Fredric L. Cheyette

title.none: Debax, La feodalite languedocienne (Fredric L. Cheyette )

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.014 04.12.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Fredric L. Cheyette , Amherst College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Debax, Helene. La feodalite languedocienne XI-XII siecles: serments, sommages et fiefs dans le Languedoc des Trencavel. Tolouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2003. Pp. 403. ISBN: $44.00 2-85816-651-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.14

Debax, Helene. La feodalite languedocienne XI-XII siecles: serments, sommages et fiefs dans le Languedoc des Trencavel. Tolouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2003. Pp. 403. ISBN: $44.00 2-85816-651-X.

Reviewed by:

Fredric L. Cheyette
Amherst College

It is a pleasure to welcome the revised version of Débax's thesis nouveau régime to print. For this reviewer it is also an astonishing experience. The thesis was presented in 1997, when I had completed all but the first and last chapters of my own Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours (Cornell University Press, 2001). I heard about its subject (without any details) from a colleague in Toulouse, but could neither get to Toulouse to read it nor trust my eyesight to the only likely alternative, a thousand or more pages of microfilmed typescript. I therefore knew nothing about its contents until I sat down a few weeks ago to review it. Ermengard appeared in autumn 2001. Débax could not have read it until sometime in 2002 when she must have been preparing the final version of her book for printing (it came off the press in January 2003). She had it in her hands in time to include the title in her bibliography and to scan it for statements she could disagree with in her footnotes, sometimes pointedly. (More about this later.) Surely, however, her basic arguments and almost all the details were already set by then. Thus we worked separately, without contact with each other, over databases that are in part the same and in part parallel. My next statement will strain credulity, but it is true. The structure and arguments of much of the heart of her thesis, chapters 2-4 on oaths of fidelity and security and chapter 5 on the settlement of conflicts, exactly parallel--sometimes down to small details--the arguments I presented in chapters 10 through 12 of Ermengard. It goes without saying that what she presents in 170 pages is far richer in detail and fuller in annotation than my own 47 pages. This is, after, a thesis, and Débax in proper form has left no document she has read un-reported. Nevertheless, on the essential issues, where we were dealing with the same questions, we say essentially the same thing. What Débax and I seem to have unwittingly accomplished is an historiographical repeatable experiment, demonstrating against at least some post-modernists that historical propositions, even propositions of considerable generality, can be independently arrived at and verified. It is a thrilling, and startling, discovery. I preface my review with all this to warn the reader that I am not unbiased.

The basic source from which Débax draws her data is ms. 10 of the Société Archéologique de Montpellier, the so-called "Trencavel Cartulary" (hereafter CT). This manuscript, containing 615 acts dating from the early eleventh century to 1206, was for long virtually inaccessible to scholars. In 1969 I gained access to it for four weeks, but only after eighteen months of negotiations. Sometime during the 1970s the manuscript was microfilmed (Archives départementales de l'Hérault 1 MI 6), and sometime after 1983 a photographic copy was deposited at the Archives départmentales de l'Aude (3 J 555). Débax therefore had the time to read it carefully for the many texts that the Benedictine scholars, Devic and Vaissete, left unpublished or published in only truncated form or inaccurately in their Histoire générale de Languedoc. (From her notes it appears that errors are not uncommon in the texts they transcribed.) She has proved to be a reader more than worthy of the cartulary's riches.

To all save specialists in Occitan history and literature, the Trencavels are virtually unknown. (I once urged J.R. Strayer to include an article on them in the Dictionary of the Middle Ages and later urged W.W. Kibler to include one in the Garland encyclopedia on medieval France, both times in vain.) Yet in the mid-twelfth century, at their height, they exercised power over a region that stretched from Albi and the southern hills of Rouergue to the Mediterranean and from the neighborhood of Toulouse to the edge of the Rhone valley. They were the principal regional players in what Débax refers to as the "hundred years war" between Toulouse and Barcelona for hegemony in what is now southern France. Because the last of the reigning line died in prison within a few months of the start of the Albigensian Crusades, from the point of view of teleological history--the making of the State (to which Débax pays surprising homage near the end of her book)--their story has been thought to be of only local significance and has, in consequence, been largely ignored.

