There’s a reasonably large faction of early medieval historians who are somewhat suspicious of theory, a trait which is particularly pronounced at Cambridge. Given this background,my instinct is to be sceptical about applying elegant theoretical models to messy historical reality. On the other hand, I am also a historian specialising in a field that has a shortage of sources. Such a situation encourages omnivorous scholarship, fed by a diet of whatever evidence or ideas you can get your teeth into. As a consequence, early medievalists are magpies by nature, pilfering from archaeology, geography, anthropology and a whole range of other subjects for anything that looks useful/shiny. This post is about one particular shiny object I acquired some years ago which I still find valuable.
Subjects of the Carolingians took part on both sides of many of the conflicts that involved the Frankish empire in the ninth century. Given that civil war was a Carolingian pastime rivalled only by the growing of silly moustaches, this shouldn’t surprise us too much, but it also features regularly in conflicts with outside powers. Powerful Frankish figures from the frontier supported invasions from Muslim Spain on multiple occasions. When Prince Svatopluk I of the Moravians invaded Bavaria in 882, he was accompanied by Count Aribo, whose job it was to stop these sorts of things. Clearly leading Frankish aristocrats had choices to make about whose side they were on when war broke out.
In trying to understand what is going on here, I’ve found useful food for thought in the work of the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, and in particular his book, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (2006). Kalyvas is interested in modern civil wars, particularly the Greek Civil War of 1943-1949. He argues that the apparently mindless violence that often characterised such conflicts is actually highly (if monstrously) rational based on the logic of the situation combatants find themselves. There’s a lot going on in this book, which uses examples from a wide number of wars since the French Revolution. The theme of strategic uses of violence is explored in a number of different ways. The passages that most caught my attention were the ones which discussed the way local actors were drawn into the wider war on either side.
For Kalyvas, one of the problems in the way that wars are studied is the assumption that central elites dictate politics and the local population on the peripheries more or less go along with it, fighting for the causes of different ideological movements or powerful factions as a monolith. In reality of course this is very far from the case, as Kalyvas observes ‘more often than not that populations (including ethnic groups) are internally divided into competing families, clans, localities, or other factions (p.11)’. He argues that these local divisions were often more salient for people than conflict on a state level. The outbreak of civil war is important for such groups because:
‘individuals and local communities involved in the war tend to take advantage of the prevailing situation to settle private and local conflicts whose relation to the grand causes of the war or the goals of the belligerents is often tenuous. (p.365)’
Local actors can use the disruption of the broader war to remove enemies and achieve power in their vicinity, provided they legitimise their violence by using the appropriate terminology which makes them combatants on one side of the national conflict. The groups being attacked in this way will then often ally with the other side of the civil war on the time and tested doctrine of ‘my enemy’s enemy’. These alliances allow actors at the centre to expand their power in the periphery by allying with local groups who are already present in those regions. In turn, actors in the locality get muscle and sanction from the centre.
Kalyvas’ case studies are all civil wars from the modern world, which should make us hesitant about applying his conclusions to wars involving external polities in the Carolingian era. Nonetheless, I find his ideas intriguing because they help me with thinking about some of the ninth-century conflicts I’m interested in. A surprising number of wars or almost-wars in the period were triggered by local conflicts which then expanded. The Umayyad invasion of 829 was invited by a number of frontier lords on the Spanish March who were frustrated at the accumulation of power and honours by Bernard of Septimania, led by Willemund, whose family’s position in the March had been undermined by Bernard’s. The Wilhelminer war I mentioned in a recent post on atrocities (because I like picking cheerful topics to write about), was kicked off when one family group attacked Count Aribo because they wanted his title. Aribo called in Svatopluk of Moravia to help him, the Wilhelminer turned to Arnulf of Carinthia, and before you know it everything starts looking a bit Europe 1914. Most notably, in both of these conflicts, key figures or families can be observed changing side shortly afterwards as their local circumstances changed. Bernard’s own son, William, would ally with al-Andalus in order to wage war on the March following the execution of his father by Charles the Bald. In 893, a member of the Wilhelminer family was executed for corresponding with Svatopluk.
Apart from not being pure civil wars, these conflicts differ from the ones Kalyvas describes in that the local violence happens before, and causes, the bigger violence between state actors. The Carolingians wanted none of these wars, and I suspect that Svatopluk wasn’t entirely happy to get pulled into the mess either. That said, in both cases we can see the same pattern of local actors using their alliances with central governments to acquire the military strength and the legitimacy they need to prosecute their own feuds in the periphery. Those alliances existed because the Carolingians and their neighbours wanted to project influence in those border regions because they were worried about the potential for war with each other and needed to ensure that the frontier could be easily defended/invaded according to preference. They did this by cultivating leading figures in the area by giving them official titles or offering them protection. As a result, wider tensions between the Franks and the Umayyads or the Moravians created the conditions for the likes of Willemund or the Wilhelminer to settle scores.
Things I like about this approach:
1. It gets us thinking about the impact of local politics on state-level conflict. Kalyvas tells us that if we want to understand the success or failure of the national cause, we need to pay attention to pre-existing tensions on a smaller scale. People had their own concerns, which mattered to them as much as the fates of kings. These spheres of politics are motivated by different things, but are nonetheless inherently linked, so that both operate under the influence of the other.
2. It also helps explain how apparently very distant causes could motivate and mobilise support far away from the centre of the action (you should totally risk your life and limb over whether my brother-in-law’s best friend gets to be king may or may not be the easiest sell otherwise).
3. I find the awkward coalition of different groups needing each other’s support for purposes that aren’t the same but can be aligned a compelling model for understanding the otherwise very confusing conflicts I encounter in the sources.
Things that I don’t like:
1. There’s a risk that actors at the centre start coming across as either total rubes who haven’t understood why they get the support they do or as cynics willing to go along with any crime so long as there is something in it for them. Coalition-building was at the core of most medieval politics. Monarchs and ministers who didn’t know exactly who their constituency was weren’t going to last very long. Nor were such rulers necessarily relaxed about the wholesale slaughter of their subjects. Part of the point of having a king was that they can act as an arbiter in conflicts, making sure that justice happened. Allowing one’s allies to settle scores certainly happened, but it had to be done carefully.
2. The bigger problem here is that it makes it seem like local elites were never interested in state politics and had no political ideas beyond getting stuff and removing enemies. In this reading, only people at the royal court get to have actual values or a capacity to think on multiple levels. As work on the Crusades has shown, medieval elites generally genuinely believed the things they said and were willing to take part in causes that transcended their own immediate interests in the name of faith, nation, justice or loyalty. The Carolingian era is particularly interesting for the number of secular counts on the edge of the empire who seem to have been genuinely committed to the imperial project of reform, corresponding with intellectuals, collecting books and founding religious houses. The civil wars of the ninth century caused real emotional strain for Frankish nobles who believed in a united empire.
These possible problems indicate that we have to be cautious when using this model. Despite this, I think that there is a valuable insight here for how conflicts could spread from the centre to the periphery and vice versa via chains of alliances by linking up apparently unconnected disputes, which is why I have kept it in my collection of shiny items.