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19.11.15 Perry, The Briennes

19.11.15 Perry, The Briennes

If anyone had any doubts about the extent to which medieval French aristocrats had international connections, they need only look to the example of the Brienne family, who exercised lordship over the county of Brienne in Champagne. At various points during the 400-year period covered by this book, members of this family exerted political influence in southern Italy and Sicily, the British Isles, the Low Countries, Iberia, the Latin Empire of Constantinople, Cyprus, the duchy of Athens, Florence, and the kingdom of Jerusalem, to say nothing of their lordship in Champagne.

This book builds on the author's earlier biography of John of Brienne. [1] Here, however, Perry widens the scope to examine the activities of the Brienne dynasty as a whole over a 400-year period. As is often the case with biographies of individuals or families, Perry argues that the Briennes were representative of other aristocratic families during this period, but also in some ways exceptional, yet he includes little discussion of other dynasties. The county of Brienne was one of the wealthiest lordships in Champagne. Through the marriages of several members of the family, the Brienne dynasty acquired additional lordships and formed cadet branches, including those of Bar-sur-Seine, Ramerupt, Eu, Guînes, and Beaumont, thereby further increasing the dynasty's influence. In looking at the creation of these cadet branches, Perry raises interesting questions about how an aristocratic family identity's evolved. Naming patterns, for example, can shed light on when family members started (and stopped) thinking of themselves as Briennes, how cadet branches formed or disappeared, and what these branches contributed to the identity of the dynasty's main line.

For much of the period covered by this book, the Briennes' greatest impact was on regions far afield from Champagne, with some of the counts of Brienne spending relatively little time in Champagne, more focused on their claims to (and aspirations for) distant lordships. What explains the international reach of this family? Part of the answer lies in the marriage alliances into which the Briennes entered as a means of advancement. Count Walter III's marriage to Elvira of Sicily, the daughter of Tancred of Lecce (the Norman who had been king of Sicily) and Sibylla, pulled the Briennes into southern Italy and Sicily, setting up conflicts with the Hohenstaufens. John of Brienne's marriage to Berenguela of León, the sister of Ferdinand III, king of Castile, and niece of Queen Blanche of France, created a blood connection to the crowns of Castile and France. The Briennes' marriage into the Lusignan dynasty, the royal family of Cyprus, established the Champenois dynasty's claims to the island that was of strategic importance during the crusading period. The Briennes were a highly mobile family, frequently moving between the Mediterranean and northern France, between the British Isles and France, and between southern Italy and Greece, Constantinople, Cyprus, and Jerusalem. Members of the family went on to become the Latin emperor and empress of Constantinople, the king of Jerusalem, and countess of Tripoli, and to become bishops, abbots and abbesses, although Perry notes that the family produced relatively few prominent churchmen.

The Briennes' success, according to Perry, was at least partly due to their "genealogical good fortune" (186), consistently producing male heirs from the dynasty's senior line, who preserved their ancestral title and lands for over three hundred years. But this is also a story of dynastic ambition and a growing aristocratic "culture of internationalization" (190). In particular, the ambitions associated with crusading surely contributed to the family's wider horizons and desire for more expansive territorial influence and power. By the early twelfth century, the Briennes had established a family tradition of crusading. Count Erard I went on crusade with Count Hugh of Champagne; Count Walter II and his son, the future Erard II, both went on the second crusade in the 1140s; Erard II and his brother, Andrew of Ramerupt, also participated (and died) on the third crusade; Count Walter III conquered much of southern Italy; his younger brother, John I, became king of Jerusalem, and then Latin emperor of Constantinople. These two brothers--Walter III and John I--marked what Perry calls the "breakthrough and high point" in the rise of the Brienne family, the period roughly from 1191-1237, when the Briennes were "the family of the moment" (49). This period, however, was not one of unmitigated success for all members of the family. Erard I of Ramerupt, who was a cousin of Walter III and John I, claimed through his marriage to Philippa of Champagne (the daughter of Count Henry II) the right to rule the county, sparking the "war of the Champenois succession." Erard failed in his quest and was met with opposition from the pope, the French king, and Countess Blanche, and her young son, Theobald IV, prevailed as count.

A key factor in the fluctuating fortunes of the family was their relationship with the "great powers," such as the counts of Champagne, the French crown, and the powerful house of Anjou. In that sense, the rise and fall of the Briennes provides a window into how an aristocratic family maneuvered amidst the increasing forces of political centralization. During the late eleventh century, relations between the counts of Brienne and the counts of Champagne were at times marked by tension, but over the course of the twelfth century the Briennes increasingly recognized the counts' suzerainty, serving as witnesses for them (as evidenced in charters) and accompanying them on crusade. Through several marriages, meanwhile, the French royal family became kinsmen of the Brienne dynasty, and the Briennes used this to their advantage in a variety of ways, including by securing royal offices during the later thirteenth century. As the attention of the Briennes increasingly turned toward the Mediterranean, they were drawn to the potential rewards for service and thus sought to curry favor with the house of Anjou, itself related to the French crown. The power of an aristocratic family like the Briennes was very much shaped by the emerging state system, but was not necessarily weakened by it, particularly when the family had a close ally in someone like Charles of Anjou or his brother, Louis IX. On the other hand, the Briennes' fortunes took a decidedly downward turn during the 1350s. Count Raoul IV's role as a diplomatic conduit between the French and English crowns did not serve him well in the context of the Hundred Years War, and he ended up being executed by the French king for alleged treason. Walter VI, the last count of the senior Brienne line, died at the Battle of Poitiers, leaving no surviving children.

One of the dangers of any prosopographical study such as this one is getting bogged down by a litany of names and a dense network of family trees and branches. The metaphorical, or in the case of prosopography, literal trees and branches can occlude a sense of the bigger picture, the forest. This book falls into that trap, with far too much exposition and not enough emphasis on broad themes and the larger significance of this family. To be sure, Perry has certainly done a service in connecting lots of dots and making a compelling case that this Champenois family was far more than just a regional power and deserves greater attention than it has heretofore received. The family clearly had an international presence and was intertwined with many of the major powers and movements of the time, particularly through its participation in the crusades.

However, this book does not lay out a clear objective beyond charting the rise and fall of this one family. In order to make this subject of interest to readers who are not specifically interested in the Brienne family, the author might have engaged with a wider historiography on subjects such as aristocratic marriage, gender, inheritance, warfare, religious devotion and patronage, and economics. The book's short conclusion begins to highlight some of the significant thematic issues that could have been raised in the book, but these are not developed earlier. For instance, one of the important takeaways from this book is the need to move away from a purely state-centered perspective on medieval politics. Aristocrats and dynastic families are central if we wish to fully understand the "culture of internationalism" (190) of this period. This book misses the opportunity to fully develop themes such as this one.



1. Guy Perry, John of Brienne: King of Jerusalem, Emperor of Constantinople, c. 1175-1237 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).