Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.10.02, Bachrach, ed. and trans., Warfare and Politics in Medieval Germany

13.10.02, Bachrach, ed. and trans., Warfare and Politics in Medieval Germany

Alpert of Metz's De diversitate temporum ("On the Variety of Our Times") is a fascinating and underutilized little work, despite being an important source for the history of Ottonian politics and the Low Countries in the early eleventh century. Students and scholars alike should welcome David Bachrach's very handy translation and brief study of Alpert's history. As with the much more expansive chronicle of his contemporary Thietmar of Merseburg, Alpert's principal concern is the intersection of local politics and royal power, in particular the conflict between two counts in Lower Lotharingia--Wichmann of Vreden and Balderich of Hamaland--in the early decades of the eleventh century. Alpert devotes special attention to the role played in the conflict by Balderich's scheming wife, Adela of Elten, a powerful noblewoman who (as Alpert states explicitly) plays Jezebel to Balderich's hapless Ahab. The account culminates in Count Wichmann's murder following a banquet hosted by Balderich and Adela, and Alpert leaves no doubt as to Adela's complicity in the crime. Alongside this main narrative thread, Alpert also finds time to discuss the career of Ansfrid of Brabant, a pious count raised to the episcopacy of Utrecht in 995; provides an important account of the early merchant community at Tiel; and, in a notable coda to the work, relates the strange story of a certain priest named Wecelinus who converted to Judaism and prompted Emperor Henry II to pen a brief polemic on the errors of the Jews.

This is a rich text on many levels, and it could readily provide a platform for discussing a wide range of key issues in eleventh-century history, particularly in conjunction with Thietmar's Chronicle, which also gives the Wichmann-Balderich feud considerable attention. But a wider comparative framework also suggests itself. I happened to find myself reading Alpert around the same time that I was teaching the famous Agreement between Hugh and William in a medieval history seminar. The contrasts and similarities between the two virtually contemporaneous sources touched off a flurry of exciting questions in my mind. The Agreement is noteworthy in that the conflict between Counts Hugh and William unfolds in the [apparent] absence of royal power or institutional mechanisms of dispute resolution. Alpert's De diversitate, on the other hand, underscores how local power struggles like the one between Wichmann and Balderich were determined to a large extent by each party's relationship to the king or other super-regional authority, such as the archbishop of Cologne or the duke of Lotharingia. A very similar contention underlies both conflicts, however--namely the inheritance of a feudal honor. Wichmann, a scion of the great Billunger family of Saxony, enjoyed the distinction of high nobility and married the daughter of Count Godfrey of Tiel, hoping to eventually inherit his father-in-law's title. His rival Balderich, however, goaded by Adela, made an end-run around Wichmann's increasingly powerful position in the region and managed to get himself appointed count by King Henry. Some Lotharingians approved of Balderich's move, according to Alpert, but others viewed it with alarm and switched their allegiance to Wichmann. The king and his power, including public placita, are present in important ways in Lower Lotharingia, yet what we might call Bissonian "castellan violence"--castle-building, coercion of peasants, brutal reprisal killings--seems to permeate the political order as well. The convergence of all these issues here soon had me dreaming of offering this text to students someday alongside the Agreement between Hugh and William and the Deeds of the Bishops of Cambrai (which still needs to be translated!) and asking them to think about the dynamics between local lordships, bishops, and royal power and what it says about our image of a neat "feudal pyramid" in medieval politics.

Bachrach's introduction and notes are thorough and helpful, written by someone attuned to the needs of the classroom and the undergraduate reader in particular. One minor deficiency here is his decision to cite Werner Trillmich's German edition and translation of Thietmar of Merseburg in lieu of David Warner's far more accessible 2001 English translation. There is a good map and several indispensible genealogical charts are provided as well. Given Bachrach's own scholarly expertise and interests, his commentary tends to give extended attention to military matters and a very specific view of Ottonian government as a well-ordered royal state. To be sure, Alpert sees the crown--along with the episcopate--as a source of legitimizing authority and order. De diversitate is dedicated to none other than Bishop Burchard of Worms, after all, who famously codified a set of rules for regulating feuds and violence among the members of his church's familia. But some subtle interventions on Bachrach's part encourage the reader to imagine a far greater degree of Staatlichkeit here than they might otherwise deduce. Alpert's account is amazingly rich in the vocabulary and imagery of horizontal social relations and symbolic communication: honor, friendship, reprisal, violence, counsel, and peacemaking. In light of this, one is struck by the absence of names like Karl Leyser, Timothy Reuter, Gerd Althoff, or Hans Werner Goetz in the apparatus or bibliography.

At the same time, much of Alpert's vocabulary, as Bachrach observes, reflects his deep immersion in classical Roman literature, which leads Bachrach to contend that Alpert actually intended to draw explicit parallels between Roman and Ottonian institutions (xxxv). The decision to translate res publica as "state," for example, or servus as "slave" rather than "serf" or "servant," underscores the translator's viewpoint. Other eleventh-century writers, such as Lampert of Hersfeld, use a similar classicizing vocabulary, but no one could accuse Lampert of doing so because he thought the Salian kingdom functioned a lot like the Roman state. When Henry II bestows the contested comital office on Balderich (2.6), Bachrach suggests that this shows how Alpert believed such offices were "firmly in the hands of the king" (43, n. 42). Yet Alpert's account subsequently demonstrates that even if the king tried to act as if that were true, his unilateral action encountered a huge amount of resistance on the ground. The name of count at this stage appears less the title of a royal functionary and more an honorific bestowed on favored vassals and open to contention and negotiation. As Timothy Reuter and others have observed, medieval writers could conceive of a commonwealth or community of the realm--indeed, even a "public sphere"--even as political authority remained contested and diffused in myriad ways.

In the end, I think Bachrach's positions on these questions makes his work here more, not less, attractive as a teaching tool, especially if one does not agree with them in every instance. Pushing students to explore an author's conceptual vocabulary and the debates surrounding it by digging into textual criticism can be an illuminating methodological exercise. Our ability to study and teach the tenth and eleventh century with well-translated and contextualized sources has improved tremendously in the past several years, with the work of scholars like David Warner (mentioned above), Ian Robinson (sources on the Investiture Controversy), Simon Maclean (Regino of Prüm), Paolo Squatriti (Liutprand of Cremona), and Sean Gilsdorf (Ottonian hagiography); these open new possibilities for bringing students closer than ever ad fontes. I am happy to see this affordable and engaging text on the market and look forward to using it as a source for studying the age of the so-called "Feudal Revolution," as well as the still-lively scholarly debates about violence and political authority at the turn of the millennium.