Richard Keyser

title.none: Barton, Lordship in the County of Maine (Richard Keyser)

identifier.other: baj9928.0508.027 05.08.27

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Keyser, Western Kentucky,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Barton, Richard E. Lordship in the County of Maine, c. 890-1160. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xvii, 255. $75.00 1-84383-086-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.08.27

Barton, Richard E. Lordship in the County of Maine, c. 890-1160. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xvii, 255. $75.00 1-84383-086-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Richard Keyser
Western Kentucky

It is a measure of the continuing vitality of the regional monograph that this new book takes its place alongside two other recent studies of Maine in the 900-1200 period.[[1]] The genre has evolved, becoming more focused thematically and more sophisticated methodologically, thus eschewing earlier attempts to describe local society comprehensively. In many cases, as with the book under review here, such studies also explicitly engage with current scholarly debates, thereby helping to make their research significant to a wide audience.

In this stimulating, clearly written book, Richard Barton uses evidence from Maine and the bordering counties of Anjou, Blois, and Normandy to explore the character of aristocratic lordship in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Drawing primarily on monastic charters and notices, but also availing himself of the richer narratives provided by episcopal gesta and historical chronicles, the author treats lordship broadly as a set of practices and cultural understandings by which lords dominated others, maintained their own honor, and interacted with their peers. In this view, lordship not only entailed relations of domination and dependence (2-4),[[2]] but was also based on charisma, which the author defines as "the intangible concordance of a person's reputation, honor, and personal standing" (7). Barton's central argument is that, whereas the qualitative aspects of lordship, especially status, honor, and interpersonal relations, have traditionally received little scholarly attention, they were in fact critical, indeed often paramount, in shaping aristocratic mentality and exercise of power. In contrast, other, more tangible factors, including landholding, kinship, law, and institutions, which historians have often tried to define with an illusory, juridical precision, were all less crucial than traditionally thought. A second, related argument concerns the much-debated question of the feudal "transformation" or "revolution" that has loomed so large in recent French historiography. Barton aligns himself with those who argue for continuity, holding that the basic character of lordly power, if not its political context, was stable over this period.

Barton is particularly indebted to legal and cultural anthropology and the numerous medievalists who have been similarly inspired over the last generation, such as Stephen White, Patrick Geary, and Dominique Barthélemy. Like these scholars, he argues for the fluid, negotiated, character of interpersonal relations among the aristocracy, for the constructive role of disputing and even violence, and for the secondary importance of the "rules" of kinship and law. His specific arguments on these points represent not so much new insights as the application of what are now widely--if not universally--shared ideas to a detailed study of one region. This book thus helps to articulate an anthropologically-informed approach to the central Middle Ages, one that might be seen as representing, at least for many American historians of France, a new historical paradigm.[[3]] Beyond this, Barton's original contribution consists of his focus on aspects of aristocratic mentality and behavior that have until recently been less studied by historians. He succeeds in presenting a coherent and often convincing account of this 'culture of power.'

Yet there are also problems. First, although Barton is surely right to see both domination and charisma as elements of lordship, he does not explain clearly enough or consistently abide by his expanded meaning of this concept. At times he uses "lordship" in the stricter sense of relations of domination, thus contrasting the "vertical" ties of lordship with "the horizontal bonds of family and community" (16). More frequently, the term serves as a label for the whole gamut of behaviors and attitudes that he discusses, including not only hierarchical relations, but also individual personality, status, honor, and even interactions among peers (e.g. 19, 223). Probably no one word or concept can cover all of these phenomena. A second, more serious problem is that many of the book's points depend on an overly sharp opposition between the juridical and the non-juridical approaches to or aspects of lordship, coupled with an often polemical argument for the "primacy of interpersonal relations, of status, and of honor" (18). Thus Barton tends to omit a full exposition of the other side of his oppositions. For example, although he recognizes the existence of "a few fundamental principles of custom" in property law (215), he does not carefully examine these customary norms. Yet even if such rules were few and flexible, they still require analysis. Discussions of kinship, inheritance (at least below the comital level), and religion are also very limited. Instead of systematically opposing the material and juridical to the affective and personal elements of lordship, it might have been more productive to explore in greater detail their interaction. Nonetheless, there is some truth in Barton's claim that his own emphasis on the "ego-centric view...of power, self, and relative status" helps to compensate for a traditional concentration on "law and institutions" (220-1).[[4]]

