Albrecht Classen

title.none: Althoff, Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter (Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.9704.006 97.04.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Althoff, Gerd. Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter. Kommunikation in Frieden und Fehden. Darmstadt: Primus Verlag/Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1997. Pp. ix, 360. DM 68.00. ISBN: ISBN 3-896-78038-7 (hb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.04.06

Althoff, Gerd. Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter. Kommunikation in Frieden und Fehden. Darmstadt: Primus Verlag/Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1997. Pp. ix, 360. DM 68.00. ISBN: ISBN 3-896-78038-7 (hb).

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

Whereas literary and intellectual medievalists have long abandoned the concept of the "dark ages" for the Middle Ages, historians have not until recently approached this thorny issue with the necessary open-mindedness. It seems very difficult to discard the image of that age as barbaric, feudalistic-military, and chaotic, under the rule of a dictatorial king, or an absolutely powerful nobility. A variation of this idea would be that the Middle Ages were characterized by a monarchy in which the kings and queens had close to absolute power and relied on an extensive system of the executive branch. Notions such as these are built on myths, though, not on historical facts. Nineteenth and twentieth-century historians and legal historians were, of course, deeply influenced by the political structure of their own time and projected their concept of government and statehood back to the Middle Ages. Albeit Fritz Kern published his seminal study Gottesgnadentum und Widerstandsrecht im frühen Mittelalter as early as 1914, which was then reprinted in 1954, pointing out the significant difference between early-modern absolutism and medieval kingship, and the modern image of the mighty medieval king has fundamentally not been changed. As we know today, medieval kings could and were dethroned, feudal contracts were cancelled by vassals whose lord did not live up to his promises, and peasants rose against their lords when they felt that they were too hard pressed or did not receive the necessary protection.

Gerd Althoff here presents a collection of articles in which he radically challenges these myths and outlines the principles of a new historically sharpened understanding of medieval communication, politics, government, and statehood. With the exception of the chapter "Das Privileg der deditio," which is scheduled to appear in the Festschrift for Karl Ferdinand Werner, all other articles were previously printed in the journal Frühmittelalterliche Studien. Although they overlap in many respects, and quite often repeat certain aspects, as a whole this collection convincingly drives home the point that medieval society was not primitive in comparison with our world, but instead followed different rules which were highly complex as well, though not written down.

The book is divided in two sections, the first dealing with questions of how military and political conflicts were handled, the second with questions pertaining to political communication. Essentially the thematic difference is not significant, as communication emerges as the key element in a constructive treatment of conflicts. Althoff suggests that the political reality in the High Middle Ages, that is, the tenth and eleventh centuries, was much less dependent on the monarch's power and influence than we would expect today, instead he relied heavily on a whole set of mechanisms which allowed the more or less peaceful settlement of a conflict. Perhaps the most important difference from modern times might be the lack of public offices and institutions to control and regulate the behavior of people. Nevertheless, most differences and disputes were worked out according to specific rituals which allowed the parties involved to maintain their dignities and yet also satisfied the opponent's demands. In other words, the public laws were much less specific or extensive in comparison with those from the modern age, but they were buttressed by a vast system of generally known rules and rituals which effectively facilitated the functioning of medieval society.

Althoff points out, in his introduction, that his observations follow the lead of French and American historians who also noticed more ritualistic solutions of conflict in France and Iceland, for example, but in his articles he certainly breaks new ground for German medieval historiography.

The first article sets the tone for the entire volume, as Althoff outlines the complex power base for tenth and eleventh-century German kings and emperors. As the nobles possessed a considerable power base, they felt strong enough often to oppose the king. These conflicts did not, however, create chaos, instead they mostly lead to a sophisticated system of escalating rituals involving both parties. These rituals relied on open demonstration of military might, but very often gave room for the defeated to retreat, to seek the victor's mercy and forgiveness, and thus to save face. Even the threat to assign the death penalty mostly had only symbolic function because the rulers strove to demonstrate their generosity and kindness. Harsher treatment of the opponents, leading to their humiliation, very likely created a dangerous potential for hatred against the ruler because he had overstepped the boundaries of the political game. The essential features consisted in the controlled escalation of the conflict, use of mediators, and ritual reconstitution of the "status quo ante."

The second article probes these aspects more deeply by focusing on the situation of the Welf family in the twelfth century. Althoff examines concrete cases of political and military conflicts and repeatedly observes how much ritual was involved in the settlement of these crises. In the third article the author highlights the role of the mediators, whereas in the following he discusses the phenomenon of the "deditio," i.e., the act of public submission under a lord to request his mercy or help in specific matters. However the individual cases were handled, as Althoff emphasizes, the ritual interaction was only possible if every little move was well planned, practiced, and prearranged. In the following article we hear about the ducal responsibility for the well- being of the empire, but once again also about the usual forms of conflict resolution by peaceful means. The section on "Communication" begins with an article on the outstanding relevance of royal councilors and other members of the court in the king's handling of public policy. In another article Althoff investigates the role of relatives, friends, and family members in the search for peaceful resolutions of conflicts. The king also had the critical prerogative of showing mercy in serious cases, as we hear in the following chapter. All these things had to be carried out in public, hence the great need for ritual demonstration and enactment of the courtly game, as we learn in the following article.

This game could also include the public display of tears, repentance, and anger, meaning that the ruler openly utilized his entire register of emotions for political ends; after all, he was the head of a ritualistic society, as Althoff suggests in a subsequent chapter. These rituals were well known and widely followed without ever being recorded in written form as laws, or manuals for the rulers. Althoff argues that, based on his observations, the seminal study by Norbert Elias, Process of Civilization entirely ignored this set of norms and misread the open demonstration of affects and emotions (287). It seems to me that both are right because Althoff indeed unearthed significant ritualistic patterns of behavior, whereas Elias analyzed these types of behavior in cultural-historical terms, contrasting, as we now may say, the medieval game with the early-modern game.

Althoff presents a series of excellent case studies based on a close reading of historical documents and thereby successfully defends his theoretical concepts. The reader quickly notices that the individual chapters were originally conceived as independent articles, hence the slightly irritating occasional duplication and/or repetition of information. Otherwise, this is a fascinating monograph which certainly promises to profoundly impact the historiography of the tenth and eleventh centuries.