural norms were for these states. Their rulers very deliberately and genuinely bought into Confucianism, poetry and other aspects of Chinese civilisation, and modelled their governments upon them. There was variation to this. Korea was the most perfectly Sinicised neighbour, taking pride in being the closest imitator of the Chinese model. The highest ranked official of the Joseon dynasty that ruled Korea for most of this period took the clothes and titles of a third-rank Chinese official, with the rest of the Korean hierarchy slotting in below. Japan by contrast, being more distant, was more suspicious of Chinese models, and tended to be the readiest to challenge Chinese hegemony (see the Imjin War).

By participating in the Chinese driven hierarchy, these Confucian states made themselves legible to Ming and Qing officials. Peking understood the institutional structures and philosophies that guided their politics, and could therefore predict their behaviour and assume their goodwill. Any difficulties could be resolved because all participants were speaking the same language both literally and figuratively. The security this provided allowed China to be generous to its clients. Although the tribute they provided were trumpeted as part of the Middle Kingdom’s conception of itself, they were outweighed by the gifts and commercial opportunities the tributaries received in return. A similar generosity applied to frontiers. Despite China’s vastly more powerful military force, disputed borders with Korea and Vietnam were decided by legal negotiation, with the non-Chinese party winning more often than not. This credible commitment to non-exploitation in turn strengthened the willingness of the Confucian states to take part in the Chinese system, creating a virtuous cycle that more-or-less lasted until the collapse of Chinese power in the nineteenth century.

In summarising the core thesis of the book, I have simplified much, leaving out the evidence and the detail. But I think the three key elements here – an overwhelmingly powerful hegemon; client states that go out of their way to be legible and predictable to the hegemon; and generous behaviour by the hegemon – offer a useful lens for thinking about Carolingian hegemony, both for how it was constructed and for why it failed. (Fair warning here – while what was above was constrained by the holes in my knowledge about East Asia, below is me speculating wildly and loosely.)

An example of this is the emphasis on generosity in the Frankish annals. Early medieval rulers were expected to be givers of gifts, so it’s not surprising that we find Louis showering leading Wilzi and Abodrites with presents. Nonetheless, the Chinese example suggests that successful hegemony depends upon such beneficence. It is neither a novel nor a sophisticated insight that people like getting stuff, and will be more likely to acknowledge your power if there is a material benefit to them for doing so. It’s nonetheless worth bearing in mind when we try to understand why the likes of Ceadrag allow themselves to be summoned to attend upon the Emperor. On the other hand, the Chinese example of settling land disputes does suggest another benefit of the relationship for the client. Milegast and Cealadrag came to Louis because they thought he could arbitrate their dispute. This implies at least some respect for Carolingian justice and Louis’ ability to make a settlement stick. Solving political problems by acting as an honest judge might also lie behind a hegemonic relationship.

Another interesting trend is the ‘Carolingianisation’ of many of the neighbours of the Franks. This is reflected in the material remains, with Frankish goods such as metalwork and glass being found in increasing amounts in Central Europe. Missionaries travelled among these client kingdoms, spreading familiarity with Christian ideas. Although it’s hard to say much about the political structures of these places before the Carolingian period, the appearance of kings and dynasties seems to have something to do with copying Frankish models. (The number of Slavic words for king that are derived from Charlemagne’s name, Karl – Bulgarian крал, Czech král, Polish król, Russian коро́ль, Serbian краљ etc – is suggestive of the influence of Carolingian kingship in Central and Eastern Europe). The emergence of royal dynasties literate in Carolingian culture and embedded in Frankish networks of exchange would make the satellites much easier for Carolingian rulers to do business with them, whether or not this was a deliberate or an accidental development.

But where the Chinese example really shines for me is the hints its gives for why Carolingian hegemony was so short-lived. Whereas Kang’s model describes a system that lasted nearly 500 years and survived the dynastic transition from the Ming to the Qing in the seventeenth century, Carolingian hegemony barely lasted a generation (I would place it at roughly c.790-c.830 but that’s a gut assessment and there are signs of trouble in the 820s). The differences between our two examples help explain that discrepancy.

The first difference, and the most important, is that the Carolingian empire was never as overwhelmingly powerful as China. Even at the apogee of Frankish power, the distance between the Carolingians and their neighbours was never as great as that. This was a situation that only became less hegemonic following the division of the empire into rival kingdoms from 843, lessening the resources any single Carolingian monarch could bring to bear on any single problem while giving them dangerous peer competitors. While for most of the ninth century the East Frankish realm was more powerful than any of its non-Frankish neighbours, even that begins to shift with the rise of Moravia in the 860s and 870s, a former client turned increasingly great power.

Further, the Carolingian world was never as unipolar as that of East Asia. In the south-east and south-west respectively, Byzantium and Umayyad Spain competed with the Carolingians for influence within client states. In the north-east, the main rival was the Danish kingdom, who offered Abodrite and Wilzi leaders options if they chose to oppose the Franks. Thus, in 808 the Danish king Godfrid gathered the Wilzi, Smeldingi and Linones into an anti-Frankish alliance. In 821, Ceadrag of the Abodrites was suspected of plotting with the sons of Godfrid.

As a consequence, Carolingian rulers were never as secure in their dealings with client states as their Chinese counterparts. This acted to destabilise the system because it made Frankish monarchs less open-handed and more prone to interfering. I suspect that the ratio of tribute to gift between the Franks and their clients was rather less generous than in the case of China, undermining the relationship’s value. Because of the different balance of power, the Carolingians had to watch their tributaries for signs of rebellion rather more closely, resulting in moments like Louis’ heavy-handed intervention into Abodrite politics in 823. Indeed, Ceadrag became leader of the Abodrites in the first place when Louis ordered Sclaomir to share power with him in 817. Being a client of the Carolingians also made you a potential target, such as when King Godfrid attacked the Abodrites in 808 as an indirect strike at Charlemagne.   

These were not the sort of circumstances that would make you feel good about your more powerful neighbour. Even if you came to power with Frankish support, the conditionality of such backing would encourage you to look for alternative options once established. As a result, Carolingian hegemony was much more dependent upon military coercion than the Chinese equivalent. Said coercion only made it harder to win the genuine allegiance of clients, creating a cycle leading to instability and distrust.

Another difference that I suspect has an impact is in the structure of imperial power. Most Chinese emperors ruled through a tax base administered by the state which supported the bureaucracy, living expenses and standing army. Martial excellence was not a particularly vital requirement so long as the borders were safe and the tribute was coming in. Carolingian emperors depended on their own estates for sustenance and the loyalty of their followers for their military support. A reputation for military skill was much more important, as was the financial rewards of booty and conquest. This doesn’t mean that the Franks needed to be constantly at war, but that domestic tensions might incentivise aggressive behaviour towards one’s neighbours in a way that was hard to predict from the outside.

To sum all of this up, because the Carolingian empire was a weaker superpower, with more plausible rivals, and had a political structure and culture that made it more aggressive, it was a much less predictably benevolent hegemon. This made client states more likely to look for opportunities to free themselves of this dependence and also made it more likely that moments of crisis would emerge that would provide those opportunities.

This isn’t necessarily inevitable. Politics is never written in stone. At different points of their careers Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald seem to have experimented with styles of rulership that depended less upon military expansion. A Carolingian empire that never divides, or where the different members of the family manage to keep the peace between them might change the calculus. Nonetheless, I think the Chinese example of international hierarchy provides us with a useful comparison of a very different system to Westphalian anarchy which at least helps us to ask some of the right questions when it comes to understanding hegemonic systems elsewhere.

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