In her first long chapter (pp. 23-99) Débax presents a political history of Occitania in the eleventh and twelfth century, focusing on the counts of Carcassonne and their successors, the Trencavels (who, with the exception of two suspect charters, never display a title more august than viscount). The difficulty of Débax's task here should not be underestimated. There are no contemporary narrative sources to provide even a basic chronology. The entire project must be based on charters alone--treaties, quit-claims, and other records of dispute settlements, occasional mention of political events in gifts to saints, and the like. In a world where the fund of given names was tiny, family names were unknown, and among those who boasted titles only the house of Toulouse regularly attached city names to their countships, even figuring out who were the participants in a particular treaty, alliance, or pacification, is sometimes difficult. The practice of co-lordship and shared titles within the families of the high aristocracy only complicates matters. Débax cuts her way through this jungle with painstaking attention both to detail and to developing a general understanding of the underpinnings of dynastic politics. As a result, her account of eleventh-century regional politics is probably as good as one may ever expect.

The house of Toulouse, she argues, was already in decline in the early eleventh century, at least in their western territories. Drawn to their lordships in the Rhone valley, they never really established a stable power center in and around Toulouse. Those who had been their viscounts in the region in the tenth century gradually established their independence, among them the family that would form one branch of the Trencavel ancestry in the Albigeois, the southern Rouergue, and Nímes. The other great lords of western Occitania were counts in Carcassonne and its region and in control of the mountainous region to the south and west. It is in her reconstruction of the complex conflicts among the multiple branches of this family that Débax truly shows her mettle. She presents a careful and fully plausible account of the relations between the two main branches of this family, the houses of Foix and Carcassonne, before the death of count Roger in 1067, as well as the involvement of both branches in the affairs of Narbonne and the neighboring Pyreneean counties. Her account of the critical turning point in this story in 1067-70--when Ermengard, count Roger's sister, and her husband Raymond-Bernard Trencavel allied themselves with the count of Barcelona to lay claim to the Carcassonne inheritance--in general follows the one I presented in 1988 [[1]], while modifying some important details. Her narrative thins out, however, in the twelfth century, especially the period after 1130, when the documents in CT no longer provide as rich a harvest. (There is no footnote reference to my own extended treatment of the subject in Ermengard, one of the many signs that, hard pressed for time, she could give the book only a cursory look.)

Chapters 2-5 are the core of her book, announced as la féodalité in her title, a study of the 322 oaths of fidelity and security, 82 infeudations, and 55 concords which form the bulk of CT. Débax uses the word féodalité narrowly to mean fief-holding, the oaths associated with it, the attendant obligations, and the customary rules surrounding these practices. Her opponent here is primarily E. Magnou-Nortier. Because Débax focuses almost exclusively on the CT, and the fief roturier, a common form of landholding in pre-Crusades Occitania is but slightly represented there, the center of her concern is not primarily with fiefs as such but with the oaths. She distinguishes two forms, oaths of fidelity and oaths of security, while admitting that the boundaries between the two are fluid; indeed, the lack of strict typology in the formulation of these oaths made them flexible instruments for eleventh- and twelfth-century Occitan lords and here makes them particularly fruitful documents for Débax's analysis. Oaths of fidelity were given for castles; they contained the critical promise to render on demand the castle for which the oath was given. Oaths of security were more general promises not to injure and, often, to offer aid when requested. The former created the social/political hierarchy among lords and the fighting men who served them. The latter were the instruments of peace-making and alliance.

Because of the peculiar features of the oaths, Débax chooses to treat them as rituals. (In Ermengard, I used the rather stronger term "liturgy.") The castles for which oaths of fidelity were given, she notes, may often in fact be only parts of castles, either physical parts or possession for part of the year--one of the several consequences of the practice of co-lordship within families. Débax therefore calls the "castles"at the center of the oaths "unités de compte." (On p. 157, n. 86, she criticizes me for, among other things, calling them "tokens," which I believe is the equivalent.) In the documented cases where castles were given "ad alodem" and then received back "ad feudum" we are looking at "un habillage juridique" for the act of entering into dependence or alliance (exactly the point I am making in the text she criticizes on p. 157). These fiefs could be bequeathed or alienated to someone outside the family; they were "un bien parmi d'autres," she writes on p. 170 (after criticizing me, p. 156 n. 83, for saying the same thing). Gradually, during the course of the twelfth century, certain practices developed to restrict or control these transfers and alienations, though it would be "abusive," she writes, to call these practices "customary law."

