Recently Months ago, friend of the blog Jonathan Jarrett posted some reflections on Carolingian viscounts over on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. At the time, I was visiting my wife in Georgia, but it’s a topic on which I have a lot of thoughts, so I wrote up some ideas offline during a car ride between Vardzia and Tbilisi. Since then, it has sat in a drafts folder waiting to be posted. Today, I decided to clear out said drafts folder and revisited it. Turns out, it’s pages long, which is too long for a comment – but, as it happens, I have this place I can put short-form written content and so you guys now get the dubious benefits of being able to read it, so enjoy…
Jonathan’s musings were prompted by having read an edited volume by Hélène Débax on Vicomtes et vicomtés, viscounts and viscounties. Débax and her fellow authors, who were mostly but not entirely focussed on southern France, basically saw viscounts as the product of comital weakness, ‘taking over unattended jurisdictions’ and acting as their own little lords of the manor. Jonathan, by contrast, was used to a Catalan historiography which sees viscounts as ultimately comital delegates, i.e. public officials there to represent the counts in places the counts cannot be. Jonathan doesn’t like this argument in a Catalan context because viscounts don’t emerge at a time when there’s any special reason for counts to need delegates and because when we seem them in charter evidence from the Spanish March, they don’t often behave like counts except maybe in presiding over courts. For Jonathan, the vicecomital title puts its holder in relation with a count and thus with public power. Its emergence is thus best seen as a way of getting ‘powerful independents’ to engage with comital power by offering them certain kinds of authority which only public officials could wield in return for their own acknowledgement of their subordinate status. He then emphasises the sheer amount of variety we see in a Catalan context, but concludes that “if there’s a pattern there, it seems to me that it is the one of powerful independents accepting a space in a hierarchy which they could work to advantage that explains most cases”.
This might work for Catalonia, but I think in the rest of the West Frankish kingdom, the delegation theory holds up better – albeit perhaps amended with some ideas of this sort. Comital weakness, by contrast, I think we can dismiss. Even if I wasn’t inherently opposed to the idea of ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ as analytical terms, most viscounts north of the Dordogne show up at a time when authority in their regions is getting more intensive and (less demonstrably but still there) having its connections to a royal centre strengthened.
We have to distinguish here between viscounts and vice-counts. ‘Viscounts’, in this context, are more institutionalised figures, whose status isn’t contextual and/or temporary. To give you an example, royal legislation from the reign of Charles the Bald sets up a meeting between the king and vicecomites from Paris and Sens in the immediate future. Here, I think we are dealing with ‘duly appointed comital deputies’ nominated for this specific task rather than permanent officials – like advocates at St Gallen vs advocates at Saint-Martin – because otherwise viscounts don’t show up in our sources for these areas until much later.
By contrast, the first significant institutional viscounts I know of from the West Frankish kingdom north of the Dordogne, which are also the ones I know best, are on the Neustrian March. Men such as Viscount Atto I of Tours begin to emerge in the 870s, and this looks like genuine change rather than just the revelation of things that have been there all along, not least because normative formulae change at the same time as specific vicecomital individuals appear. Even more, this does look like delegation. Men such as Atto, and then later Fulk the Red and Theobald the Elder in Angers and Tours respectively, appear when the supra-local authority of the Neustrian marchiones makes actual on-the-spot rule logistically impractical, and our evidence suggests that these viscounts are in fact holding things together for the March’s rulers. Now, this is admittedly mostly holding courts in the charters we have – but that’s also most of what the charter evidence reveals the marchiones doing as well!
Similar patterns can be seen in Aquitaine. This is straightforward, I think, in Poitou and its environs. Greater Poitou is doing much the same thing in political-cultural terms as Neustria, and its viscounts are pretty well controlled by the counts for the tenth century and beyond; pace Delhoume and Remy, the first viscounts of Limoges don’t seem to be associated with the counts of Toulouse, but with Ebalus Manzer of Poitiers, who is also able to assert his jurisdiction over them pretty effectively. In Auvergne and its environs, viscounts show up at the very end of the ninth century, and (as Lauranson-Rosaz says in the Débax volume) appear to be appointments of William the Pious at exactly the time when his personal hegemony stretches over a massive chunk of central Aquitaine. The role of specifically royal authority here might be questioned, but it is I think relevant that William’s subordinates are called ‘viscounts’ rather than anything else, tying them into Late Carolingian regional hierarchies. William himself was trying to capitalise on his Königsnahe at basically the same time, and these phenomena might be connected.
Notably, in generally weird Burgundy, viscounts are mostly absent, and the earliest example I can think of is Ragenard of Auxerre, who is based precisely in one of the key centres of Richard the Justiciar’s power. Based on our analogies above, I’d say Richard’s wobbly personal hegemony, which did not have the benefit of royal approbation for much of its existence, didn’t – perhaps couldn’t – use the language of legitimate Carolingian hierarchy. Equally, viscounts tend to be absent in the north-east, which is much more politically fragmented, and it looks to me rather like comital jurisdictions there are sufficiently small not to need deputies.
Could we consider this in political culture terms? Yes, certainly, but not primarily I think as a means of getting ‘powerful independents’ to participate in the system. Insofar as we can see viscounts in these regions, they tend to be nobodies. Fulk the Red of Angers, for example, has been the focus of a long-running debate about whether or not he was a novus homo because of his family’s onomastic connections to the important Widonid family; but what tends to go overlooked is that whether or not he had famous relatives he himself started his career not as a big Neustrian cheese but as a very minor member of the retinue of the count of Paris. His Tourangeau counterpart Theobald the Elder seems to have been a complete no-name. What I think vice-comital office offers is a means of legitimising counter-weights to the powerful independents. There was no way that, say, Fulk the Red could face off against a genuine powerful independent in Neustria like the Rorgonid Gauzfred, whose family had been there since dot and whose authority in the area doesn’t seem to have depended at all on his intermittent possession of a comital title, without the might of Carolingian royal authority behind him. I’ve spoken before about the calcification of Neustrian hierarchies, and the delegated authority of the vice-comital office is a part of that.
Now, can these guys pull out of comital orbits? Yes, certainly, but it only really works when areas of jurisdiction become simultaneously areas of conflict over spheres of influence – like the way that the viscounts of Thouars become much more independent than the other Poitevin viscounts because they end up caught between Poitiers and the counts of Angers.
A final point I’d like to consider here is that, despite the centuries-long history that the vicecomital office would go on to have in France, their genesis looks like a very specifically Carolingian phenomenon. In most of the regions we’ve been considering, viscounts have a straight line of descent from a Carolingian inheritance. Even in the Limousin, ‘the land of viscounts’, the proliferation of viscounts is fundamentally owed to the prominence (and fecundity) of the viscounts initially appointed by Ebalus Manzer. When the counts of Flanders’ domain got big enough in the tenth century that they started appointing their own delegates, these men were castellans, not viscounts. The vicecomital moment had passed, and new ways of conceptualising comital subordinates were on the rise.