Noble Rank

The ad hoc nobility that had arisen in the European kingdoms during the first centuries of the dark ages was finally organized and given official title by Charlemagne. His grandfather, Charles Martel, had joined land rights to military responsibility a century earlier, but the hierarchy of authority was shallow. Knights extorted the peasantry for taxes on behalf of a lord to whom they were vassals, and the lord bowed to the crown. This system failed to account for differences in power between the lords, and it did not hold them to any duties of leadership beyond simple intimidation and aggressive force. They were expected to maintain a military force and nothing more. Charlemagne went further by charging the landed nobility with administrative responsibilities. He ranked the nobility with different titles, each of which entailed varying degrees of power and separate duties.

Baron (and Knight) – The lowest station of noble rank, barons had title to the land and compelled the peasantry to work their fields and cultivate wealth for the kingdom. The typical baron lived in a manor, and during times of peace, he oversaw planting and harvesting. In times of war, he rode to battle on his own horses, carried his own weapons and fought under the banner of his province’s Duke, to whom he was a vassal. If a baron was too old to fight, as was usually the case, he would send his sons to serve the king as knights. It was expected that in wars of conquest a young knight would win new land holdings which would be awarded to him by the victorious king. In this way, an otherwise errant knight could acquire his own barony to sustain himself and his family rather than having to return home and fight with his brothers for his father’s lands.

Count – Administration of Charlemagne’s empire hinged on the count and the county. The comital title indicated that one was the invested representative of the royal palace. Counts were appointed by the king himself and dispatched to the provinces to see to all areas of governance. They collected taxes, oversaw troop levies, built roads and fortifications, resolved judicial matters, and executed the king’s law. Charlemagne divided his kingdom into dozens of counties and placed a count in each to carry out his will. Often the position was held by a powerful local baron. If Charlemagne doubted the loyalty of his subjects in the precinct, he would send one of his own courtiers. Loyalty of the counts was paramount and, at least during the Carolingian reign, the position carried tremendous power.

Marquis – A marquis is a count whose county lies in the kingdom’s frontier along a march. A march is a contested region bordering another kingdom. A marquis was usually given a sizable army to defend his county , and by doing so, secure the kingdom’s borders. They were trained in warfare and were martial in their rule. The marquis is a higher station than count because of its military rank.

Duke – Termed peers of the king, Dukedom is the highest rank of nobility below royalty. Dukes ruled large duchies which roughly correlate to the regions of Europe we know today (e.g. Swabia, Alsace, Normandy, Holland, ect). Although the king could rule from afar with the counts, the comital mansion was usually based in the city and the counts’ influence did not reach far beyond the activities of the town. It was the dukes who held real power in the provinces since they were lords to all of the barons. This fact was especially important for military matters. The king had to go through his dukes to raise an army from the knightly classes. The Dukes made up the class from which the king chose his generals. They commanded the royal armies in the king’s absence and exercised a great deal of autonomy in deciding whom to fight and when.

The True King

Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire

It is a fascinating twist of history that Charles Martel ruled the Franks but was never king. He was offered the title several times by the Pope and by the Frankish lords, but he always refused. It might have been that Martel had personal reservations about breaking his vow to the king. Or, more pragmatically, he might have believed that forcing the king to abdicate would have been destabilizing to his own power. Martel’s authority was derived from his military relationships, and all that kept his armies together was a fragile system of loyalties. If he were to have violated his own sworn loyalty to his king, it might have prompted his generals to revoke their oaths of fealty to him. This dilemma of legitimacy would later be solved by his son, Pepin the Short, who persuaded the church to intercede on his behalf. Rome issued papal bull in 752 AD stating that it was improper that royal power should be exercised by one who rules de facto but is denied the title de juris and that the de facto power should prevail. The decision was as much motivated by political interests as legal reason. Tension between the church and the Lombard dukes who ruled Italy at the time was escalating. When Charlemagne conquered Lombardy in the 770s and rid the church of its adversary, Pope Zachary’s early support of the Carolingian crown was well rewarded. On Christmas day in 800 AD, Pope Leo III, hoping to secure a permanent protector for the church, named Charlemagne Imperator Romanorum, Emperor of the Romans, a title which gave him divine appointment to all of Christendom. While his strength to control so much territory would certainly be challenged, his right to claim it was not. With the blessing of the church and the obedience of a vast army, Charlemagne became perhaps the first king since the Fall of Rome whose rule was undisputed.

