Anne E. Lester

title.none: Evergates, The Aristocracy in the County (Anne E. Lester)

identifier.other: baj9928.0809.021 08.09.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne E. Lester, University of Colorado, Boulder, Anne.Lester@Colorado.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Evergates, Theodore. The Aristocracy in the County of Champagne, 1100-1300. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. vi, 432. $95.95 978-0-8122-4019-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.09.21

Evergates, Theodore. The Aristocracy in the County of Champagne, 1100-1300. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. vi, 432. $95.95 978-0-8122-4019-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Anne E. Lester
University of Colorado, Boulder

Every now and again a book appears that challenges older assumptions and historiographical constructions in such persuasive terms that it is able to redefine the way we look at the past. Theodore Evergates's most recent study of the aristocracy of Champagne is just such a book. While its title is modest, rightly suggestive of a synthetic study of the landholding elite in northern France generated from detailed prosopographical research, the conclusions drawn here force us to confront long held generalizations. The book takes up three larger issues: 1) the fundamental conception of the medieval aristocratic family and the primacy erroneously given to the idea of primogeniture and patrilineal descent; 2) the nature of fief holding in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and 3) the way in which written records changed the social relationships and social structures of northern France. In clear and precise prose Evergates offers a powerful reassessment of the medieval conjugal unit and the way in which men and women took part in property holding and social relationships. Through a detailed reading of thousands of medieval documents, Evergates has written a new social history of the family-- one might even (cautiously) say a post-feminist social history--built upon decades of research into the role of women in society that reveals the complexity of the lives of men and women as they existed "together within a single social fabric" (1).

Evergates builds his "sociological study of the county's aristocracy" upon three types of records: charters, mainly preserved in ecclesiastical archives and for the most part recording property transactions; comital sources, encompassing out-going letters kept in the comital chancery and a unique series of feudal registers produced between 1178 and 1275; and copies of sealed letters patent detailing transactions between aristocratic men and women. As Evergates explains, the comital registers--with over 10,000 entries--offer an incomparable "database of the count's fief-holders" that allow for a "rudimentary quantitative analysis of an entire regional aristocracy over the course of several generations" (3).

The first two chapters trace the political formation of the county and its aristocracy. Evergates shows how the counts and regent countesses of the twelfth and early thirteenth century transformed a collection of lordships into a principality with a highly functional bureaucracy. Embedded in the chronological narrative of these two chapters, however, are two interrelated and crucial arguments linking political control and documentary use. For the creation of comital registers and the letters patent that often lay behind them served to facilitate governance while simultaneously subordinating regional knights and barons to the count's authority. As a consequence, a regional aristocracy emerged that was integral to the comital state. Evergates's argument here is subtle, but there are critical moments of political formation that he highlights. The first occurred in 1178, toward the end of the reign of Henry I the Liberal (1152-1181) when, as he prepared to depart on pilgrimage for Jerusalem, he had the first feudal register, the Feoda Campania compiled for the use of his wife, Countess Marie, whom he left in control of the county during his absence. The Feoda--listing 1900 fief-holders--divided the county into castellany units that became the basic administrative districts of the principality. The organization of the Feoda provided the template for all feudal registers that followed (the comital chancery generated five more through 1275). By the thirteenth century the counts and countesses became adept at using the new written technology to administer their territorial state. The diffusion of aristocratic seals, beginning in the mid-twelfth century, enabled the proliferation of letters patent, which the counts depended on to govern the county. Such letters were powerful administrative tools in a period when the aristocracy was on the move, taking part in crusade campaigns or assuming new lordships in the Greek Peloponnese after 1204.

Sealed letters proved even more important during the period of civil war (1213-1218) and the succession crisis that followed the premature death of Thibaut III in 1201; the second watershed moment in the political consolidation of Champagne. At that point the county passed to the widowed Countess Blanche of Navarre, who ruled for twenty-one years as regent for her infant son, born just days after Thibaut III died. As Evergates argues the "enduring consequence of the succession crisis was that it established a new norm of comital-baronial relationships [for] the barons were required to give tangible proof of their loyalty in the form of letters patent deposited in the chancery archive" (42). In effect, the documents were political tools that created a regional aristocracy with a shared identity and set of cultural practices. Yet, as Evergates shows, this was not a static group. Over the course of the thirteenth century, the sociological make-up of the county changed in significant ways. More and more fiefs came to be held by men of lesser status who did not take the title of miles, but rather armiger or squire. The value of fiefs also declined over the course of the thirteenth century. Finally, many more women appear in the records as fief holders.

