18.09.35, Sunderland, Rebel Barons: Resisting Royal Power

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Christopher Fletcher

The Medieval Review 18.09.35

Sunderland, Luke. Rebel Barons: Resisting Royal Power in Medieval Culture. Oxford: OUP, 2017. pp. ix, 308. ISBN: 978-0-19-878848-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Chris Fletcher
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique / Université de Lille

Luke Sunderland's new book is based on a reading of an impressive corpus of chansons de geste, from the Oxford Roland to the huge, widely circulated and much-readapted texts which continued to be composed, to be rewritten and to circulate long after the genre was once supposed to be extinct. Sunderland aims to explore how this broad genre interacted with concepts of royal authority between the twelfth and the fifteenth century. He is to be congratulated for demonstrating the contribution that a reading of these texts can make to our understanding of later medieval political culture. Unfortunately, however, his general argument is undermined by a failure to engage seriously with the social history of the nobility as it has developed over the past half-century, in English or in French. There is much of interest in this book, but as a whole it does not convince, largely as a result of a failure to look for very long over the disciplinary fence.

Sunderland's point of departure is provided by those chansons de geste which dramatize the actions of "rebel barons": nobles who revolt, who resist and who fight against kings, but who are consistently portrayed in positive terms. He introduces the non-specialist to a range of works far off the canonical beaten track, from Girart de Roussillon or Huon d'Auvergne to Ogier le Danois or Renaut de Montauban. As the toponyms of many of these baronial heroes suggest, Sunderland often deals with fictional barons whose centres of power are located in places which, at the time of composition or reception, were either on the blurry edge of Capetian authority, or in areas where their power took different forms from the regular, administrative, judicial and fiscal interventions which are habitually thought of, with inevitable teleology, as defining the modern "State". The deeds of these barons were taken up by writers and readers who had themselves a more ambiguous relationship to royal authority than, say, those living in the historic centre of Capetian power between Paris and Orléans, whether that be the town chronicler of Liège, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, or poets writing in French in north Italian cities. The assumption which runs through this book, and especially its three core chapters--"Revolt," "Resistance," and "Charlemagne"--is that fictions which dramatize the actions of rebellious or resisting barons would be most appealing to those who in real life needed an ideological basis to legitimize resistance to royal and especially Capetian authority.

In a rather different chapter, "Feud," Sunderland considers texts such as Raoul de Cambrai, and the Loheren cycle which dramatize never-ending loops of violence and counter-violence. With reference to the work of anthropologists on nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Africa and the Mediterranean, and of those medieval historians who have explicitly considered the issue of feud and private warfare between the eleventh and the fourteenth century, these texts are considered as exemplars of an ethic of legitimate vengeance. For Sunderland, this ethic is an alternative, baronial political mentality to be placed in counter-balance to the theories of what he calls "sovereignty." This concept, elaborated in a short first chapter, is actually theorised from Derrida and Giorgio Agamben rather than from the works of medieval political theorists such as John of Salisbury, Thomas Aquinas and Marsilius of Padua, but Sunderland nonetheless attempts to align the latters' Aristotelian and "res-publican" models of politics (that is to say, justified by the common good) with the canons of these more recent theorists. Here, the only legitimate violence is that of the king, wielded in the name of the common good, but which, for Sunderland, can only serve to mask an arbitrary, expansionist form of state violence. The institution of the feud, on the other hand, is to be celebrated as a form of resistance to this pernicious monarchical ideology. In a final, more eclectic chapter, "Crusade", Sunderland deals with texts in the form of chansons de geste which dramatize relatively recent and even contemporary events, such as those which narrate the thirteenth-century Albigensian Crusades in ambiguous terms, or which tell the story of the First Crusade as an act of legitimate vengeance. At the end of this chapter, he returns to "rebel barons" in considering stories of barons whose participation in Crusade or whose travels to marvellous lands are precipitated by the vindictive anger of a tyrannical king.

Aside from presenting a wealth of stimulating readings of neglected texts, this book makes two valuable contributions to our understanding of later medieval political culture. First, it shows how a widely spread and lively textual tradition took on the weak-points of a moral vision of rulership as rulership itself changed over time. In the laboratory of fiction, various forms of failing authority are worked through in a way which is underdeveloped in works of political theory. John of Salisbury might define tyranny, following Aristotle, as rule not for the common profit but for the particular interests of the ruler, and hint that tyrannicide could be legitimate, but he is very coy about the circumstances in which one might actually kill a tyrant. An inattentive or tendentious reader could walk away from Aquinas or Marsilius, or more widely disseminated and swiftly translated miroirs au prince such as the De Regimine Principum of Giles of Rome, with the impression that, since eternal law could overrule positive law, and the king was the only arbiter of that, then the monarch's conscience was the only check on his authority in this world. Not so the chansons de geste. These texts portrayed fictional kings who were lead away from reason, justice and the common good by a variety of means which nobles could also see affecting their own kings: weakness; anger; haste; stubbornness; sexual desire; susceptibility to flattery; fatherly preference for their own children; personal friendships and animosities; an inability or unwillingness to distinguish their private interests from the common profit; a desire to pursue their own scores at the expense of justice. Reading Sunderland's book leaves one with a model of political theory which is at least as close to the political mentalities of later medieval nobles than the complex, theoretical works conventionally included under the remit of "political thought". Second, and just as usefully, Sunderland demonstrates, as many historians have done on the basis of different sources, how an ethic of legitimate revenge, individual and collective, remained very much alive despite the rise of legal recourse justified by the public authority of the king. Political theorists might not only be partial, but being on the side of law and reason, they could be far more tendentious in their view of political realities than the writers of more or less historicised fictions set four or five centuries before.