Finally, although the author supports most of his points with appropriate and skillfully interpreted evidence, he also has an unsettling tendency to rely on the secondary literature to fill in key gaps in his sources. Sometimes the coherence of the argument seems to come at the price of imposing on the sources ready-made schemes, albeit ones deriving from anthropology rather than law. This deductive approach no doubt stems in part from the difficulty, which Barton recognizes, of reconstructing "the mentalities of lords" (5), given that "almost none of the sources...contain explicit mentions of individual aristocratic motivations" (9). Although this problem is most acute in the poorly-documented period before ca. 1030, it also crops up elsewhere.

This attractively published book includes footnotes, a genealogy of the counts of Maine, four maps, a bibliography, and an index. One regrets, however, the absence of genealogies for the sub-comital families. A chronological list or table of sources would also have helped readers assess the relative density of evidence for different periods. Along with an introduction and conclusion, there are eight chapters, which can be divided into two chronological sections.

The first four chapters treat the period before the collapse of comital power ca. 1035. Chapter one describes how first Carolingian royal power, and then the regional power of the Robertian dukes of Neustria, disappeared by about 960, leaving the counts of Le Mans, Blois, Anjou, and other western counties fully independent. Yet these changes, he argues, were not revolutionary, because higher levels of authority had always overlain, without replacing, local aristocratic power. The second chapter pursues this theme, showing how competition among local families led to a long-term struggle for power between counts and bishops.

In chapter three, Barton turns to the nature of comital power before ca. 1035, positing reasonably enough that the city of Le Mans and certain other possessions were important loci of power, because they struck "a symbolic and emotional chord with the Carolingian past" (52). In order to apply this idea to the counts' landed domain, however, he suggests, with no direct evidence, that in about 890 the founder of a new comital dynasty "probably" took over his predecessor's estates, in order "to appropriate the tangible as well as the emotional symbols of Carolingian countship" (70). Though introduced tentatively, these ideas are later asserted with little hesitation. He concludes that, because land represented "the inner power of the possessor, ...the prestige of the former possessor rubbed off onto the current holder" (76).

Chapter four examines the counts' relations with their superiors, peers, and followers. In each case, Barton finds that the counts operated within a fluid network of interpersonal relations that were based primarily on considerations of personal honor. He criticizes an over-emphasis on kinship by other scholars, who often infer, for example, a direct connection between marriages and political alliances. But as he points out, such bonds did not in themselves guarantee cooperation. Similarly, Barton shows that others have too hastily assumed the existence of strict bonds of vassalage from the description of one man as another's fidelis, or even from a few appearances in a lord's entourage. Instead, lesser men maintained links with more than one lord; loyalties were "fluid, bilateral, ...[and] not necessarily singular" (99). Yet he also sometimes reads too much into the sources. Thus evidence of a military alliance between three neighboring counts leads the author to insist on "the necessary personal bonds of friendship and lordship that had to link [them]" (87). The case for the centrality of honor finds its most eloquent support in the chroniclers, especially Richer of Reims. This monk describes how, for example, the duke of Neustria interpreted seating arrangements at the king's table as an affront to his honor, one grievous enough to justify his rebellion (108-9). Although Barton recognizes that the duke's anger may have been exaggerated for literary effect, such vignettes probably do reflect a contemporary view of the magnate's prickly sense of honor. Still, such evidence seems a fragile basis for the general claim that "the logic of lordship was at least as likely to involve considerations of personal honor as it was the "rational" pursuit of economic or political dominance" (78).

Introducing the post-1035 period, chapter five confronts the alleged "feudal transformation." Barton accepts that between ca. 900 and 1050 political authority fragmented, as power passed from kings to dukes and counts, and then to castellans. He maintains, however, that these changes were gradual and that the qualitative character of lordship, the way power was exercised, did not change. Like other proponents of continuity, the author thinks historians have misinterpreted these changes because they anachronistically contrast the legitimate "public" authority of tenth-century counts to the illegitimate "private" power of eleventh-century castellans. He notes that, although after 1000 comital courts disappeared, continued use of the term "public" to describe the context of formal decisions shows that the "notion of public action" did not (117). In functional terms, castellans performed many of the same tasks that the counts had before them, such as holding courts, collecting taxes, and defending the locality against invaders (129). As for the "evil customs" noted in so many monastic sources, Barton suggests that they were simply the traditional prerogatives of rural lordship, albeit now exercised by more lords and within new boundaries.

