Ermengard of Narbonne? Viscountess Ermengard (ca.1129-1196) is a largely forgotten figure, unknown, as Fredric L. Cheyette admits, even to most medievalists. Several women of the twelfth century figure in our contemporary imaginations -- among them Heloise, Hildegard of Bingen, and Eleanor of Aquitaine -- but the viscountess has "fallen off the historical map" (1). Similarly, one guidebook calls Narbonne a "town of fallen fortunes," while others note a surprisingly high crime rate and the baleful presence of a nuclear power plant right outside town. In Ermengard's time, however, Narbonne was a thriving commercial city in the great network of Mediterranean trade. Then, Ermengard herself was as famous as Eleanor, her name sung by court poets as far away as the Norse Orkneys. Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours is a spectacular recreation of the times in which Ermengard lived that also offers an explanation for why historians have largely ignored or misunderstood the distinctive society in which she lived and ruled for half a century. To remind the reader of his point, the author refers to the Mediterranean coast and hinterlands he describes as "Occitania" rather than "southern France." With melancholy nostalgia, he depicts a powerful woman in her vibrant and doomed society. To be clear at once: this is a fabulous book.
Those expecting a great deal in the way of biographical detail will be disappointed. Cheyette's long search has unearthed only sixty-four archival documents that bear Ermengard's name. There are, in addition, troubadour lyrics and details from less reliable later sources, like the vida of the troubadour Peire Rogier, said to have been Ermengard's lover. It is on the archival documents that Cheyette bases his unsentimental account, and they tell nearly nothing about what we would call Ermengard's inner life. Chapter One, "The Viscountess Comes of Age," sets the stage. Ermengard was heir to Narbonne as a small child. The central events of the chapter are the still very young Ermengard's marriage to Count Alphonse Jordan of Toulouse in 1142, the dissolution of that marriage a year later, and Ermengard's remarriage. With meticulous attention to the scanty evidence, Cheyette shows that although these marriages may have been of personal import to Ermengard, their real meaning was to serve as her introduction to the realities of rulership and power in her region. Her first marriage was designed to seal a coup, another step in a plan by the ambitious counts of Toulouse to seize the title and wealth of Narbonne's ruling family. Its end came only after war between Alphonse and Ermengard's allies. The second marriage was no more a love match, apparently: her second husband simply vanishes from the historical record and was never part of the viscountess's entourage. Safe from fortune hunters, Ermengard could begin to rule in earnest -- and fulfill obligations to those who had rescued her and her city. This series of events constituted "a political education of far more importance than any sexual or domestic initiation" (24). Ermengard learned who her allies and enemies were and proceeded to navigate the treacherous waters of Occitan politics until another coup, fifty years later and from within her own family, permanently ended her rule.
This first chapter, like those that follow, is chock-full of names, places, and details. The unspooling of such minutiae is, at first, somewhat unnerving. But Cheyette, historian and storyteller, knows exactly what he's doing. As a collection of findings, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours ranks with the great series of French regional studies going back fifty years to Georges Duby's classic book on the Mâconnais. As narrative, however, this book is far superior. Cheyette often starts chapters by presenting an event as described in a document -- the first chapter begins with Ermengard's marriage contract with Alphonse -- and then examines, explains, and contextualizes by drawing upon other documents, other stories, other events. Slowly we come to know the people, settings, and events that make up Ermengard's story, a private life, Cheyette finds, that was lived out in public (12). The first chapter has two key themes: the intricacy of Occitan politics in the twelfth century and the importance of women, before Ermengard's time and during it, in carrying out the duties of lordship, rulership, and warfare. Indeed, the regularity and ease of women's participation in Occitan public life can only mean that they were trained to excel in it. This is only the first way in which twelfth-century Occitania challenges easy assumptions about the functioning of medieval society.
