16.05.27, Sonntag and Zermatten, eds., Loyalty in the Middle Ages

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Albrecht Classen

The Medieval Review 16.05.27

Sonntag, Jörg, and Carolie Zermatten, eds. Loyalty in the Middle Ages: Ideal and Practice of a Cross-Social Value . Brepols Collected Essays in European Culture, 5. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. xxi, 467. ISBN: 978-2-503-55103-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Albrecht Classen
The University of Arizona

A Festschrift is an odd beast in scholarship; wonderful for the honoree and a lot of work with little praise for the editors. Mostly the contributors just provide any kind of study they are working on, making such volumes often to a hodgepodge of scholarly reflections that have little in common. In the case of the Festschrift dedicated to Gert Melville (History, University of Dresden), the situation proves to be considerably different, since there is a thematic focus, on loyalty in the Middle Ages, certainly an important topic, though not easy to define, which might be the reason that there has not yet been a major monograph on it. Much depends on the personal perspective vis-à-vis loyalty, and on the power structure, but we can easily find countless examples of loyalty as it was discussed and illustrated in literature, historiography, and in religious texts, and at times even in art works. The two editors, who can be highly praised for their outstanding efforts in bringing together this wide range of relevant studies in their introduction, offer some reflections on what loyalty could mean, but they admit indirectly that it might not be feasible yet--if ever--to deal with it in a comprehensive and cohesive fashion since it reflects all human relationships. This then explains further why the present volume is divided into four major groups, in which we also find articles that address rather diverse topics related to loyalty, certainly a fascinating and complex issue.

At first the authors examine loyalty as an individual bond between two individuals, mostly on the highest political level, expressed in concepts of friendship, for example. The second section comprises articles addressing loyalty in a political context, serving as a catalyst to establish public peace and order. The third section addresses loyalty in religious communities, while the fourth consists of two articles, the first by Patrick Geary and the second by Karl-Siegbert Rehberg in which they offer some final comments on loyalty in specific cases and move to modern situations. The volume concludes with an index of names and places. About half of the articles are written in German, the other half in English; each author is briefly introduced at the bottom of the first page of the article in English, providing the affiliation and email address. Some articles begin with an English abstract, others not. Each paper concludes with a comprehensive bibliography, whereas the notes consist, appropriately, of abbreviated titles.

Since the articles all deal with very different historical, religious, and literary material, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to offer a critical review or to do justice to them all, short of summarizing the content of each one of them and entering a lengthy discussion about each contribution. Only Rudolf Kilian Weigand deals with a literary text, the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, where the presumed loyalty between Gunther and Siegfried proves to be nothing but a thin veneer covering serious power struggles. All other authors focus mostly on historical or religious texts. At the end, Patrick Geary discusses the works by the late nineteenth-century historian and author Felix Dahn and his attempt to work out the concept of Deutsche Treue ("German loyalty"), which has, however, been entirely deconstructed since the end of the Second World War. Following him, Karl-Siegbert Rehberg reviews again the wide panoply of concepts concerning loyalty as discussed in this book and then particularly in sociological research, where the other term "solidarity" greatly matters, though there is no conclusive outcome here either as to the possibly comprehensive definition of loyalty. It remains elusive whether his sociological discussion of the various theoretical approaches can really serve us in nailing down what loyalty meant in the early Middle Ages, for instance, but Rehberg helps us to understand how sociologists have viewed loyalty in a variety of contexts and how their concepts might be applicable to a historical reading.

Historians have to deal with the same diversity of approaches to loyalty, as Klaus Oschema (friendship which increasingly replaced loyalty in late medieval Franco-Burgundian sources, substituting the friend for the loyal councillor), Jean-Claude Schmitt (legal loyalty as reflected in the portrait of Timotheos created by Jan van Eyck in 1432), Brian Golding (dynastic loyalty mirrored in tombs of the Bohun family), and Ludovic Viallet (monastic loyalty in fifteenth-century Franciscan circles, as in the case of John of Capistrano) illustrate. In the second section the notion of loyalty is discussed in an even wider framework, which underscores the productivity of and challenges resulting from the critical examination of loyalty in the Middle Ages. Hans-Joachim Schmidt offers an excellent study on the concept of terror exerted by the ruler as a necessary strategy to suppress rebellious peoples and thus to enforce loyalty, as practiced primarily in the early Middle Ages (Charlemagne), while it was increasingly dismissed as inappropriate for a Christian king during the subsequent centuries. Rosamond McKittrick revisits the Strasbourg oaths of 842 and emphasizes that despite the first use of Old French and Old High German the two royal brothers made a deliberate effort to demonstrate political harmony and unity. (Nevertheless, as I would like to note, the oaths in their different languages still reflected a growing apart of the peoples in the west and the east, even if dynastic loyalty was maintained on the supra level.)

Other topics deal with the use of the term "fides" in thirteenth-century correspondence between north Italian cities that thus tried to strengthen their bonds in military and political terms (Maria Pia Alberzoni), loyalty at late medieval courts (Karl-Heinz Spieß), the loyalty bonds between the papacy and the French court (David L. D'Avray), the role of English Franciscan houses in the early phase of the Hundred Years War (Jens Rohrkasten), and the curious position of Christian leaders of mercenaries ("alcayts") at Muslim courts serving both their new lords and maintaining their old bonds with their Christian rulers (Nikolas Jaspert), often functioning as diplomats and political messengers. Undoubtedly, from a transcultural perspective, Jaspert offers the most fascinating contribution of the entire volume, alerting us to a phenomenon of great significance particularly in the western Mediterranean, both in the early and the late Middle Ages. This historical investigation, which also includes a very meaningful reference to the role played by Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, el Cid, suddenly casts a new light on the role which the literary figure of Gahmuret plays in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (ca. 1205), who operates, however, somewhere in the east (here not discussed) and might have assumed a somewhat similar position there. The only question that does not seem to be answered here is how the respective rulers (Muslim/Christian) viewed those alcayts if they maintained their original loyalty and yet equally loyally claimed to serve their new rulers.

The third section focuses on the notion of loyalty in religious communities, beginning with Steven Vanderputten's investigation of emotional bonding in monastic communities in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Brian Patrick McGuire explores how Bernard of Clairvaux viewed loyalty as a conditio sine qua non for a functioning monastery. Bernard Ardura discusses the notion of loyalty by the Canons Regular of Prémontré as they moved away from the previous church structure and established their own order and pledged their lives to Christ. Anne Müller investigates conflicting loyalties within the Welsh and Irish Cistercian convents, divided between their local identities and their monastic vows committing them to the overall monastic organization. Finally, Michael F. Cusato, in the longest contribution to this volume, highlights the serious conflicts over the proper habit for the members of the Franciscan order during the first two centuries of its existence as a reflection of their true or lacking loyalty to their founder.

The editors emphasize that the individual contributors included cross-references to each other, but this is virtually unnoticeable. We might wonder why the discussion of loyalty is limited to the Middle Ages. In fact, we are facing here a universal topic which certainly would have deserved further treatment regarding the early modern age as well. Overall, this is a marvellous Festschrift paying a great tribute to an outstanding historian, Gert Melville.

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