David Nicholas

title.none: Jones, Eclipse of Empire (David Nicholas )

identifier.other: baj9928.0806.025 08.06.25

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David Nicholas , Clemson University (Emeritus),

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Jones, Chris. Eclipse of Empire? Perceptions of the Western Empire and its Rulers in Late-Medieval France. Cursor Mundi, v. 1. post0804: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xxiv, 415. $116 978-2-503-52478-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.06.25

Jones, Chris. Eclipse of Empire? Perceptions of the Western Empire and its Rulers in Late-Medieval France. Cursor Mundi, v. 1. post0804: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xxiv, 415. $116 978-2-503-52478-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

David Nicholas
Clemson University (Emeritus)

The subtitle of this book is a more accurate description of its contents than the title. It is a critique of the idea that the political impotence of Empire and emperors in the century after 1250 was reflected in decreased preoccupation by French writers with ideas of universal imperial rule. Although Jones criticizes the traditional historiography, which he associates particularly with Joseph Strayer, as driven by a modern nation-state model, he builds his case by concentrating on attitudes found in northern French historical writing, supplemented by the writings of lawyers and political thinkers, on grounds that it reflected the official sentiments of the kings of France. The negative example of Frederick II conditioned French writers' perceptions of the Empire long after his deposition in 1244, a deed that seems to have been more significant for most of them than his death, since it deprived him of papal sanction for his rule. The hostility of the most widely read religious historical work of the period, Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum Historiale, and of the histories written at the abbey of Saint-Denis, was shared by their imitators. Through sophisticated textual criticism Jones shows how Vincent and his followers altered subsequent recensions of their works to accommodate the political ideology of the Capetian dynasty.

Very little in the Empire after Frederick interested the northern French historians, who had been primarily concerned with his deeds in Italy and his crusading, not his role as a ruler of Germany. The chroniclers largely ignored French efforts to gain the imperial crown, although they were taken seriously at the royal court and by propagandists such as Pierre Dubois. The turbulent relations of Rudolf and Albert of Habsburg with the French find no echo in French chroniclers. The hostility of the Dionysian historians toward the imperial designs of Ludwig of Bavaria rose from Valois attitudes toward the pope and particularly John "the Blind" of Bohemia, a steadfast French ally.

Jones is quite original in his interpretation of the role of the Charlemagne legend in fixing French attitudes toward the imperial dignity but particularly kingship. French historians had to explain away two inconvenient facts: that the Capetians had displaced the Carolingians rather than succeeding them directly, and that they were not emperors. Even the idea of reversion of the French royal dignity to the line of Charlemagne was not emphasized, given that it only could apply to the Capetians or Valois through the female line. Jones thus disputes the thesis that the example of Charlemagne sparked French interest in the Empire and explains the parade of French candidates for the imperial throne. Instead, the Charlemagne cult was used only to reinforce their claims to the French crown. Most French writers on Charlemagne's period stressed that he had been king of France before assuming the imperial title, which was "an adjunct of the French kingship" (158). Charles V was the first French king to whom the link with Charlemagne became a major element of policy. Jones thus rejects Jacques Krynen's idea that Charlemagne's association with the Empire led to the "attribution of juridical concepts associated with imperial authority to the French king" (181).

A Capetian emperor would mean disenfranchising the Hohenstaufen and their successors, a topic that Jones considers in connection with French understanding of the role of the German electors, the legitimacy of elective as opposed to hereditary monarchy, and the relationship of the papacy to the imperial office. The Capetians and their historians evaluated the legitimacy of the imperial dynasties in terms of the legal norms of royal northern France. The French knew that the imperial title was elective, although they were unclear about the mechanism and thought that the electors' authority came from the pope. Some of Jones' most interesting passages show the French more receptive to the idea of imperial inheritance as property than the German electors were. Some French writers persisted in the idea that Habsburgs had dynastic rights to the Empire until it was rendered obsolete by the Valois-Luxembourg alliance. Jones argues based on iconography and the work of Jean de Saint-Victor that the French thought of election (as had happened in 987 and would happen in 1328) as an appropriate way of choosing a dynasty, which would then be perpetuated hereditarily through the male line.

Jones next considers the often debated question of whether the emperor in Christian society was thought to be above kings. Many lawyers, including royal advisors, thought that the king's independence of the emperor was purely de facto, yet when it suited their purposes, Capetian lawyers argued that Roman law was only one custom among many that the king could use. Although French authors generally agreed that the Emperor's authority came from the pope, they did not extend it to all temporal authorities, certainly not the French kings. After discussing the writings of Jean Quidort (John of Pairs), Pierre Dubois, and Jean de Saint-Victor on the relationship of temporal and spiritual power, Jones concludes that few in northern France would have objected to Henry VII's claim (1312) to be lord of the world as long as it was understood that it did not apply to the kingdom of France. Thus even if there was an emperor, he could legally be lord of the world while exercising only a limited temporal jurisdiction.

