Exciting times are afoot! Specifically, I’m part-way through a deep-dive into non-Weberian theories of the state. There’s some background to this: back in 2014, I was part of a team organising a conference on the Carolingian frontier, and my pet frontier was ninth-century Brittany. I have subsequently published about this, but I never did get to grips with one key question: was Brittany part of the West Frankish kingdom, and if so, how? King Salomon (say) had various symbolic and ritual bonds of submission with Charles the Bald, but would either or both of them thought of themselves as being members of the same polity; and if so, how, and at what point in their relationship? I’d filed these questions in the musty cardboard boxes at the back of my head. Then, at this year’s IMC, I went to see John Latham Sprinkle talk about the Byzantine Empire as something called a ‘segmentary state’, and it was one of the most exciting papers I’ve ever been to. John kindly gave me a reading list, and I’ve been beavering away at the reading ever since. This blog post, then, is a first effort to outline what a ‘segmentary state’/’mandala polity’ is, and how useful it is to scholars of the early middle ages generally and Carolingianists specifically.
Let’s start at the beginning. From at least the middle of the twentieth century, anthropologists, and historians of Southeast Asia (amongst others, but these groups make up the bulk of my reading list) have been trying to escape from, or at least adapt to different circumstances, Weberian models of the polity conceived of as Eurocentric, and a number of models have been developed which, if not identical, at the very least overlap closely. In 1956, Aidan Southall wrote a study of the Alur of what is now Uganda, and for his study developed a model of the ‘segmentary state’. In an article in the ‘70s, he championed a version of this model explicitly for comparative purposes, and in that article he gave a simple one-sentence definition of the ‘segmentary state’: ‘one in which the spheres of ritual suzerainty and political sovereignty do not coincide. The former extends widely towards a flexible, changing periphery. The latter is confined to the central, core domain.’ However, I find this definition too simple, and prefer the list of criteria that he gave in his original monograph. There, he defined a ‘segmentary state’ as one in which:
1) Territorial sovereignty is recognised but limited and relative, forming a series of zones in which authority fades out the further away you go, shading into ritual hegemony.
2) There is a central government but also numerous peripheral foci of administration over which the centre exercises only limited control.
3) There are specialised administrators at the centre, which are repeated on a limited scale at these peripheral foci.
4) The centre has a limited monopoly on legitimate force, but the peripheral foci have a more restricted range of legitimate force options as well.
5) Several levels of peripheral foci can be distinguished, arranged pyramidally, these being reduced images of the centre.
6) The more peripheral a subordinate authority is the more likely it can change from one power pyramid to another, and some can have political standing in several adjacent power pyramids.
That’s a lot of stuff in one go, but hopefully turning to the south-east Asian side will make it a bit clearer. In south-east Asian studies, a very similar model of the pre-modern polity is associated with the work of Stanley Tambiah, who described what he called a ‘mandala polity’. Based on the Buddhist conception of a mandala, Tambiah proposed that south-east Asian polities could be described in terms of overlapping and/or concentric circles. Thus, the archetypal ‘mandala polity’ can be diagrammed as such:
Schematically, we have an imperial centre (a royal capital such as the city of Pagan or Ayutthaya), surrounded by a core of inner provinces ruled over by subordinate rulers, and an outer periphery of ‘tributary’ kingdoms ruled over by yet smaller-scale rulers. Each of these levels reproduces the one above it on a smaller scale: Shan princelings in the Burmese highlands copied the imperial palace at Mandalay, and tiny local Kachin chiefs copied the Shan copying the imperial centre. The power of the centre ebbed and flowed, and there was never only one centre. The ‘mandala polity’ is also known as the ‘solar’ or ‘galactic polity’, to sharpen this metaphor. The idea here is that the imperial centre acts as a ‘sun’, exerting a gravitational influence on outlying ‘satellites’ which is stronger the closer a satellite is. However, the ‘satellites’ also exert their own gravitational pull; and a ‘satellite’ can be under the effects of more than one degree of pull at once. Finally, the system ‘pulsates’, such that the pull of a ‘sun’ can decrease substantially and one of the outlying ‘planets’ can increase enough for it to form a new imperial centre. These ideas have been developed in numerous directions, but I particularly want to point out the work of James C. Scott, who adds two main insights: 1) that the pull exerted by a ‘sun’ is not a linear function of distance, but is heavily affected by geography which is not amenable to state control (in his case, mountains; but he notes that oceans would also fit the bill); and 2) that the effects of overlapping ‘gravitational pulls’ can work out in quite different ways, from simple dual vassalage to outright cancelling each other out.
These two ideas, the ‘segmentary state’ and the ‘galactic polity’ do have some differences – for instance, the ‘segmentary state’’s focus on genealogical lineage and the explicit ties of the ‘galactic polity’ to Buddhist cosmology – but in terms of what I find interesting about them, the similarities are much stronger and more interesting than the dissimilarities. Both of them give a model of the pre-modern polity which, in my reading, have five key points:
1) they focus on centres, not borders.
2) These centres are layered: there is legitimate conceptual space for lower-level rulers to exercise authority in qualitatively similar ways to higher-level ones.
3) Indeed, authority is actively imitative: lower-level rulers consciously model themselves on higher-level ones.
4) However, authority is not exclusive: subordinate authorities can have political relationships to multiple higher-level rulers.
5) Finally, there is a firm role for the esoteric: the symbolic and ritual dimensions of rule are as important as Weberian indicators of sovereign control.
I am, of course, wildly unqualified to comment on how well these models actually work within their own disciplinary contexts. Do they, though, work for the Carolingian world, or can they be adapted thereto? Let’s go through the points in order.
