Monday, December 01, 2008

Chris Wickham on medieval assemblies

Most of the time I am happy to be in a rather out-of-the-way location, surrounded by huge piles of snow (well, maybe not that part, but snow kept me at home today); occasionally I wish I were someplace where I could just drop in to London's Institute of Historical Research, and hear someone of the quality of Chris Wickham ( not too many of those actually) talk about a subject that interests me both as a medieval historian and as a historian of democracy. On November 17, Wickham gave a paper entitled "The Culture of the Public: assembly politics and the ‘feudal revolution,'" and I was not there!

Fortunately, Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe was there, and with his usual generosity he has now reported on it. A short excerpt from the report:

His key points were, roughly, that the ideal of an assembly of free men giving you as ruler legitimacy in your actions is always important, and that throughout the Middle Ages someone doing something can add legitimacy to their action by arranging that it happens in public before witnesses.2 Despite this, large-scale public assemblies stop [he is talking about the era of the "feudal transformation"].3 Local courts remain roughly the same, but the top stratum of the social stratification is lost. (You see the similarity to my earlier pitch.) The new assemblies of, for example, counts and their followers, don’t have the same function of placing actions in public, because they are closed; the ‘public’ are disenfranchised and it doesn’t seem to matter...of course bishops continue to use such tactics throughout the Middle Ages when they need to take some action onto a higher level, the best examples being the councils behind the Peace of God. So there are many ways to deploy a public gathering in the pursuit of the reinforcement, or indeed the destabilisation, of power.

His conclusion was however that the most effective assemblies are regular ones. An assembly that someone knows is going to happen gives them stability. They can bring the case then, so they don’t need to ravage your lands now; they will be able to protest, albeit in a stage-managed fashion, so violent action now is both less legitimate and less necessary. On the other hand, ad hoc assemblies show weakness, and are often disrupted or produce unexpected results (”Dieu le veult! Dieu le veult!“) With observations like this, and more work on how assemblies are used both by their organisers and participants, we might have another wedge with which to open up this topic over which we continue unwillingly to trip.

As so often in discussing the history of democracy and developments that lead to or undermine it, questions of scale and who is the "public" are all important. I hope that Chris decides to publish something about this, and relate the question of "public" to the notion of representation found in later parliaments. In what sense are the parliamentary Commons the "Commons of England?" For that matter, in what sense are a group of bishops "The Church?"

Image: the Council of Vatican II.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Walter Goffart's "Barbarian Tides"

Alas and alack, though Walter Goffart has repeatedly delivered what should be deathblows to the notion that the fall of the Roman empire can be best understood as the result of barbarian invasions, that venerable hulk keeps staggering on.

I referred to the latest round of debate in this post back in January, when I discussed recent books with easily confused titles by Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather. Both argued that at the beginning of the fifth century, catastrophic military defeat led to cataclysmic civilizational collapse. Both pooh-pooh alternative view points, which the bundle together as "the transformation of the Roman World." They seem to think that anyone who doesn't believe in military catastrophe's ability to thoroughly wreck a worthy civilization in short order is soft, too soft to think that the barbarians were the bad guys.

Do we really need an analysis of the fall of Rome no more advanced than the one offered by Edward Gibbon? Gibbon's still on the shelf and his scathing view of the Christian Middle Ages is hard to beat if that's what you want.

Without being notably pro-barbarian myself, I find this attitude to the fall of Rome, even the notion of a unique fall of Rome, not very productive of true historical understanding. I am much more sympathetic to two other books, Walter Goffart's Barbarian Tides and Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages. Two quite different books have one thing in common. They take the attitude that just because a particular style of late Roman imperialism came to an end, the world did not. They are not nostalgic books.

Ward-Perkins and Heather for some reason have picked on Goffart as the epitome of the soft-hearted "transformationalists" who apparently believe that nothing really bad happened in the fifth century. This strikes me as a bizarre characterization. Walter Goffart is actually best known for a detailed analysis of an old and creaky theory of barbarian settlement that doesn't hold up to modern scrutiny. He's also a skeptic of theories of historical development that depend on romantic imagery of "barbarian migration." Barbarian Tides is his re-entry into the argument.

One thing that keeps niggling at me is this question: if you are an English historian, or one who grew up reading English, are you more likely to be enamored of the notion of civilizational collapse, simply because the economic and social structure of Roman Britain did indeed collapse to be replaced by something quite different? One of the strong features of Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages is that he admits that something quite unique happened in Roman Britain; but also that every other region of early medieval Europe had its distinctive character, too. This strikes me as a more useful way of thinking about things than trying to locate that unique moment when "Rome" (capable of being defined in so many ways) fell.

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