As its title implies, this book deals with a rather broad issue on several levels and as such might appear at first blush to be somewhat overreaching. However, as a result of his superb research, impeccable organization and disciplined writing style, Marios Costambeys, a Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool, has been able to synthesize enormous amounts of data into a coherent and insightful study that remains faithfully within the parameters of its main thesis.
Specifically the book argues that "the particular type of institution that Farfa was arose from the social conditions of central Italy in the eighth century, most particularly in the region in which it stood, the Sabina" (60). What was particular about the "region in which it stood" was that, although, until the later eighth century, it was under Lombard rule, the Sabina's geographic proximity to Rome resulted in a constant potential for papal interference. This potential increased significantly after the advent of Carolingian rule in the 770's and 780's and with it the numerous pacta between the Carolingian regime and the papacy dealing with property rights in the former Lombard possessions.
What is remarkable, however, is the fact that, notwithstanding how easily the Abbey of Farfa might have become a pawn in the power struggles between competing regimes, be they Roman and Lombard, Lombard and Carolingian, or ultimately papal and imperial, throughout the eighth and ninth centuries Farfa retained considerably more than a modicum of self determination. It remained capable of petitioning for and obtaining privileges not commonly granted to peer institutions of the period, and even gained special protected status from the Carolingian imperial powers. Moreover, notwithstanding the symbiotic relationship between the Abbey and the aristocracy of the surrounding areas (Costambeys supplies countless details of land grants by the local elites, and notes as well how many of its monks came from those same families) its abbots, irrespective of ethnic or cultural origin, seemed quite capable of putting the interests of the Abbey ahead of those of its benefactors when such interests conflicted.
Precisely what led to the Abbey's unique character and status, Costambeys shows, is a result of a series of factors--geographical, historical and social--that resulted in the Abbey's independence most often being beneficial to all of its patrons, from local landowners to regional dukes, from the bishop of Rome to the emperor himself. Before considering those factors though, Costambeys is careful in Chapter One to examine thoroughly and justify the source materials on which he bases his study and his conclusions. The documentary evidence on which he relies is substantial and demonstrates that although the Abbey was nominally under the administrative rule of the Dukes of Spoleto, ducal power in the area was mediated through the local aristocracy. How this affected the Abbey's character and role in local affairs is explored in subsequent chapters.
Chapter Two looks at another factor that also contributed to Farfa's unique status. Here Costambeys provides a painstakingly detailed examination of patronage and the Lombard rulers at the time of the Abbey's establishment and proposes that royal patronage of abbeys like Farfa was beneficial in that it allowed them, at least nominally, to harness control of fiscal lands. Concomitantly, donations to the Abbey by landowners, whose own sons might in turn become monks at the Abbey allowed a family to manage land without threat to local interests. At the same time, Costambeys shows convincingly in Chapter Three, as the Abbey became more and more of a local concern, both through donations by local landowners and through the local origins of many of its monks, its local nature became increasingly detached from its distant rulers in Rieti. As a result, the dukes' control of land in the area became increasingly dependent upon local officials, the Abbey and its patrons. Thus ducal donations to the Abbey made the duke himself a participant in dispute resolution, which as Costambeys points out was more a game of compromise than a judicial system based on judgment and enforcement.
The increasingly local character of the Abbey is shown most clearly in Chapter Five in which Costambeys considers the monks and abbots of Farfa and their respective identities and affiliations. It is clear from the documentary evidence that many of the monks hailed from the surrounding area. But this is by no means unique to Farfa. Its abbots, on the other hand, were quite frequently "Franks" (though as Costambeys points out, such an appellation does little other than to indicate transalpine origin.) This did not, however, result in an influx of "Frankish" thought, influence or culture in the life of the Abbey. Rather it seems that irrespective of their origins the abbots of Farfa quickly adjusted to its unique local character and became staunch protectors of the Abbey's independence.
Given the local nature and interest of the Abbey of Farfa, and the interest of the Sabine elites in maintaining its particular character, is not surprising that the fall of Lombard rule in the region did not bring immediately noticeable change in the status quo. In many respects then the Abbey of Farfa, at least until the ninth century, enjoyed a status similar to that of medieval Venice in as much as its independence suited the interests of a variety of stakeholders. Indeed, as the fall of the Lombards became increasingly inevitable in the mid 770's and a number of Spoletans swore allegiance to the papacy, Farfa remained somewhat autonomous. Recognizing the danger inherent in looking to Rome for protection (Costambeys notes how anxious the Roman aristocracy was to expand its landholdings into the Sabina), Farfa, through its Abbot Probatus, instead appealed to Charlemagne for protection from papal interests in the ensuing conflict. The requested immunity was granted in 775 and appears to have been for the most part respected. Thus even as the papacy was continuing to negotiate with Charlemagne's heirs for the "return" of lands throughout the peninsula, the numerous pacta of the eighth and ninth centuries respected this privilege. Indeed, Costambeys concludes by observing the notable infrequency of papal expropriations of land in the Sabina. Throughout the eighth and ninth centuries then, the Abbey of Farfa was unique in its ability to function as a genuine corporate body "independent of any particularist interests and under the highest possible level of authority" (352). This situation, he points out, would be very different in the tenth century. Given how effectively Costambeys has treated the Abbey's fortunes in the eighth and ninth centuries, one hopes that he is already at work on a similar examination of its fate in the tenth.