Fiefs were an integral part of aristocratic identity. Any squeamishness we may harbor regarding the term fief and societies that hold them must be put aside, as Evergates makes clear, in his discussion of the circulation of fiefs (their creation, gifting, and buying and selling), which is the subject of chapter three. Fiefs were ubiquitous in medieval Champagne and took a wide variety of forms. Evergates is excellent at defining the terms of discussion in this chapter, which one could imagine excerpting and assigning to upper- level students in need of a modern treatment of the realities of "the culture of the fief" (63). As he explains, "at its most basic level, a fief (feodum, casamentum) designated property, revenue, or rights held in restrictive tenure. A fief could not be alienated, encumbered, or otherwise diminished without the consent of the person from whom it was held" (64). Fiefs were created from allodial (freely held) lands with regularity and this was one way property circulated or moved within the aristocratic class. Fiefs were also sold and mortgaged, particularly in times of acute financial need often precipitated by crusading obligations. Yet problems arose when fiefs were given to institutions that would not pass them on, that is, when they passed to monastic houses that did not die, and rarely put such lands or income back into circulation. Evergates brings clarity to the otherwise complex practice of amortization, "the approval granted, usually after a fine or tax, for the transfer of fiefs into a dead hand (manus mortua), incapable of rendering the attached service" (77). By the later part of the thirteenth century the counts cracked down on transfers made without an amortization by simply confiscating such alienations. Over time, however, amortization functioned as tax on property transfers that brought revenue into the comital coffers at crucial moments. Ultimately, taking part in the market of fiefs was part of what defined one's membership among the aristocracy.

In chapters four through six, Evergates turns to the practices and relationships that characterize the aristocracy and offers a powerful reassessment of the aristocratic family. Using the rich evidentiary base from Champagne, Evergates argues for a different model of the family that radically challenges and I think will ultimately replace Georges Duby's construction. Duby's model of the family, articulated in a series of articles that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, depended on the interlocking notion of primogeniture, patrilineage and patrimony. Evergates systematically dismantles Duby's construction by offering new definitions of the primary terms Duby employed. Through a close reading of comital ordinances (legal texts) and Beaumanoir's Coutumes of the Beauvaisis (1282), Evergates shows that for Champagne and northern France "primogeniture referred only to the advantage, not the exclusionary rights, of the eldest surviving child; lineage included all direct blood relatives, women as well as men; and all children received an inheritance of some kind" (87). In one succinct sentence he offers a powerful refutation of Duby and persuasively brings women into the inheritance structure of medieval France. Evergates marshals a staggering volume of detailed evidence to propose a new and ultimately more dynamic model of the aristocratic family based around the nuclear or conjugal family unit.

It was the conjugal unit that took precedence with respect to property holding, inheritance and succession. This new model insists that women held far more agency and power than previously suggested. In example after example Evergates shows that "marriage made a wife her husband's partner whose consent was required for the disposition of his properties; she acted in his stead during his absence and after his death; she exercised exclusive rights over their minor children; and she enjoyed life use of their conjugal residence with an income appropriate to her social standing" (89). Women had access to property through the rights granted to them in the marriage contract, the subject of chapter five. The contract provided them with a dowry (in effect an early and definitive distribution of their inheritance) and a dower (lands or income granted by a husband upon marriage), which women held rights to throughout their lives.

Inheritance and succession practices, the subjects of chapter six, also involved women to a much greater extent than generally acknowledged. In Champagne, as in the rest of northern and eastern France, partible inheritance was the rule, not primogeniture; that is, all legitimate children, male and female inherited some portion of the family estate following a well-established calculus calibrated by sex, age, and degree of relation. Crucial, as Evergates proves, is the fact that in the absence of male heirs a lineage did not simple die out, but was frequently sustained through the female line because women could transmit properties, titles, and offices. Partible inheritance was particularly important in a region that supplied so many crusaders. Evergates includes a fascinating discussion of names as markers of familial properties and lordships suggesting how a socio- cultural phenomenon like naming was the product of familial patterns and preferences. By the mid-thirteenth century the practice of using two names with double toponymics, as for example Elizabeth of Chtillon, countess of Saint-Pol, reflected both the practice of partible inheritance and the preference for identifying with the site of ones most important lordship or residence.

Evergates' study closes with two closely related chapters that present a synthesis of the aristocratic life experience in Champagne. Here he follows the life patterns of men and women and identifies important life course markers, namely, age of first marriage, the duration of marriages, and trajectories of second careers or life after marriage. Women generally married in their teens, often to older men; had several children; frequently survived their husband, or occasionally were divorced; and regularly went on to have second careers, which included living as a dowager, retiring to a monastery, or remarrying. Male and female patterns coincided. Men often remained at home until succession or first marriage, at which point they were often, but not always knighted. They married slightly younger women, commonly followed a crusade, lived into their fifties or sixties, and left widows and heirs with rights to their properties, with most men marrying only once. Evergates emphasizes, however, that such markers during the course of a lifetime were just that, markers of common patterns and not determinants of behavior (165). If anything, the life course and family patterns of medieval men and women were variable and unpredictable, the result of a host of issues that ranged from comital policies, to the longevity of one's parents, numbers of siblings, familial tragedies, and crusade deaths, as well as personal choices, religious conversions, love or incompatibility. This last conclusion is borne out in the final chapter of the book, which examines several varied case studies of aristocratic lineages.

This book is a remarkable achievement. Evergates offers a cogent synthesis of society in Champagne that proposes a compelling new model of the aristocratic family in all its complexity. One has only to spend a little time with the detailed notes that quite literally bring the archives of Champagne into one's grasp to marvel at what the author has accomplished. The rich prosopographical register at the end of the volume traces the lives of sixty-four individuals and is a mine of information for anyone working on Champagne. Evergates has written a study that will change that way we look at the aristocracy and the evolution of the property holding class of northern France. In turn he has generated a new history of the aristocratic family and the place of women within the fundamental structures of medieval Europe.