Lezlie Knox

title.none: Denton, Orders and Hierarchies in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Lezlie Knox)

identifier.other: baj9928.0110.009 01.10.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lezlie Knox, California State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Denton, Jeffrey. Orders and Hierarchies in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. XII +206. ISBN: 0-802-08264-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.10.09

Denton, Jeffrey. Orders and Hierarchies in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. XII +206. ISBN: 0-802-08264-5.

Reviewed by:

Lezlie Knox
California State University

Orders and Hierarchies in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe proposes to offer students an entry into ideas about social order between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. It also aims to be a wide ranging coursebook in which scholars from different academic disciplines examine how "historical events and developments and the products of society--its artefacts, its artistic and literary achievements, as well as its own social theories--directly reflect society's organisation and priorities". (3) Topics in the volume range from literary criticism to political theory, from kings to commoners, and from Northwestern to Southeastern Europe and the Islamic Middle East--although it is fair to say that history, patricians, and England are most prominent. These essays were originally delivered in a series of day-long conferences at the J.K. Hyde Centre for Late Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Manchester. The volume seems to preserve the essence of the discussion that must have ensued as its structure links articles on complementary themes. The demonstration that pre-modern concepts of a society of orders were essentially conservative and interested in maintaining existing hierarchies also connects many of the essays. For the most part, the collection achieves its objective of presenting new work on social distinctions, and the contributors are to be praised for their demonstration that a book intended for use in a classroom can also be scholarly. (1) Along with extensive notes, the volume concludes with a useful bibliographical guide for each essay.

The volume opens with a short essay by Jeffrey Denton framing their historical questions. It also provides a brief introduction to scholarly approaches towards social orders and hierarchies. Although Denton makes clear that the volume is neither a survey nor a historical overview of early modern society, a more substantial reflection on the historiography of medieval orders would make the volume more useful for students. The importance of Duby's The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined is noted in the introduction as well as in notes throughout the collection, but there is no sustained reflection in the volume of how debates over that work and other studies on hierarchies have developed.

The first essay, Stephen Rigby's "Approaches to Pre-Industrial Social Structure", is primarily concerned with methodology and specifically the application of closure theory to medieval society. This theory, drawn from Weberian sociology, represents a synthesis of Marxist and functionalist approaches (the relative strengths and weakness of which are addressed at the beginning of the chapter). To historians who complain that sociological theory appears to predetermine conclusions, Rigby counters that closure theory offers, instead, an analytical framework and vocabulary, as well as a way of clarifying existing questions and suggesting new ones. He adds that its lack of empiricism makes it particularly useful as a descriptive tool for historians who study social inequalities both within and between classes. This essay may be the most difficult to comprehend in the collection given that many students lack familiarity with sociological theory and language. Brief historical examples do help make the discussion more concrete. For instance, applying closure theory to the debate over whether medieval England was a society based on class or one of orders, Rigby compares how access to wealth and its resulting power and status varied between lay and clerical possessors. This example and others lead him to conclude that "although the importance of its class relations means that medieval England was not simply a 'society of orders', it was, most certainly, a 'society with orders' since the 'vertical division' between the clergy and laity was one of the main features which gave medieval society its specificity." (21)

Antony Black's "European and Middle Eastern Views of Hierarchy and Order in the Middle Ages: a Comparison" focuses on three factors which distinguished Islamic society from its medieval European counterpart: a stronger emphasis on the differences between the state and its people, a hierarchal model for society as a whole, and a stress not on horizontal but on vertical divisions based on kinship groups and those of a religious character. (29-32) While there also were similarities, for example that parts of each society were characterized by labor, only in Europe did group identity become the basis of political participation. This short but dense essay should be particularly useful for students of world history, as Black concentrates on how basic models for society differed in Middle Eastern and European society.

The third essay, "Dante: Order, Justice and the Society of Orders", turns to literary sources as markers of social change. Although Dante never invoked a tripartite division of society as a basis for analysis or evaluation in any of his works, Spencer Pearce argues that he did value social distinctions as a reflection of a moral hierarchy. (44-45) Thus Convivio, the Commedia, and other writings reflect critiques of those responsible for moral and political government and demonstrate how Dante developed an ideal of an earthly order based on justice and human reason. This order consisted of political, religious, and philosophical spheres. Each was meant to be supreme in its own area: the goal of political life was to lead humans to temporal happiness; as leader of the Christian faith, the pope was responsible for bringing humans to eternal life through revelation; and the philosopher should arrive at those truths which are accessible to reason. (53) If each sphere respected its own area, Dante argued that peace and concord should result, unlike his own world which was marked by social upheaval and political strife.