This book, then, makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of late medieval political mentalities. It is thus somewhat frustrating, that only in one chapter of this book ("Feud") does the author engage with scholars who have been working this field for many decades, scholars often to be found in history departments in France or in the English-speaking world. Perhaps the most important development in later medieval political history over the last half-century, the growth of the social history of politics, finds no place at all in this book. This might be thought to be just a question of a choice of audience. When Sunderland upbraids his audience for their dated or partial views, it is an audience of literary scholars that is addressed, for example when we are told that "modern criticism" (56) has dealt little with revolts in France or that "[l]iterary medievalists" have too linear a view of political history, inevitably leading to ever-greater centralization (74). The latter statement may also be true of some of the older tradition of institutionalist, Anglo-American historians of France whom Sunderland does cite, but certainly not of the many social and cultural historians of the late medieval nobility, older or more recent, who remain conspicuous by their absence in the bibliography. One searches in vain for any awareness of the work of Raymond Cazelles or Georges Duby, Maurice Keen or David Crouch, Jean Flori or Malcolm Vale, Jonathan Sumption or Olivier Mattéoni, Florian Mazel or Joseph Morsel, Michelle Bubenicek or Xavier Hélary. Dominique Barthélemy and Bertrand Schnerb are lucky to squeak in with an article apiece, and Philippe Contamine figures only in the form of one general synthesis. It might seem unfair to say it, but the strong impression is that the author's historical bibliography derives largely from intense but circumscribed intellectual encounters with colleagues at institutions where he enjoyed visiting fellowships, at Cornell and at Stanford.

This might at first seem to be just so much inter-disciplinary griping, the familiar "tug of bibliography" between historical and literary scholars. Yet it introduces significant flaws into the argument as a whole. First, in common with the older, institutionalist or "statist" historiography, Sunderland overstates the power of the "State" in the periods he is dealing with. It is simply untrue to say that under Philip Augustus and Louis IX, that is to say between the late twelfth- and the mid-thirteenth century, nobles were "transformed" (71) from independent warrior chieftains into royal administrators. Their power took different forms, the range of their options and those of other political actors changed, but in most areas the king remained a distant figure. His judicial authority, his legal and administrative interventions, his ideological claims to act for the common good, and his intermittent fiscal demands were simply additional elements in a more complex political game. Sunderland is here falling into the same teleological reflexes of which he accuses his colleagues, and which he effectively critiques in his chapter on "Feud". This was all the more so once the duke of Aquitaine, who also happened to be king of England, himself claimed to be the legitimate king of France and rightful heir of Saint Louis. With a choice of possible legitimate sources of authority, the common good became all the more open to negotiation between far more varied powers and interests than the Valois "State" alone.

Indeed, there is a strong tension between the chapter on "Feud" and the earlier central chapters ("Rebellion, "Resistance", "Charlemagne") which needs to exist for Sunderland's general argument to function. For tales of rebel barons to be interpreted as a salve of resisting ideology for those who still want to resist royal power despite the crushing tyrannical power of the king, the king has to be a crushing tyrannical power. He may have been that at times, but at others he was a useful ally, a friend against local enemies who had not been available before. Acting in the king's name brought its own authority, which could also be set aside in different circumstances. This was most obviously so during the Hundred Years War, but one might already ask if the barons of the former "Angevin empire" brought under the authority of Philip II by his victory over his Plantagenet rivals were more subordinated under the Capetian king than they had been under Henry II, Richard I or John, dukes and counts but also kings of England. Throughout the later Middle Ages and beyond, the common good or res publica, here presented as exclusively the tool of the king, was at least as effective in the hands of those who contested royal power, or who simply (like town administrations) acted in the name of the bonum commune without thinking to consult him.

One essential lesson of the social history of the nobility for the historian of politics has been that, although kings are not simply nobles, nothing looks as much like a king than a baron. The foremost nobles of the kingdom, who might interact with the king as the heroes of chansons de geste are seen interacting with Charlemagne or Charles Martel, were also rulers of men, many of whom were nobles themselves, and had their own dependents. Nobles and even knights had to make decisions about whom to promote and whom to put aside; whose counsel to take and whose to reject; whom to reward and whom to punish. They ran their own households, not as a pale imitation of the royal court, but because the royal court was a manifestation of the same noble culture. Like kings, too, they made judicial decisions in their own courts which had to juggle strict justice and their own interests. They, too, might mistake their personal hatreds and their private interests for the common good. As such, the figure of Charlemagne, the occasionally misguided emperor who is normally reconciled with the rebellious hero by the end, or of Charles Martel, the embodiment of illegitimate private interests in a king's clothes, had as much to tell nobles, knights and even more humble householders about the behaviour that was expected of them as it did about the behaviour they expected from princes. As John of Salisbury himself recognised, the faults of emperors and kings were faults which barons themselves might make with regards to their own men, that townsmen might make to their subordinates, bishops to their flocks, or fathers and husbands to their families. Indeed, that was what made these lessons so powerful, and which extended their appeal beyond the nobility. This makes the chansons de geste more interesting and not less for the historian of political culture, but it is only through a genuine dialogue between historians and literary scholars that the significance of the ethical system they dramatize can be understood.

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