The seventh chapter is the most political of the book and might have worked better as an introduction. It discusses French consciousness of territorial borders with the Empire. The frontier with Germany was more jurisdictional than geographical, but by the early thirteenth century "a conception of the border between France and the Empire as a series of fixed points" (266) existed. In general the French kings did not try overtly to seize lands that were indisputably in the Empire, but this did not stop them from trying to extend their influence in them, particularly by claiming lordship over churches. Contemporary French writers did not see this as annexation of imperial territory, evidently feeling that the kings were simply consolidating authority in what was theirs, and considered the emperors' efforts to stop this aggression. Jones concludes, however, that if a Frenchman had succeeded to the Empire, it would not have changed the relation between France and the Empire, any more than the brief French acquisition of Navarre did, for "the Carolingian union of French and imperial crowns was interpreted in terms of personal inheritance (300)."

In the concluding chapter Jones discusses the nature of imperial power, specifically the fact that several kingdoms were in the Empire. Most northern French chroniclers distinguished kingdom and Empire. While the German rulers called themselves "kings of the Romans," French rulers more often used rex Allemanniae or roi d'Alemainge, although most French sources did not consider kingship of the Romans and of Germany interchangeable terms. The French seem to have thought that an imperial coronation at Rome was necessary before the king of Germany could exercise authority elsewhere, contrary to the German idea, implicit earlier but statutory from 1338, that he exercised imperial authority from the coronation as King of the Romans at Aachen. Some French authors thought that the emperor exercised general authority on behalf of the pope, while others considered his temporal functions more limited, applying only to northern Italy or even the city of Rome. Before 1350 French writers generally gave the emperor the role of defender of the church, although thereafter they increasingly assigned this role to the French kings. All emperors and kings of the Romans stressed their participation on the crusade in their electoral propaganda. The French in one sense saw the Empire as a territorial unit "whose ruler differed little from a king...By coronation in either Milan or Rome the German king might obtain territorial jurisdiction beyond the German kingdom...[and] supra-regnal temporal authority. This latter was indisputably in the gift of the papacy and imbued with a Roman character. The emperor, as a functionary of the Roman church, was created in order to perform a task necessary to the existence of a properly ordered Christian society. His role did not involve the exercise of universal temporal jurisdiction but it did imbue the Roman emperor with a dignity which elevated him above other kings" (351). The Empire was in papal gift and therefore desirable for the Capetians, and also because it would enhance their crusading activity. The main reason that northern French chroniclers passed over French candidacies to the imperial throne in silence was because they failed and thus detracted from their message of Capetian power and divine favor.

This book is extremely well researched. Although aspects of this topic have had a voluminous historiography, Jones bases his work on a significant use of archival documents. Noting that the great nineteenth-century editions of chronicles were often selective in what they printed, he consulted the original manuscripts, which add immensely to the originality of his arguments. In addition to archival sources from four repositories, most significantly the Archives Nationales, he used printed editions of official documents and 66 anonymous chronicles and hagiographical works, the works of 34 known authors of chronicles and hagiography, as well as tracts, pamphlets, and miscellaneous material, including several works by his most frequently cited authors. The thesis that Capetian historians were looking at the Empire through the prism of French customs and law and that they valued Charlemagne more as a French king than as an emperor are strongly and convincingly argued.

Apart from the uninformative maps, I have two main criticisms. First, Jones tends to lose track of his arguments, particularly in the sections on Italian politics and the personal failings of Frederick II. Other examples include devoting considerable space to the theological issues between John XXII and Ludwig of Bavaria, a topic having nothing to do with French attitudes toward Empire or emperor, and the French use of bastardy to justify their crusade against Manfred, who was never emperor. Secondly, one is left wondering whether by "Empire" Jones means (as one might infer from the beginning of Chapter 8) a polyglot and institutionally weak territorial state, or whether he means an intellectual construct (as one might infer from the rest of Chapter 8 and most of the rest of the book). After admitting (p. 7 and elsewhere) that the authority of the emperors declined after Frederick II, he concludes that "the eclipse of Empire in the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth centuries is indeed a reality, but one largely restricted to the minds of modern historians" (364). Surely the electors and the German thinkers who devised schemes to reform the Empire in the fifteenth century would have been as shocked by this statement as I was.