18.09.08, Lachaud and Penman (eds.), Absentee Authority across Medieval Europe

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Erika Graham-Goering

The Medieval Review 18.09.08

Lachaud, Frédérique and Michael Penman. Absentee Authority across Medieval Europe. 2017. pp. xi, 264. ISBN: 978-1-78327-252-5. (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Erika Graham-Goering
Ghent University

A manuscript miniature of the departure of Saint Louis on Crusade is aptly chosen as the cover of this collection of essays on the issue of "absentee" authority: not only is the person of the king actually leaving his realm (or in this instance marching straight off the side of the book), but the gold leaf that once illuminated his crown and the crosses of the priests raised in farewell benediction has been removed, leaving only blurred outlines in the place of these symbols of power. Indeed, the thirteen contributors to this volume address both the physical absence of authority figures (as well as the challenges and opportunities awaiting those left in situ), and instances of contested, uncertain, or reduced authority whose effects were no less tangible. In the selection of case studies, there is a clear preponderance towards the later Middle Ages (from the thirteenth century on) and towards France and to a lesser extent the British Isles; royal structures likewise predominate over ecclesiastic, seigneurial, or communal ones. The combination of depth and breadth, along with an appeal to a wide selection in types of source, provides a healthy variety of individual vantage points from which to examine the landscape of absentee authority, wherein several thematic questions that draw together different articles from across the collection stand out most saliently.

The most eye-catching manifestations of absentee authority are, of course, the dramatic accidents of power: unanticipated interregna, the minority or captivity of a king, and so on. Certain essays in this collection, however, re-examine such episodes of potential crisis from a more systematic perspective, placing the responses to these moments into wider structural frameworks of royal authority. Bruno Dumézil examines Frankish traditions of delegated authority to suggest that the king and his palace (that is, the administrators and magnates surrounding him) formed a sort of partnership: an emphasis on the king's personal presence was compatible with the extension of royal responsibility to other holders, since these assumptions of power did not challenge the dynastic authority associated with the regnum. Over the long term, the equal efficacity of the king and the authority of "the king's name" allowed for the exercise of power over a decentralized territory and despite sporadic vacancies. In a very different context, Michael Penman and Norman Reid trace the development of a communal response to regency in Scotland between the late-thirteenth and early-fifteenth centuries. The monarchy was "in abeyance, minority, exile, or prison" for an astonishing 60% of this period (217), but the kingdom was preserved through the establishment of a collective guardianship that balanced competing interests, especially thanks to the increasing role of the Scottish estates in the supervision of this office. Penman and Reid point out the importance of this response to royal absence as an alternative model for the development of representational political principles, which in areas such as England or France were much more driven by the crown's own fiscal and military policies. Both these essays transform royal weakness into something more productive and robust, and demonstrate the advantages of understanding individual absences in light of their broader political context (a conversation which, the editors note (10), is strikingly absent from contemporary sources).

Other contributions tackle the regularization (and redress) of absence from a different angle: specifically, that of the impossibility of being everywhere at once (or even sometimes), an unavoidable and increasingly obvious consequence of personal rulership during the expansion of royal domains and oversight. Léonard Dauphant, building on his earlier work on the political geography of France, examines shifts in royal itineraries between Charles V (r.1364-1380) and François I (r.1515-1547): their geographical orientation changed according to the king's political priorities--largely to the neglect of the traditional center of power, Paris--and generally became more circumscribed over time. Contemporaries responded to these alterations to the availability of the royal person by "sublimating" the virtual presence of the king in his administrators and representatives, transforming geographic distance into social distance that enhanced the untouchable royal dignity (if not to the appeasement of the Parisians). This essay dovetails neatly with that by Laurent Hablot, who details the ability of heraldic representations to embody the person whom they represented (and so also their authority): the association of such signs with actual bodies meant they could effectively constitute presence in absentia, allowing the diffusion of the king's person--or indeed, that of lesser seigneurial powers--across the kingdom. Both Dauphant and Hablot point to specific spaces in which such proxy representations could be put on display: courts, public buildings, town walls, even churches; presence and absence operated not only on a large geographical scale, but through specific contexts as well. The infiltration (so to speak) of royal authority into particular social domains is creatively explored by Torsten Hiltmann, who examines the dissemination of power by analogy. While pseudo-kings of the medieval period (such as a "king of students" or "king of fools") are often considered only as parodies or subversions of the usual hierarchical order, some such kings were in fact useful components of real power structures. Hiltmann uses the cases of the "king of minstrels" and "king of mercers" to understand not only the possibilities for professional organization around a monarchic model, highlighting the different jurisdictional evolutions which allowed these groups to delegate their power and extend the reach of their control, but for the "political king" of France in turn to co-opt these "kings of office" into his own curial structures and thus ensure his representation in social contexts to which he might not otherwise have direct access. It is clear, therefore, that issues of royal presence and absence, even when unforeseen or disruptive, went far beyond the incidental.

