Debating lordship in ninth-century Francia

guest post by Charles West

read Charles’s article from the February issue

Around the turn of the year 869, a northern Frankish bishop named Hincmar had a fraught meeting with one of his secular followers, a man called Grivo. Hincmar asked Grivo to carry some letters to Rome. When Grivo refused to take them, the annoyed bishop brought up some rumours he’d heard about Grivo – that he’d damaged a wood he held from the bishop, and that he’d been spreading stories that the bishop was hoping for a bribe. Grivo forcefully denied all this. But no sooner had Grivo left the bishop’s presence than he told his neighbours to take as much timber from the wood as they liked, since he was about to lose it; and when the bishop sent envoys to stop the pillaging, Grivo and some relatives turned up in armour to face them down. Grivo then promised to make amends: but when Hincmar and he met a few days later, Grivo stormed off, saying he wouldn’t be the bishop’s man any longer, and wouldn’t travel even as far as his lodgings for a reward from Hincmar, let alone to Rome.


How should historians best approach the relationship between people like Grivo and Bishop Hincmar? To be more specific, is this and a set of related incidents about Hincmar and his followers, together forming the richest dossier on relations of this kind from the early Middle Ages, a rare and illuminating example of early medieval lordship in action? That’s the question my article for Past and Present seeks to address – and its answer is no.


That might at first seem a surprising conclusion to draw. After all, ‘lordship’ is a concept whose profile in medieval history has grown dramatically in recent years. It seems to offer the historian so much: a way of thinking about the inequalities and reciprocities of medieval society that avoids the anachronism of older legalist approaches, an approach allowing us to get closer to the realities of medieval life, free from the distortion imposed by classifications oriented to the modern state. The case of Grivo and Hincmar seems superficially to suggest that ‘lordship’ can help with the early Middle Ages as much as with the later, and that many historians are right to assume it was a significant force already in Carolingian Francia, long before the supposed turning point of the year 1000.


Yet however alluring the concept may be on first glance, the closer one looks at Hincmar and Grivo’s relationship, the less suitable ‘lordship’ appears for helping us understand it. In its most widespread sense today, the notion is ultimately derived from ideas developed by ultra-conservative German thinkers in the inter-war period, who were trying to reach back beyond the supposed damage wrought by the Enlightenment on the social fabric – back to a time when relations between people were more organic, before the French Revolution, the State and new habits of thought ruined everything.


But Grivo and Hincmar were not living in ancient Germanic forests, and their relationship did not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, our knowledge of the episode depends on a letter that Hincmar wrote because Grivo had complained about him to the king (you can see the only copy of this letter here). The king had then summoned the bishop to the royal court to account for his offences against a free Frank. Once there, Hincmar tried to justify his actions primarily with reference to his rights as a bishop over church property, and with canon law, not with norms of lordship.


In fact, Hincmar’s relation with Grivo (and others like him) was not determined by any specific norms of lordship – it was negotiated and extremely flexible, and to a considerable degree shaped by the institutionalised powers of king and bishop. Now, we can still call this lordship if we choose: after all, one side expected loyalty and service, the other side rewards. But if we do so, we lose the means of drawing a distinction between these relations and the more formalised ones that emerged in the course of the eleventh and twelfth century. Really, Hincmar’s relation with Grivo looks rather more like a kind of patronage relationship – so maybe that’s what we should call it.


The non-specialist might, perhaps, wonder why all this matters. So what if we call it patronage or lordship? The simple answer is provided by Marc Bloch’s injunction, that “It is the business of the historian to be always testing his [sic] classifications in order to justify their existence and, if it seems advisable, to revise them”.[1] It’s an injunction that is particularly urgent in this instance. Categories like lordship, or ritual, or honour, words that are used primarily or exclusively to analyse medieval and other ‘non-western’ societies, need to be scrutinised with especial care, because they tacitly encode assumptions about modernity, even while claiming to be closer to past realities.


Not only does this encoding carry the risk of distorting the ‘pre-modern’ past, simultaneously homogenising and othering it, and thereby impeding our understanding of its dynamics and processes (as suggested, in a different context, in Nicholas Baker’s blog); it also bears political implications that go beyond the study of medieval history, by positioning Western society as having outgrown and transcended its past, while others remain trapped within theirs. So, how best to characterise the relationship between Bishop Hincmar and Grivo, and others like him, may seem a trivial issue: but it’s one with surprisingly big, and interesting, implications.


Read the full article


[1] “Affaire à l’historien d’éprouver sans cesse [ses classifications], pour mieux prendre conscience de leur raison d’être, et, s’il y a lieu, les reviser” – Marc Bloch, Apologie pour l’histoire, ou, Métier d’historien (1949), p. 74; my quotation from the English translation, The historian’s craft, tr. Peter Putnam (1992), p. 148.

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