09.10.13, Reuter, Medieval Polities

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Alison Williams Lewin

The Medieval Review 09.10.13

Reuter, Timothy. Edited by Janet L. Nelson. Medieval Polities and Modern Mentalities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 2006. Pp. xix, 483. ISBN: 978-0-521-82074-5 (hb).

Reviewed by:
Alison Williams Lewin
Saint Josephs University

As Janet L. Nelson states in her introduction, "this book is not just very useful but urgently needed" (xiii). Timothy Reuter noted with some dismay the emphasis in Anglophone studies on English, French, Italian and Spanish medieval history, and the relative paucity of studies of German history and of German medieval historiography. This posthumous volume does a heroic job of correcting that imbalance. Its twenty-two essays, divided into three groups, examine the sprawling entity of The Reich, make clear and careful comparisons between it and its contemporaries, and offer probing analyses of the national, sometimes nationalistic, schools of historiography surrounding each.

Because more than half the book has never appeared in English, it opens new worlds to the medievalist who does not read German at all, or who can, under duress, struggle through German texts and emerge gasping, as Mark Twain said in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth. (I put myself in this latter group.) The sheer wealth of information about courts, rites--and rights--laws, norms, and modern approaches to each is staggering. Add to that the constant vigilance Reuter maintains regarding limitations of amounts and types and evidence and historians' own assumptions and the result is a work of incomparable worth to all historians, a multi-layered model of historical investigation. To gild the lily, Reuter accomplishes all this with an attitude of compassionate collegiality and a gentle self-deprecating sense of humor. Thus Medieval Polities and Modern Mentalities delights as well as informs.

All three sections resonate with one another while each presents a particular focus. Part I addresses one of Reuter's overriding concerns, namely "Modern Mentalities: Historiographies, Methodologies, Preconceptions." These six essays directly challenge the nineteenth-century foundations of the modern discipline of history, and illustrate, from various angles, the ways in which those foundations have shaped the areas and style of historical inquiry down to the present. Medievalists are divided along temporal as well as national lines, and surviving evidence affects the extent to which they can, or want to, create international commonalties as opposed to regional peculiarities. We are left with a paradox: "all these societies may indeed be regional variations of one society, but the variety of evidence obscures this and makes it easy to fall back on a kind of nationalist nominalism..." (8). To begin to resolve it, Reuter pleads for medievalists "to reflect on our working assumptions, on where they come from" and "to acquire greater knowledge and awareness both of how things appear, and of how they are done, elsewhere in Europe" (17-18). This first section also addresses: the institutionalization of medieval history and the obstacles its practitioners face (foreign, to greater or lesser degrees, to those who focus on more modern studies); different regional and rhetorical visions of travel and its dangers; the "feudal revolution"; a review essay of pre-Gregorian mentalities as revealed in four recent publications; and questions of race and ethnicity as tied to a sense of identity.

The second section, "The Symbolic Language of Medieval Political Action," examines another of Reuter's favorite topics, namely the nature and possible interpretations of various nonverbal communications. Again Reuter ranges widely across Europe while focusing on England and the Reich. He has the courage to ask a basic question that confronts any medieval scholar: How did nobles get away with behaving as they did? (113). Once they stopped just hitting people, they developed more subtle ways of presenting themselves in speech and behavior to emphasize their distance from commoners. Self-representation also grounds the essay on Ottonian ruler representation, emphasizing that kingship is a social construct. In the absence of historical content to inform that construct, as was the case for the Ottonians, the ruler's own ceremonial behavior and surroundings played an enormous role in maintaining his position.

Of special interest in Part II are the essays analyzing Henry IV's actions at Canossa, on the one hand, and what "language" surrounded the conflicts of Thomas Becket, the bishops, and Henry II, on the other. In both Reuter paints a finely shaded picture of contemporary European affairs, the nuances of action and emotion, and the intentional theatricality of key participants. Reuter's evidence is impressive, as is his willingness to speculate with great insight on intelligent motivations and interpretations.

Part III, "Political Structures and Intentions" makes up the bulk of the volume, with its 265 pages and twelve articles. Here, sustained by the underlying themes of comparative history and modern historiography, Reuter presents wonderfully engaging miniatures of political institutions, what underlay them as far as we can understand, and what past confusions have perhaps hindered rather than helped our comprehension.

His outstanding ability to decode nonverbal communication guides us clearly and carefully to deeper understandings of assembly politics, what they actually did as opposed to what they showed. Reuter's reading of the circumstances and trial of Queen Uota in the last years of her husband's reign draws connections between their circumstances and those of other rulers in distress. The chapter on plunder and tribute untangles symbolic meanings attached to distributing and receiving tribute, as well as the benefits of raiding and conquest to a small elite, particularly the ruler. An exploration of this topic leads him into an examination of the composition of Carolingian armies, and to the conclusion that small freemen, who had much to lose and little to gain, could not have comprised the bulk of the army. This last point provides a neat entry into an exploration of why and how Carolingian military expansion ceased. Several causes might have led to increased difficulty in raising armies and a defensive attitude as early as 806, but Reuter proposes new lines of argument, focusing first on the wealth of the Franks, which made them an attractive target for others, and second on "a shortage of victims who were both conquerable and profitable" (265). Aggressive wars were not worth the risk and would not pay off.

