Aristocrats are always, violent, corrupt, and greedy.
–Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000, p. 391.
To be fair, just because something is a generalization doesn't mean it's not accurate or valid...I think I might suggest the subtle change of "Aristocracies are always violent, corrupt, and greedy", since that's more close to literally true, but the point still stands that the average aristocrat resembles the original generalization far more than not.
By itself, the quotation is misleading. Wickham's full sentence is: "Aristocrats are always violent, corrupt and greedy, but they were at least aware of the ideology of public resposibility in this period, and presumably--sometimes, as with Dhuoda, demonstrably--linked it to their desire for personal salvation after death, which they certainly always also possessed."FWIW, aristocratic violence, corruption, and greed need, in my experience, to be seen through a lens of an upbringing in family responsiblity. They were raised to think their families were great, that violence, corruption, and greed had made them so (medieval family chronicles are often far from whitewashes), that it was their responsibility to keep the family great or make it greater, and that if they did not, they were worthless. Even the saints among them were looked at with ambivalence.In this, they were not that much different from ruling classes in other societies, including our own. The relationship between Donald Trump and his father fit a similar pattern.
@DavidWe absolutely still have aristocrats, they just don't operate off a literal feudal contract or possess formal titles anymore.
@David, If you've read Wickham, you may have noticed that he tries to evaluate the view of Carolingian government that Johannes Fried advances in the biography I reviewed back in 2016. Wickham calls this "correctio," the design to bring to a godly order first the church and then, using the church, the whole society. Wickham is skeptical that this accomplished much in the secular realm (see the aristocrats quote) but I think he agrees with Fried that this movement was 1) hugely important for the future, especially but not only in the church, 2) the Carolingians very much valued learning because they thought it was necessary to this project, and 3) the leaders of the court really tried to achieve a Christian order in the empire.Thinking this over I wonder if this ideal of "correctio" did not have a long career, extending down to the 17th century, taken up by various kings, popes, and at least one Duke of Bavaria, and that the coexistence of this ideal with the messy, violent reality of an aristocratic warrior society was a big part of what defined the European Middle Ages.
FWIW, my impression is that the ideal of reformatio succeeded very well, in the sense that, as Wickham says, the Carolingian reformers convinced the aristocracy that salvation, piety, education in scripture, and so on were important. Where they ran into trouble was when they tried to convince the nobles that they should accept a subordinate, unambitious place in this system. What nobles wanted was a system in which their own families could preside each over their own little reformatio. In other words, the tension we should see is not monarchic reformatio vs, noble violence and greed but between competitive family narcissisms within an overall acceptance of shared piety-minded values. Thus all those princely families, in the midst of causing all sorts of violence over what they thought were their God-given rights, were also busy founding monasteries.Dhuoda is a good example of the tension. She knows she has to tell her son that his first loyalty should be to the (Carolingian) king. So she starts her list of hierarchical loyalties with a short, perfunctory paragraph about that. Then come page after page of bromides about loyalty to the father of the family, with plentiful biblical examples, talk about how pleasing such loyalty is to God, and so on. Her son seems to be left with an unspoken urging to place loyalty over the father to loyalty to the king (which the son in fact did, since he rebelled against Charles the Bald after the latter executed his father).So I think one of the guiding tensions of the Middle Ages wasn't so much between the ideal of reformatio and aristo badness, as between a monarchic/papal version of that ideal and a version of the same ideal held by aristocrats, religious corporations, and later towns and other subordinate communities, who saw a rather expansive and truculent version of their own rights as part of that order. There was also another tension between the good-enough piety of the upper-class majority and the never-good-enough piety of would-be upper class saints, exemplified in the relations between people like Francis or Elizabeth of Hungary and their families. The latter tension is already present, of course, in the gospels, e. g. in Jesus' advice to the rich young man in Matthew 19.
In the second paragraph, I meant the son is left with an unspoken urging to place loyalty *to* the father *over* loyalty to the king.
Reminds me of something Jonathan Sumption said about magnates and their bishoprics: to sell a benefice to a wicked man might be a sin, but to give one away to a stranger was terrible politics.
I've long been struck by that famous document in which the purchaser of a bishopric--I think it's the archbishopric of Narbonne--tells his side of the story. He seems completely oblivious to the idea that anyone might think that his parents buying a high ecclesiastical office for him might be a bad thing. He's quite open about what his parents did for him, and seems to think the whole process show everyone in a good light, with a fine deal for a fine office, with a beautiful cathedral with many lovely decorations and many fine prayers to the Lord sung every day, etc. So I don't think it was so much Machiavellianism of the "worse than a sin, it's a blunder" sort. I think they had more of an attitude that God's in his heaven, the family is doing well for itself, and all is right with the world. One might even see it as closer to Norman Vincent Peale than The Prince.