The book is divided into four sections in addition to an introduction, the first chapter, and an epilogue. "Ermengard's City" contains five chapters explaining the history, social and economic structure, and the organization of power in eleventh- and twelfth-century Narbonne. By Ermengard's time, the city was probably the richest in coastal Occitania, a wool manufacturing center but more importantly the intersection of trade routes north toward England, south into al-Andalus, and eastward across the Mediterranean. Like all members of the elite in this society, Ermengard held widely scattered estates in the countryside, her villages, fields, and castles interspersed with those controlled by other Occitan lords. Because she gathered taxes on all goods sold in her city, Ermengard relied not only on her land but the prosperity of the town's commerce and commercial classes. She even went to the great expense of building a new road leading south from her city toward Roussillon, supplementing the ancient via Domitia that was too close to the coast to be a reliable corridor of people and goods in stormy times. In governing, then, she had to mind the interests of other lords with economic interests inside the city walls and further afield, of urban merchants and bankers, and of the archbishops, who shared revenues from trade and were the most important rivals of the vicecomital family -- even when they were members of that family.
The second and third sections are "The Sinews of Power: Lordship and Serfdom" and "The Sinews of Power: The Culture of Fidelity." Seven chapters detail first the Occitan practices of serfdom and lordship, then the ritual and psychological patterns and customs that supported them. The domina Ermengard was but one lord among many, and like others wielded her influence in a fragile and ever-changing landscape of power. Cheyette argues, drawing on anthropologists and medievalists influenced by them, that this labyrinthine social and political world was less "stateless" than reliant on relations between individuals and groups. Community and communities were constantly made and remade, their cohesion dependent on oaths and rituals that accompanied them, the exchange of gifts to end quarrels or reaffirm social hierarchies, and a language of love and fidelity common to Latin oaths and vernacular poetry. In sketching the mentality of this world, Cheyette often draws on troubadour song. Here the tools and methods of history, anthropology, and literary analysis work together.
The final section, "Dynastic Politics, 1162-1196" returns to the political narrative begun in the chapter on Ermengard's marriages. In the first two decades of her rule, Ermengard had maintained an alliance with her cousins, the counts of Barcelona, with the aid of the lords of Montpellier and the Trencavel family, rulers over the most important cities adjacent to Narbonne -- Béziers to the east, Carcassonne to the west -- and also of Albi, Adge, and Nîmes. The chief rivals of this coalition were the counts of Toulouse, who also held territory in the Rhône valley and Provence. But in 1162 a boy of five succeeded to the county of Barcelona, and Count Raymond V, the son of Ermengard's first husband, saw his chance to attack a now weakened alliance and continue his father's work. For many years, Raymond V labored to build an Occitan and Provençal empire, neutralizing Ermengard and some of her other allies -- or their heirs, since the generation of high lords whom Ermengard knew as a young viscountess was disappearing. In 1177, Raymond even occupied Narbonne as his father had done a generation earlier. This event precipitated the restoration of the old coalition against the house of Toulouse, but did not succeed in stemming what Cheyette calls the ravaging of Occitania, decades of brutal warfare often carried out by mercenaries. And there was another ominous development: Raymond, portraying himself as the beleaguered guardian of Catholic orthodoxy imperilled by heresy, called in monks from Burgundy to stamp out these enemies of Christ, and even suggested that the king of France -- who played virtually no role in Occitan politics in the twelfth century -- should be called in to put the evil-doers to the sword. King Louis VII did not arrive, but missionary monks did, holding inquisitions in Toulouse and Béziers before returning north, having made limited progress in wiping out heterodoxy. However, the idea of domestic holy war had been formulated. As the epilogue narrates, in the early thirteenth century popes, missionary preachers, and northern warriors allied in the Albigensian Crusade. The northerners won a twenty-year war, and Occitania and its society disappeared as the region became Languedoc or simply southern France. Ermengard did not live to see the destruction of the society and culture in which she played so active a role: exiled by her nephew and heir in 1192, she died in 1196 in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