Other aspects of the oaths that point to their ritual character are their apparent "negative" character (the oath-taker promises not to do certain things), the identification of both the oath-taker and the oath-receiver by their given names and the names of their mothers, and the language of the oaths as they are recorded (often either entirely or partially in Occitan). On the first topic she insists that the "obsession with treason" in the texts points to an implicit code of fidelity, whose positive content is to be found in the lyrics of the troubadours (only the briefest discussion of this last on p. 127, without reference to my Ermengard, chapter 13). On the second topic she rejects previous attempts at explanation (including my own reference to ancient Mediterranean magical practices which continued through the Middle Ages at least in the Jewish community) and argues instead, with considerable imagination, that this was a way to remove the two participants from their normal familial context and turn the oath-created nexus into an alternative familial relationship. On the third topic she argues that the language reflects (though it does not record) the language in which the oath was taken because there was no existing legal practice or rite derived from Roman tradition whose Latin formula could be used. The novelty of the practice pushed in the direction of scribal innovation, especially since those who recorded the oaths may not have been clergy but literate laymen.

Within this framework Débax then unpacks in considerable detail the terms of the oaths homo, miles, fideles, senior, auxilium et consilium, etc.), the complexity of practices associated with them (homage, multiple fidelities, forfeiture), and the development of terms to distinguish honorable, aristocratic fief-holding from that of commoners.

In Chapter 5 she turns to modes of dispute settlement by agreement, mediation, and arbitration. The general pattern she presents is the one long explored by Stephen D.White, Barbara Rosenwein, Patrick Geary, and myself, but here again laid out in detail, every stage described and documented with examples from CT. Chapter 6 is devoted first to the divisions among the Trencavel brothers and cousins during the twelfth century and then to a rather thin account of the sources of their power. The thinness is attributable to Débax's decision to limit herself to what is documented in the CT. (The text there that is most informative about lordly over peasants concerns a village lordship of the monastery of St-Pons-de-Thomires, not the Trencavels themselves.[[2]]

After her long discussion of the complexities of noble fidelity, it is a bit odd to see Débax arguing in her last chapter that true power must rest on fear and command. She quotes with approval Thomas Bisson's remark that "men appointed to guard castles...behaved not as agents as lords on the make.... Nowhere was it possible to delegate power." Thus she interprets the lines in which the poet of the Chanson de la Croisade describes the young Raymond Roger Trencavel--"Those of his country, over whom he was lord had no fear of him, but played with as if he were their companion"--as a demonstration of weakness rather than strength. She does not consider the same poet's description of the king of Aragon's companions as "his men, his friends, and his lovers." [[3]] In consequence she does not explore the possible alternative sources of strength that twelfth-century (rather than later "state" forms of government) might have had. These remain to be explored using the CT and other documents from the region: the multi-generational loyalty of many of the "faithful," the role of the vicarii as castellans as well as agents, the local wealth and familial ties of these agents, and the tools of patronage which lords of Trencavel status and wealth could exploit, all of which served to build those networks of men, friends, and lovers. It is to be hoped that Débax will find the time to attend to these questions, since none but she has such full command of the documentation.

Of errors I note only a few, and these simple oversights; I mention them only so that people exploring particular topics will not be inadvertently misled. The Trencavel genealogy makes Raymond Bernard Trencavel rather than his wife Ermengard the offspring of Rangard de la Marche (correct in the genealogy of the counts of Carcassonne). On p. 171 Débax states that Cecilia was the only Trencavel widow to receive oaths of fidelity and security in her own name, when on several different occasions in the book she mentions the oaths given to Ermengard of Carcassonne. (Here in passing is another problem to be explored: why is there only one woman castellan documented in the CT, when we know of so many others from other documentation?) And as interesting as it would be to find the Book of Miracles of Sainte Foy mentioning arbitration (p. 239), I think that "arbitria" in the phrase "Tum ut fiat ubi arbitria hominum habentur pro legibus" is to be translated "will," or even better "willfulness." These are minor slips in an otherwise exceptional thesis, well deserving the praise that Pierre Bonnassie, her thesis director, lavishes upon it in his preface.


[[1]] F. L Cheyette, "The 'Sale' of Carcassonne to the Counts of Barcelona (1067-1070) and the Rise of the Trencavels," Speculum 63 (1988): 826-64.

[[2]] See Ermengard, pp. 134-9.

[[3]] William of Tudela, Chanson de la croisade, 1: 70.