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21.03.19 Wangerin, Kingship and Justice in the Ottonian Empire

The Medieval Review

21.03.19 Wangerin, Kingship and Justice in the Ottonian Empire


Laura Wangerin's Kingship and Justice in the Ottonian Empire valuably challenges the ample historiography that denigrates the Ottonian government as primitive, illegible, or inexplicable because it was non-legislative. Wangerin argues that Ottonian political praxis employed a complex political strategy founded on the long-standing customs of German rulership rather than a legislative program in the style of either the Carolingians or the Anglo-Saxons. Previous scholars in the mold of Strayer and Jordan, assuming that the centralized, legislative bureaucracies of the French and English monarchies provide the most applicable Western model for governmental development, have struggled to explain how the monarchy of the tenth-century German empire, which relied heavily on affective bonds of dependence, functioned so well. Because no contemporaneous dynasties could truly match their reach, historians often directly compare the Ottonians to the imperial Carolingian or ninth-century Anglo-Saxon monarchies. The Ottonians are commonly judged negatively relative to their predecessors, despite the fact that those three dynasties pursued different aims and methods of governance. Wangerin argues persuasively that the Ottonian emperors were aware of the power that came with legislative bureaucracies and centralization, but that they chose more traditional methods of conflict resolution and delegation of authority in order to maintain peace effectively in the Ottonian Empire.

Wangerin's first chapter considers the overarching structures of power and governance, and argues that the Ottonian use of traditional power structures was better-suited for governing the far-flung Ottonian Reich than the use of legislation in the style of the Anglo-Saxon or Carolingian monarchies would have been. While most previous authors regarded the almost total lack of Ottonian legislation as proof of weak governance, Wangerin demonstrates that the royal iter, Ottonian missi, rule by consensus, and the delegation of the execution of imperial authority were effective ways to hold the German nobility in balance and (mostly) prevent noble rebellions. Along the way, she argues out that the Ottonian missi possessed different purposes and powers than their Carolingian predecessors, an important point in judging both the efficacy of the missi and of the government that sent them.

Chapter 2 reviews the argument that the Ottonians relied on fideles in ecclesiastical positions, who were also invested as secular lords, as a counterweight to the German nobility. Wangerin argues for a middle ground between the traditional position that the Reichskirchensystem existed and was an integral part of German rulership, and Timothy Reuter's revisionist position that it did not and therefore was not. She acknowledges that the Ottonians did invest their fideles with lordship, but insists that they were careful to choose fideles who could be effective religious figures as well. Once they were invested, ecclesiastical lords owed the same service as secular lords, including battlefield service when demanded. Wangerin further argues that Ottonian efforts to establish and then maintain control over imperial monasteries and dioceses contributed to struggles in the eleventh-century reform movement. The pope, despite his ostensible position as pontiff and the only contemporaneous authority who could perform the imperial coronation, was one of these 'imperial bishops' and the emperors successfully sought to control the papacy just as they did with other imperial positions.

Chapter 3 argues that most medieval legislation was intended to regulate blood justice, and that the Ottonians produced so little legislation because they preferred to involve themselves in noble feuds only when it became absolutely necessary to keep the peace. Wangerin notes that the Ottonians were in regular contact with both the Byzantine and Anglo-Saxon monarchies, and observed their governments, which indicates that the Ottonian reluctance to legislate was neither ignorance of the tactic nor an underestimation of its power. Instead, the emperors relied on more traditional means of conflict resolution, including what we might call 'salutary neglect,' that allowed those involved in a feud to settle their own differences. Intervention only occurred when the feud might damage the broader peace of the kingdom or when both parties needed an intervention to save face in order to end the feud somewhat gracefully. Not only did imperial non-interference resulted in a more stable peace, according to Wangerin; it also allowed emperors to save their political capital and not risk alienating large portions of the nobility.