Chapter six extends these arguments by criticizing the idea that the eleventh century saw an increase in violence. Following Barthélemy and Geary, he ascribes the increase of mentions of violence in the sources to better documentation and a resurgent, reform-minded monasticism. Most importantly, perhaps, he provides evidence that the methods of warfare did not change and that most violence by lords was considered legitimate, as part of war, the punishment of wrong-doers, or the maintenance of one's honor. In such contexts, lordly anger and violence often had positive social functions. Noting the lack of evidence for the imposition of a new kind of serfdom in this period, he argues for an "unbroken tradition of serfdom across the entire period from 800 to 1100" (170).

The seventh chapter, probably the best, exploits the rich sources of the 1050-1160 period to analyze disputing and conflict resolution. Adopting the legal anthropologists' emphasis on litigants and process rather than on courts and rules, Barton argues persuasively that disputing was a flexible activity that served to both enhance lordship and restore social harmony. Avowing a "functionalist" approach (177, n. 13), he demonstrates that in many cases disputes, with their "attendant rituals of consultation and advice, formal presentation of claims, and weighing of outcomes..., often served to "strengthen the bonds of friendship between the two parties" (179). This evidence provides valuable support for the importance of affective ties, since the disputants' wives, friends, family, and neighbors often acted as mediators, helping to find acceptable compromises. Yet Barton also recognizes that "most of the cases of compromise...involved parties of relatively equal social status" (190), and that, when one of the parties or the judge enjoyed much greater power, disputes might also be settled by adjudication. Such authoritative judgments were, however, more common in areas under strong rulers, such as the county of Anjou, than where central authority was weak, as in Maine. Even where adjudication was possible, "courts" were not permanent, professional institutions, but rather ad-hoc assemblies whose procedures remained informal and highly flexible. In sum, though lacking formal law and a "state," this society was not anarchic, because it had many self-regulating means of keeping disorder and violence in check.

The final chapter broaches another much-debated topic, fiefs and feudal tenure. Barton accepts that landed property was essential to lordship, because aristocratic relationships "were primarily structured through the granting and receiving of property" (199). Following Susan Reynolds, however, he argues that no one model, feudal or otherwise, can account for the many different types of property and the many ways it was used to structure these relationships. He notes that a key reason for this fluidity in Maine was the lack of effective comital authority after 1030, which inhibited the systematization of tenurial relations. Even after Maine was absorbed by the counts of Anjou in 1110, a legal system based on local custom helped to perpetuate "the inertial, customary power" of a set of closely linked castellan lordships, whose "informal social dominance" persisted through most of the twelfth century (213). He finds that although the term "fief" occasionally referred to the classic model of landed property held in return for military service, it more often described the lord's sphere of influence, e.g., in whose fief some property was held or "moved." Combining this terminological pattern with the more limited evidence for fief-holders' belief in their own full property rights, Barton argues that fief-holders' dependence was not tenurial, but rather "personal and symbolic," or "political and affective" (204-5). In this he may go too far, for it is difficult to interpret the many instances of fief-holders seeking and/or receiving their lord's permission to alienate their fiefs as completely lacking any tenurial element. Indeed, the very fluidity that he has demonstrated might encourage one to think more in terms of a blending, rather than a sharp distinction between, personal and tenurial forms of dependence.

The book leaves off without exploring how changes in governance from the mid-twelfth century onwards may have affected lordship. But this is another story!


[[1]] Daniel Pichot, Le Bas-Maine du Xe au XIIIe siècle: étude d'une société (Laval, 1995). Bruno Lemesle, La société aristocratique dans la Haute-Maine (XIe-XIIe siècles) (Rennes, 1999).

[[2]] Following Thomas Bisson, "Medieval Lordship," Speculum 70 (1995):743-59.

[[3]] For a survey of the historiography on medieval conflict, which puts recent American contributions to French history in a wider context, see Warren Brown and Piotr Gorecki, eds., Conflict in Medieval Europe: Changing Perspectives on Society and Culture (Burlington, VT, 2003), chapters 1 and 14.

[[4]] Both of the works cited in note 1 help to fill in the material and juridical features of aristocratic power.