The chronicles of Jean Froissart are well known to medievalists for their laudatory portrayal of great men and chivalrous culture. As an author, Froissart is primarily interested in the promotion of aristocratic ideology, which has led medievalists to characterize his social perspective as conservative. However, in "Froissardian Perspectives on Late Fourteenth-Century Society", Peter Ainsworth examines how the chronicle sometimes subverts the social order it claims to uphold. The conflict between the townspeople and guilds of Ghent and their overlord, Count Louis de Male, serves as a case in point. This narrative is unlike other sections of the chronicle. While Froissart is often 'journalistic' in his approach--concerned to report accurately what occurred, in this episode he creates dialogue and even engages in a theological reading of events. Ainsworth suggests that this gloss may demonstrate some degree of sympathy for the citizens of Ghent or perhaps a recognition of the growing power of the citizenry. But the change in discourse, he argues, also may indicate that Froissart wondered who really was on the higher moral ground in this dispute. Thus Ainsworth suggests that there is a difference between the conservative chronicler and the more ambivalent chronicle which leaves open the meaning of the revolt and its indication of social change. (72)

Paul Binski's essay begins with a salutary reminder that art is not merely illustrative, but rather possesses its own agency. (74-75) "Hierarchies and Orders in English Royal Images of Power" analyzes how differences between artistic representations and other forms of discourse are blurred. Henry III's Great Seal, for example, consciously alluded to the seal of Edward the Confessor. Binski shows how the later seal demonstrates parallel developments between art, hagiography and other contemporary symbols for specific purposes, here the earliest emergence of a coherent mythology of kingship. (88) Images also document reactions to social change. Binski considers how the Westminster portrait of Richard II reproduces the court ritual in which subjects had to bow before the king: "far from being a representation of the ideal unassailable monarch, [it] stands as a monument to royal paranoia." (82) These and other examples demonstrate that for the English royal court, image making was a conscious and sophisticated process.

Maurice Keen's "Heraldry and Hierarchy: Esquires and Gentlemen" examines the expansion of the knightly ranks between 1300-1500 in England. He argues that the elevation of these groups to the nobility was not the formation of a new class, but rather a shift in their demarcation resulting from a recognition of their martial function and the rise of their social profile. (100) Yet this shift also came to reflect a change in their function. By the fifteenth century the nobility came to be defined by their role in parliament and their pedigree, rather than by lineage and military role. (108) Moreover, Keen contends that the emphasis on hierarchy and its gradations in late medieval English society absorbed social pressures that might otherwise have developed into overt tensions. As in other cases presented in this volume, Keen sees this move as essentially conservative since it was intended to maintain the status quo.

Michael Bush's focus on English popular uprisings offers an interesting point of comparison to Keen's article. "The Risings of the Commons in England, 1381-1549" begins with an examination of the common characteristics of these movements: they were well organized, highly politicized but not anti- royal, and supported by a wide range of people. Bush argues that these revolts "were a part of the corrective machinery associated with the society of orders, the purpose of which was to ensure that society abided by its basic ideals". (117) The rebels of 1381 criticized Robin Hood, yet praised Piers Plowman as a commoner who strives to return society to its proper state. (116-7) Through case studies of this and other revolts, Bush thus demonstrates that an ideal of a society of orders also existed from "below".

The last two articles work particularly well together as they offer different approaches to how concepts of hierarchy and order worked in two city-states dominated by commercial oligarchies. David Rheubottom uses anthropological models to analyze the reality of political life in "Tidy Structures and Messy Practice: Ideologies of Order and the Practicalities of Office-holding in Ragusa". He focuses specifically on whether the patricians who held governmental offices actually perceived the stability which modern historians claim resulted from regular and successful elections. Rheubottom finds that the experience of office-holding depended on both size and composition of Ragusa's Great Council, which increased or shrank according to demographic patterns. Through prosopography, he demonstrates that shifting numbers of available men (reflected in the changing shape of the council) meant that competition for the most important offices could vary significantly, as could relative political influence. Rheubottom concludes that the perceived stability is a historical mirage.

As for Ragusa, trade was also important to Venice whose nobility, unlike nobility elsewhere in Europe, readily engaged in commerce. In "'Three Orders of Inhabitants': Social Hierarchies in the Republic of Venice", Brian Pullan explains that Venetians did think of themselves as a society of orders. Its hierarchy, however, was not the traditional trifunctional model, but rather one defined by the Great Council (nobles), the Chancery of citizen bureaucrats ( cittadini ordinari), and the guilds. The first two groups had very similar interests defined by stable government and trade. Although they might have similar economic and social power, the nobles and cittadini ordinari held different offices and served different functions in government. (162) Craft and religious guilds were numerous in Venice and had their own internal and external hierarchies, but they played no political role. Yet all three were bonded by their sense of identity as Venetians. Pullan's article closes the volume with an evaluation of why it makes more sense to speak of Venice as a society of orders, rather than one of class in a traditional Marxian sense, thus returning the readers, in a sense, to the first essay.

In considering the collection as a whole, it is surprising that none of the essays examines specifically clerical hierarchies. This is unfortunate given the importance of the oratores in the ubiquitous model of trifunctionality, as well as since legal and political distinctions between the clergy and the laity were fundamental to pre-modern European society, as Denton notes in his introduction. (4) A few essays do address the issue of gender (Rigby and Pullan notably), but given the strength of contemporary research in that field, a focused discussion of the relationship between gender and hierarchy would also be of interest. Nonetheless, the volume will animate discussion among advanced undergraduates as well as in graduate seminars. It can be read profitably by any medievalist.