Broadly speaking, this one gets a thumbs up. I don’t want to deny the importance of borders in the Carolingian world and the early Middle Ages more broadly – not least because Sam has already written about that subject on this very website – but I’ve always found thinking about centres not edges more helpful for the Carolingian period. In this case, Southall’s ‘segmentary state’ is probably the more helpful version. The focus on cities in the Southeast Asian material doesn’t have much Carolingian parallel. Sure, there are your Aachens and your Compiègnes, but ‘capital cities’ are conspic. by their a. Southall’s focus on the person of chiefs seems more helpful here. In fact, this point seems like it would pair up with medievalist ideas of königsnahe to feed back in to wider discussions of these concepts. Both models have a linearly geographic focus, which the Carolingian world raises questions about: it would be hard to argue that, say, Toulouse had more königsnahe than the Spanish March even though Toulouse was closer to West Frankish kingship centres. A analytical emphasis on the strength of the ‘gravitational’ pull rather than the geographic arrangement of the planets would help here. (Scott does hint towards this in his discussion of the ‘friction of distance’ over difficult terrain; but ‘political distance’, if I can put it like that, doesn’t necessarily require logistically difficult geographical space.) This emphasis would also help when dealing with something else the Southeast Asian historians don’t seem to have to deal with: itinerancy. Medievalists have been dealing with patterns of royal movement for a very long time, but whilst Louis the Pious or Charles the Simple’s limited mobility can fit relatively neatly into a ‘solar polity’ model, something like Louis IV’s 941/942 journey across the length and breadth of the West Frankish kingdom threatens to turn our image from a solar system into a billiard table unless we model political relations very abstractly.
This point is probably the least important qua the Carolingians, because I think it’s originally designed to draw a distinction with a Weberian ‘monopoly of legitimate violence’ which we don’t think the Carolingians had anyway. There is more to say about this, but I think it’s better placed under the next point:
Here consideration of Carolingian society takes us in two opposite directions. On one hand, as Jinty Nelson has pointed out, kingship was special. The unique connection forged by ceremonies like unction gives the king a relationship with the numinous that then becomes the key aspect of his power: a count is legitimate because he can access the font of legitimacy which is kingship. There is thus a qualitative chasm between the king and even high-authority territorial officials like the Neustrian marchio. However, on the other hand, I think that there is room for exploration here. Claims such as ‘the tenth-century English state was the most Carolingian kingdom of the earlier Middle Ages’ are well-known, and I think that the Danish kingdom might have been adopting elements of Carolingian rule as well. Sometimes, this was actively pursued by Carolingian kings: Charles the Bald’s dealings with the Breton ruler Salomon, including offering him Frankish-style royal regalia, were part of an attempt to make Brittany easier to control by channelling Breton rulership into Carolingian models. Equally, imitation of *non-royal* Carolingian rule would repay inquiry: I have an article in preparation discussing this in the case of Normandy, for instance, which we’ll go into more in a future post.
This is one the places where the mandala polity not only fits well, but has its strongest explanatory power. I’ve mentioned before that Frisia is peculiar, partially because it’s in both the Frankish and the Danish spheres of influence. The work of IJssennagger and Croix has stressed Frisia’s place within a cultural continuum, its liminal status. This rhymes beautifully with a mandala polity model: Frisia is within the ‘orbits’ of both the Carolingians and the Danes. Thus, Roric of Dorestad – for example – can be conceptualised as an integral part of both ‘solar systems’. This then helps us explain some of the stranger things about Frisia. For instance, we recently discussed how Frisia (like Normandy) had Carolingian-style counts, but Roric himself was never (unlike the Norman rulers) characterised as a Carolingian-style supermagnate, but rather as a Danish king. But this makes sense: Frisia was part of the Danish kingdom and simultaneously part of the Lotharingian one, and so its political culture reflects not just both, but the interactions between both as well. There are other examples here: in the tenth century, for instance, parts of western Lotharingia were in the mandalas of both the West Frankish and Ottonian kingdoms (and this might be, as Scott discusses, an instance where the result was two sovereignties cancelling each other out), and Brittany, Normandy and Flanders could probably be conceptualised as being part of the English mandala too.
Finally, we come to the role played by the symbolic and ritual dimensions of rule. Here, let’s go back to Brittany, where I started. I was having trouble conceptualising Brittany because it’s hard to understand Frankish influence in the region when viewed through a Weberian prism. The Carolingians didn’t rule Brittany, and their power in the region was only ever manifest through actual invasions (and in Charles the Bald’s time, at least, the odds of the Bretons winning was pretty good). However, Brittany was not a peer polity. It was – somehow – subordinate, and that subordination tended to be expressed precisely in these symbolic dimensions, such as Charles the Bald making Erispoë his son-in-law or Alan the Great adopting Carolingian styles of rule. Looking at it with a ‘mandala polity’ model in mind, though, Brittany comes into relatively clear focus as an example of an outer-ring polity of the Carolingian mandala. There are, of course, nuances here (as I’ve written about in the past, there were forces in Breton politics which actively rejected associations with the Carolingians, and I feel like the model needs to provide conceptual space for conscious rejection of models of rule as well as conscious imitation). Nonetheless, the Breton case shows quite clearly that this is good to think with.
Prima facie, then, we have a good case for the application of a ‘mandala polity’ model to the Carolingian world. I am, of course, about as far from being an expert on southeast Asia or Africa as you could get, so it’s quite possible that I have misunderstood the models. If and when I use them more in my work, I will certainly chop and change them to better fit the specifics of my research’s time and place. For now, though, I leave you on two questions. First, if you’re from one of the fields which generated these models, what have I missed? What should I be reading about this? Second, if you’re from my own field, what do you think of this model as a tool for understanding?