The following three chapters are the most complex of this section, showcasing Reuter's ability to think on many levels simultaneously, to move seamlessly from evidence to broad perspective to critical analysis of historiography. Self-fashioning reappears in an analysis of the Ottonians' relationship to the Carolingian tradition. Reuter first distinguishes Charlemagne from his successors, who usually suffered unflattering comparison with their almost mythical ancestor. With Otto I, Reuter pushes the question of self-fashioning into the realm of the internal: what did it mean to Otto himself to be king? (275). He was certainly aware he was not Carolingian while there were still Carolingians around; after 987, however, Otto made a pilgrimage to Aachen and took relics from Charlemagne's tomb. He did not, however, appropriate any of Charlemagne's tatism, but no evidence exists that anyone remembered either Charlemagne of the Carolingians in that way. Reuter's most intriguing conclusion is that "the past is not what you thought; it is what you can remember" (281). Clearly the Ottonians and their contemporaries remembered that lineage in ways far distant from present impressions.

Another examination of style and significance follows, in a comparison of "the making of England and Germany, 850-1050." The author brushes away assumptions of unity created by geographical determinism, the obvious but mistaken belief that "peninsulas and islands provide their own justification" (387). Reuter instead presents a list of political similarities between the two kingdoms, yet does not dismiss the considerable differences, one of which was the institutional stability in England that allowed different rulers to assume the throne without causing political crises. Rather than explaining away the differences, Reuter aims to explain them (291). The nature of sources for the two regions show as little congruence as the attitudes of English and German historians regarding the reliability of different kinds of sources. His examination of the real differences is crystal clear, focusing on differences in size, regnal ethnicity, political terminology of each realm, and the laws, customs, and language that defined the English to themselves in a way Germans did not.

Lastly, Reuter examines the ways in which social classes changed during the Ottonian period, concentrating on Germany but bringing in England in a brief comparison. What were the relations between a tiny group of elites, on the one hand, and the vast bulk of the population, on the other? How did the king, or kingship itself, affect them? Public order, aristocratic office-holders and ecclesiastical institutions suffered where German kingship faltered, but far worse off were the free generally, who were pressed down into the status of semi-free dependents. In England, despite periods of turbulence, a network of subordinate local courts created homogeneity, social mobility, and relative stability even before political unification occurred later on. Differences in the nature of sources as well as significant gaps permit few other generalizations. Reuter argues that his continental rulers did not have nor seem to want the ability to settle conflicts (a point that resurfaces in his later chapter in peace-breaking, feud, rebellion and resistance). They also articulated no concern for protecting the patria or the community; non-elites do not count. We do not even know which form of organization prevailed on which estates though many options existed, each of which controlled the lives of those living there. As at several other points, Reuter warns against using analogies with West Francia as if the model constructed there necessarily applies everywhere else. Significant differences between royal activity, social stratification and institutionalized courts could, and probably did, yield very different lives for non-elites in Germany. The conflicts that appear between them and their lords elsewhere may have existed, but few alluded even to the possibility; the under classes were of no interest to writers then, and of scarcely little more at present (excluding Reuter himself).

Of the remaining five essays, let me focus on two--though all are wonderfully informative. Chapter 20, "The Medieval German Sonderweg?" and chapter 22, "All quiet on the Western Front?" offer broad perspectives on the development of empire and statehood and on modern treatments thereof. The first ranges widely across geography and historiography, minimizing many current perceptions of difference and asking French, English, and German historians to broaden their own horizons, see what kinds of questions prevail in other traditions, and create a truly European historiography that would grant "an ability to understand our own immediate history better through a deeper knowledge of the practical realities of other countries' histories, not just of what are necessarily abstracted accounts of their institutional developments" (412). The second raises many of the same questions, emphasizing more the legal and institutional aspects of pre-modern statehood. His warning about reading history backwards applies here in strength; for example, hereditary kingship was not necessarily A Good Thing, leading as it could to "successions of rulers who were complete strangers to the kingdom..." (448). Similarly, the model Sicilian state looked downright tyrannous to those not under its authority, as did the Angevins and papacy over time as well (455). In addition, much of the greater resources available to these more bureaucratic states went to waging war and maintaining imposing courts, not creating better living conditions for their inhabitants; "polycentric state-forms have their advantages..." (456).

Moreover, political and cultural elites across Europe were "astonishingly unified and also permeable" (449) by the twelfth century. Lineages become more patrilineal, ecclesiastics were likely to know each other, as were those travelling on state business. Assemblies reveal much more similarity than do institutions, but perhaps we are again imposing our idea of what is important on that which contemporaries valued. If, for both past and present political classes, "the essence of the kingdom was a publicly celebrated collectivity" (454), then our conclusions regarding German development demand radical re-evaluation. The exceptional size of the Reich and lack of traditions regarding its development, its progress (problematic concepts in themselves, raising the specter of linear Whig history) were different from the settings the Normans found and imposed in both Sicily and England. Reuter's main point is that despite the lack, to our eyes, of essential features of government, the Reich functioned well enough for most, and for a very long time. When the advantages of other choices became more obvious, "it was too late to adjust" (458).

A short review cannot do justice to the breadth and depth of knowledge and analysis captured in Medieval Polities and Modern Mentalities. The book is not perfect, though nearly so; because the separate essays were written over the span of an all-too-short career, some tensions exist (as for example regarding the theatricality of public displays of royal rage on pages 178 and 202). Remarkably in a volume of this size and scope, I caught only one typo and one misstatement (its for it on 306, ceti digenti for ceti dirigenti on 310). Considering that Janet L. Nelson and others were working from texts that did not (could not) include Reuter's own "addenda, corrigenda and responses to criticism" (vii), the work is magnificent. I deeply regret I never met Professor Reuter, as his kind, humorous brilliance shines through each page. This is a book to read, reread, and keep in mind as we practice our historians' craft; each of us and the profession will be the better for it.

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Alison Williams Lewin

Saint Josephs University