The Device of Nobility

Before his death in 511 AD, Clovis I divided Frankish Gaul between his four sons. Without establishing rules for the transition of hereditary title, internecine warfare arose between Clovis’s descendants. For the next 300 years Northern Europe became a place of constantly shifting alliances and fragmented authority. The legitimacy of the Merovingian kings’ rule dissipated with each generation. By the end of the 7th century, their power had almost completely withered. The regency had become more or less ceremonial and administrative power was wielded by the kings’ subordinates. So, it was at this point, in the darkest period of the dark ages when state authority had almost completely vanished from Europe, when family feuded with family and the only law that existed was the sporadically observed moral law of the church, that the Umayyad Caliphate captured the Iberian peninsula and then crossed the Pyrenees to challenge the Franks. This external threat of Muslim invasion prompted a rapid and dramatic reorganization of European society. Before this time, the Franks did not trust each other. One could not predict the behavior of his rivals or of his friends. Given a common enemy, the lords and regents of the Frankish kingdoms could align their interests around a single purpose and presume compliance from their neighbors since the consequence for noncompliance was certain annihilation. Led by Charles Martel, Majordomo of the Austrasian kingdom, a coalition system was devised based on alliance, obligation and trust. These new pacts would allow the different kingdoms to deploy a united army made up of professional soldiers. It was to be the first standing army in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. Built into these alliance agreements were plans for supporting, training, and arming an entire class of soldiers and provisioning them while in the field. Protocol was as follows: a lord would allow a soldier to collect wealth from a part of the lord’s holdings. This soldier would coerce the peasantry living on the lord’s land to grow food for his table, hay for his horse and enough surplus product to pay for armor and weaponry. In return, the soldier would swear an oath of fealty to the lord, promising to march under his banner when called upon to fight. The lord, in turn, swore allegiance to the king and was obliged to deploy his soldiers at the king’s command. This chain of alliances, roughly based on the Roman foederatus relation, formed the basis of European feudalism. Its efficacy was proven at the Battle of Tours, where Charles Martel was able to field an army of approximately 20,000 disciplined, well-armed men, nearly matching Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi’s force of 25,000 horsemen. According to accounts of the battle, Martel’s heavy infantry endured repeated charges from Saracen cavalry without breaking. A Muslim chronicle of the event reads as follows:

“And in the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe].”

We could perhaps say that it was on this battlefield outside of Tours, in October of 732 AD, that the concept of European nobility was born.

Reconfiguration After the Fall

There was never any interregnum in Europe following the fall of Rome in the 5th century. The old provinces were claimed and then fought over by the barbarian warlords who overran the empire and occupied its cities. The Visigoths settled in Spain, the Ostrogoths Italy, and the Franks took Gaul. As I mentioned in my last post, the leaders of these new kingdoms had begun as foederati of Rome. With the sudden withdrawal of imperial power, local chieftains arose and proclaimed themselves guardians of the old order. They legitimized their claim to leadership by associating themselves with the memory of Roman authority. They imitated the Roman manner of governance, partly because it was effective but mostly because it was revered and commonly obeyed. However, it was only an imitation. Men like Clovis and Odoacer were probably not interested in reconstructing the highly developed social order of the Roman Empire. They simply wanted to stay in power and pacify and increasingly volatile populace. From descriptions of the time we know that theft and manslaughter were regular occurrences in almost all echelons of society in 5th century Europe. Gregory of Tours recounts in his Historia Francorum a seemingly unending procession of feuds, skirmishes and crimes of retribution. He describes church officials trying offenders and issuing verdicts, same as the Roman magistrates had done, but with no force with which to execute its will, the church’s decisions were ignored. The fall of the Roman Empire and the ensuing collapse of civic order is typified by two main developments: 1 – People relying far less on centralized authority to settle social matters and instead seeing to their own protection and security by allying with their neighbors; 2 – Hundreds of thousands of people migrating out of the cities to work the land. Without a functioning economy to move commodities around, urban life became impossible. Trade vanished and subsistence farming became the norm. Out of these conditions a new collective order took shape that was wed to the land and relied on personal obligations between individuals and families as a means of determining social roles.