Chapter 4 examines Ottonian political rituals and ceremonies, and proposes that the Ottonians created new conceptualizations of sacral kingship that were tied to their views of kings and emperors as distributors of justice. Emperors now saw themselves as mediators between heaven and earth, rather than as the inheritors of the tradition of priest-kings such as Melchizedek, as the Carolingians had. This chapter has rather fragile foundations, however, because its interpretation of ritual often considers only outcomes, with little attention to the history or broader meanings of the rituals or ceremonies in question. In the case ofadventus, as an example (134-141),there is both a long history and an ample historiography of the ceremony; its history stretches back into the Roman Republic, and both the early medieval papacy and Carolingians made effective use of it as a political tool. Wangerin implies in this chapter, however, that the use of this ceremony for political effect was an Ottonian innovation. Statements that the Ottonian adventus "was reminiscent of Roman imperial custom" (134) and that it "hearkened back to Roman imperial displays" (140) rather understate the continuity and tradition of this ceremony. While it is true that the tenth-century ceremony was different from the one practiced in either the Principate or the Dominate, it is not clear from Wangerin's discussion how the Ottonians changed the ceremony from the early medieval versions nor does she offer a meaningful discussion of how the ceremony impacted kingship except as a bridge for a discussion of the ritual feast. Although the chapter provides an excellent discussion of manuscript imagery, on the whole it comes across as markedly weaker than the chapters about law and politics.

In her fifth chapter, Wangerin argues that both the exercise and delegation of royal justice were an important means of keeping peace in the realm. Rendering justice through such procedures as judicial duels and trial by ordeal gave the Ottonians opportunities to settle contentious arguments in a definitive way without alienating portions of the nobility. Wangerin argues that it also allowed disputants an honorable way to abandon a hopeless cause, and that it was often an important tactic for royally-mediated de-escalation. Justice was also a lucrative business for the Ottonians to build political capital. Because imperial finances were famously buoyed by the huge East Saxon silver vein, the revenues of justice were no longer necessary to finance the monarchy and could then be parceled by the emperors to buy noble support, to support embattled fideles, or to correct imbalances of power.

While Wangerin deftly interacts with the extensive literatures of several political dynasties and on the tenth century generally, she rarely connects the Ottonians to anything outside of those specific historiographies. The most common source materials throughout her book are royal/imperial diploma and narrative sources such as annales or chronica, all authors who were clearly on the pro-imperial side of debates. Bishops and nobles are mentioned throughout the book, but without any meaningful use of episcopal or noble sources, which would have been appreciated especially in the discussions of fideles, feuds, distribution of justice, and the role of bishops in government. Similarly, it proves difficult to contextualize the Ottonians in the history of European rulership, because readers are given only the Carolingians and Anglo-Saxons as comparisons, and those seemingly to illustrate how different the Ottonian system was. While Wangerin clearly outlines the Ottonian ruling program, she does not fully clarify how or in what ways the Ottonians were different from their predecessors. For example, she discusses the contested episcopal election of Benno of Metz (r. 927-940) and its subsequent effects at some length (67-76), presenting the contestation as an Ottonian phenomenon, even though it stands as just one example in a long line of publicly-contested episcopal elections that stretches back to at least the fourth century. It remains unclear, therefore, how any part of the election, from the election by the people to the imperial response, was uniquely Ottonian. The royal iter provides another example. Wangerin thoroughly explains tenth-century itinerant kingship, but she makes no systematic comparison to previous versions and uses of itinerancy. Readers are left unsure what in the iter was an Ottonian innovation, despite an extensive account of what the Ottonians gained from such a system. Finally, by considering only kings and arguing that they pursued extra-legal strategies as a means of gaining power, Wangerin seemingly eschewed the extensive historiography on queens, who were commonly forced to pursue extra-legal and even extra-customary routes to power.

In sum, therefore, this book should be warmly welcomed by those who have questions about specifically Ottonian rulership, though its tight focus may limit its usefulness for those trying to contextualize the Ottonians in the broader pattern of tenth century politics, the lineage of German rulership, or the history of political ritual and ceremony.