No description of contents, even one far more detailed than that just given, can adequately convey the richness of this book. Many chapters, while illustrating one or more aspects of Ermengard's experience or the society in which she ruled, serve also as essays in medieval history or historiography, often contrarian ones. By focusing his portrait of an age on Ermengard, Cheyette poses questions of gender roles and women in power. One distinctive aspect of Occitan society was the public role of women, not just Ermengard but others discussed at length in Chapter One. Later, Cheyette confronts a generation of scholarship that has seen courtly literature as fantastic and ultimately misogynist in its removal of women from the "real world." But the world of love and fidelity, hatred, anger, betrayal, and reconciliation was the real world of Occitan politics. Troubadour poetry re-enforced the values that underlay political dealings - which "could only have enhanced the power of women rulers" and served to "promote the legitimacy of the domna" (247). The challenges to female rulership come not from within Occitan society but without (see 216-217), and its practice by Ermengard is only one "unmedieval" feature of a society with others, including toleration of religious heterodoxy (322-330). In Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen, Cheyette explains other reasons why Occitania was fertile ground for the Cathars and yet how they were more densely settled in some parts of the region than others. Throughout, Cheyette describes lordship as a highly personal and fragile institution, with shared rights of properties and prerogatives in complexly fragmented holdings across the landscape. Ermengard may have occasionally referred to her own special lordship as viscountess, her potestativum, but she operated much like other lords, supervising a bewildering array of lands, castles, rights, and people. "We are far here from the textbook images of life on the medieval manor," Cheyette remarks drily (134). The same could be said concerning serfdom, the subject of Chapter Eight (149-167). Here we find documents full of serfs whose obligations to their lords are modest, often including neither labor service nor a share of profits; indeed, many serfs did not hold their lands of those who owned them, working them on behalf of another lord or even possessing them outright. A serf might have multiple lords and even be a lord to someone else. Here is a world of highly various and diffused power relations of various kinds where "[t]he stack of lordships could be deep and deeply fragmented"(165). Experts will debate the extent to which Cheyette's conclusions about gender, lordship, serfdom, power, and religious belief and practice are correct and will ask to what extent they might apply elsewhere, challenging as they do so many assumptions or truisms about invisible and powerless women, downtrodden serfs, neatly demarcated and executed lordly functions, impoverished parish clergy, and the geography of heresy. On the subject about which I know the most, ecclesiastical ideologies and geopolitics in the twelfth century, Cheyette's analysis, if mordant in its depiction of the orthodox righteous, is up-to-date and persuasive.
Two merits of Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours demand special note. First, Cheyette's scholarly voice, that of a meticulous but passionate storyteller, is beguiling, despite his protest that he has studied historiography too long to take seriously the historian's magisterial rhetorical pose (xii). Cheyette tells good stories. The wonderful scalawag Archbishop Guifred of Narbonne is sketched with gusto even as the author explains how our shock at much of his behavior, starting with his purchased accession to the archbishopric at the age of ten, come from ideas of radical separation of secular and spiritual, lay and clerical, that only began to have impact in Guifred's lifetime. The complicated political narratives are as clear as the subject matter could possibly allow, and Cheyette explains other difficult material well, too. "The medieval mortgage required that the security be handed over to the creditor; the use of revenue from the property was, in effect, the interest on the money loaned"(60). Chapter Four, "City and Countryside," is the best short analysis of the symbiotic relationship between a medieval city and its hinterlands I have ever seen. Cheyette is sometimes witty -- he calls lordly rights to supervision of the via Domitia "police duty or protection racket, depending on one's sense of irony" (213) and notes that "it would be nice to avoid the vexing problem of the Occitan mansus, but we cannot"(157) -- and never dull. Incidents and explanations, a level of detail that might easily baffle, ultimately merge into the portrait of a society. Cheyette is a verbal pointillist: he keeps the whole in mind while making every bit count.