As time went on--especially by the thirteenth century--the aristocracy (and merchants and others among the ruling classes) began to show a greater consciousness of sin in their actions, which is one reason why Purgatory becomes such a welcome concept. You can see it in the fantastic quantities of post-mortem masses they pay for, and such. Some of that was conspicuous consumption, sure, but I think they took the afterlife and divine judgment very seriously and were serious about somehow melding salvation with doing what they felt they had to do as good family members. The feeling can be seen, as I said, in their ambivalence toward relatives who went all the way on the piety road (giving up titles to become mendicants, etc.).
I suppose this just proves how modern I am, but I have great difficulty reconciling a serious Christian worldview with a ready willingness to defend your family's rights by burning villages.
I don't know how much the different worldviews are defined temporally. Plenty of critics in the Middle Ages were prepared to say there was a deep contradiction between a Christian worldview and burning villages to defend a family's rights. Thomas de Marle may really have been as bizarrely sadistic as Guibert de Nogent said, or he may have, from his own point of view, simply been defending his family's property. Of course, for plenty of those critics (including Guibert), the solution wasn't pacifism, but burning Muslim or Greek Orthodox villages instead. Or burning whichever villages the proper sovereign authority told you to. And, also of course, plenty of modern Christians have thought that the best defense of Christianity was the slaughter of Leftists. Perhaps most strangely of all, many contemporary American Christians seem to think that winning high school football games is a deep statement of Christian piety. In any case, I'm skeptical it's about modernity vs. the medieval. There have always been Christians who were pacifists, and plenty who with ideological ways of rejecting the equation of Christianity and pacifism.
And I should add, there have always been plenty of Christians, probably a majority, who were prepared to distinguish between forms of violence they found acceptably Christian and those they did not.
Ultimately, though, your feelings aren't about Christianity, are they? Medieval nobles make you indignant, and you don't want to go so far in understanding them that the moral onus on them seems to fade away. Fair enough. I feel the same about plenty of historical groups--Nazis, southern slave holders, yadda, yadda--but I just can't muster up that kind of indignation about medieval nobles. Truly, I don't know why. I don't think it's just because it was all so long ago and enough time has passed. Nor can I pretend to be dedicated to any kind of austere non-judgmental ethos of history study, since I reject that in many cases. I don't know what it is.
@David-Medieval nobles do make me indignant, but the context here is Carolingian reformatio and how important it was. Johannes Fried thinks it was very important, Chris Wickham thinks it was quite important, and you seem to be with Wickham. I have trouble believing it was very important, because the empire quickly fell apart into baronies waging war on each other. It seems a very weak reed compared to, say, the devotion to empire found among 4th century Roman elites, or Chinese Mandarins. Those feelings had a huge impact on history, allowing the Roman empire to endure for centuries and the Chinese empire to rise from the ashes again and again. Did the devotion of Carolingian elites to reformatio have any effects outside the church?
I would say that Carolingian reformatio didn't make Carolingian elites less localistic or more inclined to obey outside authority, but that those same elites did become much more deeply Christianized. In other words, Carolingian reformatio was important, but not in the way that those who wanted it to be a pillar of centralized government dreamed it would be. As I said before, baronial families wanted each to be the center of their own little reformationes. They regarded themselves as good Christians and even, when they founded monasteries or made bishoprics greater, as very fine, exemplary Christians indeed.Both Islam and Christianity produced durable civilizations deeply identified with their respective religions, but proved to be weak reeds for centralized government. Their inhabitants found they could be quite satisfactorily Christian or Muslim without obeying a caliph or emperor. Indeed, perhaps there is something in Abrahamic religion that intensifies localism, that dignifies local and individual experience, and intensifies feelings of local self-sufficiency in terms of worth of identity.
Very interesting. Yes, both medieval Christianity and medieval Islam had major impacts without promoting centralization, so in that sense it's wrong to compare Carolingian Christianity to Confucianism and say it failed. But at least as Fried describes Carolingian reformatio, the point was to create an orderly and just society, and that part doesn't seem to have worked very well. I imagine that the people around Louis the Pious viewed what happened in the later 9th century as failure.
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