The Roman Foederati

Three barbarian foeterati behind a legionary. The looping lines around them are war bugles.

The origin of European Feudalism can be traced to the Roman Foederatus, the term from which the word feudalism is derived as well as our word federation. During the era of the Republic, a foedus was a treaty signed with other non-Roman tribes on the Italian peninsula. The agreement granted administrative autonomy to the tribes under the condition that they levy soldiers when called upon and fight under the Roman standard. Such pacts allowed Rome to consolidate the power of the Italian peoples without conquest and focus their combined might on other more formidable enemies like Carthage and Greece. Rome became rich from military victories won for them by their Foederati but was in no way required to share its wealth with them since the tribes had opted remain sovereign entities. In 91 BC the Italian states went to war with Rome over the question of inclusion in the Republic. They were soundly defeated, but so important were the Italian lands to Rome’s imperial aspirations, they were nonetheless granted blanket citizenship so as to quell ongoing strife.

During the time of the Empire, the foedus was seldom used. It was the prerogative of Rome to conquer her neighbors rather than ally with them. This remained the case throughout the Pax Romana, until the fourth century AD when new peoples began to appear across the Rhine and the Danube who were numerous and warlike. Defending so vast a frontier proved very difficult and costly for the waning empire, so rather than continuing to field legions on empty tracts of wilderness, Rome entered into foedus agreements with the same barbarian kings who threatened their borders. These treaties were initially bought with gold and silver. As the Empire’s treasury began to evaporate, they granted the Germanic tribes permission to settle west of the Rhine. Such concessions would have been unthinkable a generation ago, but fear of the barbarian onslaught had become acute and for the first time since the Punic Wars 650 years prior, Italy appeared to be vulnerable to foreign attack. Rome was desperate to secure its frontier. In 406, despite the efforts of the foederati along the Rhine and what remained of the Roman army, the borders of the Empire were breached by a mixed group of Visigoths, Vandals and Suebi. The wave of destruction that followed led to a collapse of Roman civic order in Northern Gaul. Four years later Rome was be sacked by Alaric I.

In Europe, north of the Alps, the old foederati would retain their legitimacy as the rightfully appointed rulers of the region leading into the dark ages. In the absence of centralized authority, they carried on the laws and traditions of the fallen empire, as well as their own Germanic code. They had actually become relatively powerful under Roman patronage. They had been given land to provision their soldiers and gold to arm them. When the Romans left, the foederati were the only military force left in Gaul. Naturally, they would rise up and reclaim it.

Germanic barbarian fighting a Roman Legionary. The German’s face is depicted as thick-cheeked and wide. His hair is straight and wild.

City Life

I watched a documentary film recently about urban planning titled Urbanized. It had an empowering though not altogether accurate message that a lot of design-minded people subscribe to: that systemic problems can be at least temporarily fixed with cunning and experimentation. The film showcases a half dozen or so urban projects taking place in cities throughout the world that are supposed to be solving problems specific to their place and time and that are being shaped in ways that are responsive to the people they are supposed to benefit. The designers and architects interviewed are people of remarkable vision and will, very smart, heroically competent. But I find that many of them appear to lack a sense of history. It seems appropriate, I think, because design is a prospective endeavor. Designers will look into the past for inspiration, but usually not out of precaution. Most of the designers I’ve met don’t appreciate their work being repudiated, and it’s a timid and ineffectual practitioner who’s inclined to look around for reasons to doubt his own work. That said, I’ve seen design people aligning themselves with false ideology, and it’s due to their neglect of history. Example: In Urbanized, there is a professor of urban planning from Columbia University who makes the assertion that most cities are founded in locations that are conducive to trade. This is false. Almost any city founded before the industrial era exists where it does because the terrain upon which it sits is easily defensible. One might make an exception for coastal cities, which are normally built where there is a natural harbor or protection from weather. But most of the world’s major capitals are not port cities, despite the obvious advantages of trade and travel; and if you go back 500 years ago, this is almost exclusively the case. Old cities are built inland, on high ground. They begin as fortresses housing a king or a lord. Commerce grows up around the spot due to security and stability offered by the regent. I think this was the case all the way up until the end of the 18th century when artillery bombardment became a formidable tactic of siege warfare, at which point it didn’t matter if a city was high or low, had thick walls or no wall. For the rest of human history, people emigrated to cities to conduct their business in safety and peace.