Unsurprisingly, of course, the delegation of authority was not without tension. A recurring theme across many of these articles involves the debate, explicit or enacted, over the extent of the powers to be wielded by those who acted as lieutenants (itself a word evaluated in some of these contexts). Did the deputy stand in for the ruler, acting in all ways as if the prince was actually there, or were they a subordinate, limited in action and ultimately accountable to the higher authority? More broadly, where did authority reside? On an individual level, Frédérique Lachaud insightfully analyzes one such contest between Simon de Montfort and Henry III in Gascony in 1248-1252; because expectations for such a representative of royal authority were undergoing an evolution over the course of the century, they disagreed over whether Simon acted as full lord of Gascony in his own right (as he claimed) or as the king's bailiff, able to be removed from office and answerable to his king. Lest we assume, however, that such deputies would inevitably attempt to push or even exceed the boundaries of their authority (whatever those might be), Michelle Bubenicek focuses on the delegation of a far greater amount of power than was actually exercised in the case of Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy and Duchess Margaret. While the built-in partnership of husband and wife made Margaret of Flanders a natural proxy in Philip's absence, she often did not exert the plenary powers he granted her, many aspects of which were instead taken up by other officials. Meanwhile, there could also be consequences for the ruler concerning the authority exercised in their name. Tom Horler-Underwood suggests that the grievances against the royal officials appointed in Normandy after the French takeover in 1204, collected in the inquiry ordered by Louis IX in 1247-1248, were less against the officers themselves than against the king as the source of their authority. However, he also convincingly argues that these complaints were about specific offenses rather than indicative of any more generalized resentment towards Capetian rule, and these officers proved effective at consolidating the royal hold over this new territory even in the absence of the king, paving the way for the reabsorption of some delegated powers into direct royal control later in the century. Conversely, the effectiveness and role of local powers remained paramount in the case of Iceland, which from 1262/64 was governed for centuries by the entirely absent and distant King of Norway; Hans Jacob Orning argues on the basis of a somewhat speculative literary analysis that it was instead the local nobles who fulfilled the most significant authoritative roles within their community, and while they may have valued their relationships with the king, the farmers of the region would have prioritized the more immediate leadership. The degree to which locally-based powers represented themselves or the greater, more distant authority, and what either option permitted them to do, was thus far from predetermined.

Three more unusual cases of absent authority tackle themes of inclusion and exclusion, particularly as part of an evolving and negotiable process. James Bothwell draws attention to an understudied aspect of banishment in the Middle Ages, arguing that the regular use of the physical and social exclusion of individuals from the English court or even from the kingdom itself (while keeping the exile within the king's other domains) served an important political role in the negotiation of noble relationships with the polity. Although such measures were more an aspect of official policy when the king was weaker, and a less formal operation during periods of strong rule, the basic ability to control presence and absence of specific players in this way helped shape the court as a center of power in the late medieval period. A different process of withdrawal and exclusion took place in the city of Parma in the eleventh century, as Robert Houghton demonstrates: whereas previous scholars argued that the installation of a reformist bishop caused the episcopate's abrupt abandonment of the temporal governance of the city, Houghton methodically highlights instead a more gradual and less ideological realignment of the bishops' priorities. As they began to use their position less to exercise authority within the city than to cultivate influence elsewhere, a power vacuum developed which other groups such as the cathedral chapter and elite families readily filled. Finally, Olivier de Laborderie puts the issue of royal usurpers into a compelling retrospective angle that gets at the roots of legitimacy and the historical narratives developed around rulers and rulership, examining the place of these apparently illegitimate rulers in the innovative dynastic trees produced especially in late-thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England. Curiously, these rulers who could be said to lack authority are routinely included within these genealogical rolls, where they could serve to enhance the authority of the post-Conquest kings in relation to their Anglo-Saxon predecessors; this unique tradition (which Laborderie analogizes (82) to the idea of an 1820s French legitimist including Napoleon and his son in a royal genealogy) elevated the principle of continuity--a recurring refrain in this collection--above the need to exclude rulers on the basis of questionable authority. Processes of defining who was and was not absent from power were not inevitably driven by any single consideration and could be directed by different actors towards different ends.

These essays shed light on several areas ripe for further exploration. The gendered dimensions of absent authority are touched upon in the matter of regencies (Introduction, 18) and in Bubenicek's essay, but there is much more to be said in this regard, especially in light of the important work on shared power taking place in the context of queenship studies (by, for instance, Theresa Earenfight, Elena Woodacre, and Janna Bianchini) as well as in the study of noblewomen more generally. The (im)personal nature of authority, the role of the administrative apparatus in compensating for absence (or other methods of delegating power), and the geographic centers and peripheries which these authors repeatedly identify as key factors in absentee authority are of clear relevance to the current debates surrounding state-building and the interplay of royal and non-royal powers; further attention to the functions of lordship (an issue raised by several of the present authors, most notably Lachaud) and of towns in this process could build upon and round out the challenges and solutions to the perennial problem of absent kings explored here. On the conceptual side, the oft-contested attribution and legitimation of authority remains an area on which relatively little systematic work has been done, and to which the "flip-side" perspective of absence naturally has much to offer, particularly within the context of the different social perspectives on and audiences for legitimate power (seen in Horler-Underwood's examination of the Norman populace, for example).

As with many collected volumes, and particularly those which embrace a broad topic such as this, the individual contributions speak to more specialist debates in addition to their weight taken as a whole. But while it is clear that a number of important themes cross-cut these articles, neither the organization of the book nor its introduction attempt to draw them out, and this limits the advantages of the comparative perspectives which the volume has brought together. The introductory chapter, through a survey of the conditions and responses to royal absence writ broad, highlights a few key aspects of the central question in a pan-European context, but the focus on kingship alone means it adds little to a subject already amply covered by the individual case studies; it also misses an opportunity to consider any changes and continuities in the effects of absentee authority over time, a question necessarily raised by the broad chronological range of these essays and even by the more focused attention to the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. A short concluding chapter might have offered a useful venue for reflection on how "[l]ooking at all aspects of absence and presence of authority...enable[s] historians to get a better understanding of the nature of medieval power" (19), and in particular on the applicability of many of the observations and methodological approaches used by the contributors beyond the individual context of each study. This absence notwithstanding, the volume offers a number of fruitful inquiries into the patterns and wielders of power through the negative, and will hopefully help widen the ongoing investigation into medieval models and processes of authority.

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