Animated narrative is the main reason Cheyette's book may appeal, as he hopes, to the general reader. Academic historians these days are taught to look askance at well-told stories for fear that they conceal more than they reveal and run roughshod over the complexity of the evidence. Here -- my second point -- is where Cheyette is an historian's historian: his treatment of sources is painstaking and sometimes ingenious. The materials from which he works to reconstruct Occitan society are, at first glance, forbidding: most of his documentation is charters concerning property transactions, agreements about details of castle guard or village profit-sharing, and oaths of fidelity. There is the occasional letter -- two extraordinary ones from Ermengard to King Louis VII are translated on p. 215 and pp. 268-269 -- and troubadour lyric, but no narrative sources at all. Occitania had no tradition of chronicle-writing, producing what T.N. Bisson has called "unheroed pasts." Cheyette relies most of the time on the charters, and he frequently invites the reader to watch him at work with them. Anyone who has toiled with such documents knows that although susceptible to analysis, they are frequently scattered, fragmented, dull, incoherent, and even incomprehensible. Many of them were collected in monasteries and preserved and arranged for purposes far different from recording the nature of society and culture outside the cloister, especially as practiced by secular lords. It takes a dogged researcher to assemble them in useable fashion and a gifted stylist to narrate from them. A glance at the footnotes shows how closely Cheyette hews to these seemingly arid eleventh- and twelfth-century sources. Even in a section on Genoa and its relations to Occitania (87-95), most of the notes refer to twelfth-century Genoese sources. The description of oaths as verbal music and ritual, with mystic idiosyncracies like matronymics unseen in any other twelfth-century Occitan documents (188-192), is breathtaking. So is Chapter Thirteen, "Love and Fidelity," which juxtaposes dry Latin charters and vernacular poetry to explain how, in this society, feeling and thought, emotion and reason, private and public, are not separate.
Largely absent from this portrait of the viscountess and her age are the places where so many of the documents were preserved: monasteries. Women and men, secular and clerical, the upright and scamps, people the pages of Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours, but monasteries are usually only mentioned in the context of something else. Old abbeys like Lézat, Lagrasse (where Ermengard's uncle, later archbishop of Narbonne, was once abbot), and Fontfroide (the burial site of her nephew and many of her entourage), plus new houses of the Templars (like the one in which she died) littered the landscape, more of them in the twelfth century than ever before. What about the old Benedictine houses in Occitan cities? Nunneries -- of which there were a few in Ermengard's Occitania -- are entirely invisible, ironic given the power of this book to shed light on the activities of elite women in the twelfth century. As Cheyette knows, monasteries and their activities were of vital importance to the regional economy (see 70-72), to say nothing of their social and spiritual functions. Ironically, we learn far more about Henry of Marcy, the Burgundian abbot who answered Count Raymond V's call to crusade against heretics, than any monastic figure from Occitania itself. If, on the other hand, monasteries and monastics were marginalized in this society, it is important to explain why.
Ermengard emerges as the hero. Warrior, diplomat, tax-collector, judge, and patron of literature, she ruled fifty years in her turbulent society, frequently challenged and harassed by other lords great and small but not beaten until the very end. She outlived and outmaneuvered two counts of Toulouse, her first husband and then his even more ambitious son Raymond V, routed at last by her own nephew and heir. Ermengard's memory as domna survived in poetry, only to be fully resurrected in history by this book. Cheyette gives us some villains, too, most notably Raymond V, whose imperialist ambitions brought savage mercenary warfare to late twelfth-century Occitania, and whose call to foreigners to aid him against heretics set a precedent that would help destroy his world in the generation after his death. Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours is handsome, too, with good maps, photographs, and reproductions of lithographs. This book, with its recreation of a lost world, its challenge to historians and historiography, and its narrative drive, is extraordinary, brilliant, unique -- and a little sad, even though it goes unmentioned that there is now a McDonalds only a few yards from where Ermengard's palace once stood.