Trade and culture are not the roots of a city’s greatness. The city is mighty because it is the seat of power. There is an authority that moderates interactions between citizens, controls the environment, regulates occurrences. To be a denizen of the city is to obey and to expect the obedience of others. Trade and culture are just by-products of uniform compliance. This hasn’t changed in the modern era.

Class Antagonisms in Early Modern Italian Theater

A few years ago I saw an 18th century Italian play put on by the University of Colorado Theater Department. It was very dull; acting was mediocre; stage direction and production desire were pretty uninspired. Costumes were good. I would have forgotten about it completely were it not for the fascinating constructions of Enlightenment Age class antagonism. The play was a throw-away piece by Carlo Goldoni, a Venetian playwright who lived for most of the 1700s and who took special interest in portraying the newly emerging middle class. This revival that I saw was a lethargic comedy of manners about the daughter of a modest merchant who is courted simultaneously by a rich but tactless bourgeois dolt and a duplicitous count who was divested of his estate and has taken to hustling the country gentry for his bread. The two suitors are interesting character types. I imagine both would have been recognizable to people of that time. The bourgeois cittadino is coarse and simple. He is incapable of conversing on subjects besides those he is acquainted with through business. He does not ride. He does not hunt. He knows nothing about books, music or art. He finds no pleasure in good food. He is a comic figure because he is so dull and rigid. He knows enough to make money but he is too little cultured to know how to spend it. I feel like such a creature must have seemed very puzzling to the old ruling classes. Auerbach talks about how the noble aristocracy of the early modern period saw the new bourgeoisie as intellectually deficient and absurd in their values. Men of middle classes earned their fortunes by cultivating specialized talents that were utilitarian. Gentlemen of the aristocracy avoided all productive work as an entitlement of their position. They received rigorous education but were free to study in a variety of disciplines. During the 16th and 17th century, learned men were appraised by the breadth of their knowledge and their ability to converse on a number of topics. Middle class men who practiced professions were thought to be as dim as any peasant. They were just prosperous, nothing more. Of course, the economic environment of a developing and modernizing Europe valued things differently, and it rewarded bourgeoisie professionalism quite handsomely. So, in the Goldoni play, it is the bourgeois factory owner who is powerful and free, and the aristocratic count who has devoted his life to refinement and observance of custom is dissipated vulnerable to the whims of fortune. It is impossible for him to reverse his decline. Tradition prohibits it, and he is too pathetic a creature to fend for himself anyway.

Erich Auerbach and the Reading Public

The full title of Auerbach’s monumental project is Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. It is an examination how writers went about the work of portraying the world around them in a way that was comprehensible and recognizable to their readers. The analysis covers every major stage and stylistic program of the European literary tradition, beginning with the Homeric epics and the Torah and ending with 20th century modernism. Each chapter represents a new development in aesthetic attitude and approach to creative representation. Auerbach chooses a work that is exemplary of its time and surveys the text’s language and theme. It is intended that the text act as an artifact and that it disclose the identity and attributes of the era of which it was a part. As a work of literary criticism, I’d say Mimesis is unexceptional. Auerbach is able to provide unique interpretation for only a few of the text, those that he is most familiar and has made a career writing about. The rest he just reproduces the standard interpretations that are already widely accepted and which offer little besides a starting point for more penetrating analysis. At its worst, Mimesis feels like an undergraduate lecture, albeit an exquisitely composed and unusually erudite undergraduate lecture. I think the work is more interesting and more useful as an historical treatise. Auerbach is able to distill the tastes, attitudes, emotions, manners of speech, and modes of thinking of an entire age into 20 or 30 pages, and he’s perfectly accurate, remarkably effective. His most profound insights have to do not with the texts under consideration but with the people who produced those texts and who read them. Invariably we are talking about an elite class of folk when we are talking about literary audiences. These are individuals who shaped history, who led society from one age to the next. We learn more about the way they thought and how they saw the world by investigating their entertainments and fantasies than we do by studying their achievements and aspirations. There are few better scholars of the European ruling classes than Erich Auerbach. What he has to say about them is endlessly fascinating.