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21.08.18 Coss, The Aristocracy in England and Tuscany

21.08.18 Coss, The Aristocracy in England and Tuscany

Over half a century ago, the American medievalist, Robert Brentano, published Two Churches: England and Italy in the Thirteenth Century (California, 1968, 1988). The author's stated purpose was to produce "an extended essay about the connected differences between the two churches, to use 'aspects' as touchstones for comparison" (xii). Upon first picking up The Aristocracy in England and Tuscany, this reviewer immediately recalled Brentano's influential work. Both books stay away from offering comprehensive comparisons, and neither attempts to present what Brentano called "a definitive exploration" (xii) of their respective subjects. Yet, Brentano's volume did indeed constitute a comparison of the two Churches of England and Italy. He concluded that "the contrast is a clear one" (346). Although Peter Coss originally intended to compare the aristocracy in England with that of Tuscany, he states in his Introduction that he decided however not to produce "a comparative study as such" (1). Instead, the author aims "to bring insights drawn from Tuscany history and Tuscan historiography into play in understanding the evolution of English society from around the year 1000 to around 1250" (1). One consistent thread that runs throughout the book is that the differing histories of the two aristocracies--and there also were similarities--were shaped by the interactions between local powers and central or public authorities. The Conclusion of the volume does not offer a summary of comparisons and contrasts, however. Instead, it offers "some general issues of interpretation" (1).

The Aristocracy in England and Tuscany is an impressive, well organized, and dense book, rooted in profound erudition. As with Brentano's work, the complex and nuanced insights of Coss' study of the aristocracy do not lend themselves to easy summary. Nevertheless, a few key observations stand out. Regarding both England and Tuscany, the author observes that the "aristocracy of the eleventh and twelfth centuries constituted a sector, or sectors, of society that enjoyed self-esteem and exercised power (including local power) based on the possession of property and was strongly imbued with military values" (4). Acknowledging that the word, aristocracy, is indeed a historian's construct, he argues it is still a useful category of analysis for the historian. The aristocracy that he finds in both regions of Europe is not at all static; it is multi-layered and "continually expanding across the eleventh and twelfth centuries" (6). It is moreover also an elite in both regions that sees itself and its culture as separate from the rest of society, with the highest level after the end of the twelfth century identifying itself as nobiles. Indeed, following historians such as Gabriella Rossetti, Coss is careful here to distinguish "aristocracy" from "nobility." Whereas the former refers to "all levels of the secular elite" (5), the latter term does not come into play "until its crystallization in the late twelfth century" (5). The book is therefore primarily a comprehensive social and economic portrait of the evolution of the aristocracy in two different parts of Europe, told with deep sensitivity to the political contexts and historiographies of each. There is also some attention here to the role of culture in the history of the aristocracy, particularly chivalry, and especially in the section of the book focused on England. Nevertheless, a fuller appreciation for the religious and ecclesiastical dimensions of aristocratic culture and identity, especially regarding the rural and urban aristocracy in Tuscany, is largely absent.

Peter Coss has organized his book into two equal parts: "The Tuscan Aristocracy" (Part 1) and "The Aristocracy in England" (Part 2). Two chapters, an "Introduction" and a conclusion entitled "Reflections," frame the volume. Each part basically proceeds chronologically. The author brings to each section a deep appreciation of the complex historiographies of both societies, using a variety of case studies of noble houses to illustrate both their similarities and differences. In the two parts of the book, context is essential: political and historiographical, urban and rural, social and economic. For Tuscany, for example, the author draws on the recent and ground-breaking research of historians such as Jean-Claude Maire Vigueur on knighthood, Enrico Faini and Maria Elena Cortese on the economic and social history of Florence and its surrounding countryside (the Fiorentino), Mauro Ronzani and Alma Poloni on Pisa and Lucca, Simone Collavini on the Aldobrandeschi, and Chris Wickham on Tuscan rural lordships and the origins of urban and rural communes. No principal aspect of Tuscan history before c.1250 is therefore left unexamined. Topics covered include the emergence of the territorial lordship (the signoria territoriale) by the early eleventh century, the complex relationship between city and countryside, castle-building (incastellamento), and the role of the aristocracy (aristocrazia consolare) in the formation of the earliest commune in Tuscany (Pisa, 1080-1081). A key feature that politically distinguished Tuscany (indeed, northern Italy) from England before c.1250 was the absence of monarchy and the demise any significant public authority after the early twelfth century. By the turn of the millennium the kingdom of Italy was basically no more, and by the early twelfth century any significant exercise of public authority was in retreat after the disappearance of the March of Tuscany and the death of the Countess Matilda in 1115.

The chapters that constitute Part 1 focus on those dimensions of the history of the Tuscan aristocracy that continue to absorb the attention of historians: secular elites in the city and countryside of Florence (chapter 3), the consular aristocracy (aristocrazia consolare) at Pisa before c.1170 (chapter 4), the rural possessions and power of the Guidi counts east of Florence (chapter 5), and the regional power wielded by the Aldobrandeschi south of Siena (chapter 6). Social violence, conflict, and the forging of "an uneasy and fragile stability" (189), or social equilibrium, among the members of the aristocracy are the subjects of chapter 7. In chapter 8 (on knighthood and nobility), Coss observes that by the end of the twelfth century "ceremonial investiture to knighthood" (262) was common in Italy among the highest levels of the aristocracy (the alta aristocrazia). This embrace of "exclusive knighthood" (262) began at that elite level at that time and then diffused through both city and countryside. With population expanding and the economy growing more prosperous, chivalric knighthood afforded members of the aristocracy a way "to distance themselves from those they regarded as beneath their own status" (262). This process of social closure from the end of the twelfth century helped provoke the formation of military and political organizations of non-noble and prosperous urban citizens (the popolo) that challenged the nobility. Eventually, by the middle of the thirteenth century, members of the popolo were politically and economically in charge of most cities in central and northern Italy. This process of social closure experienced by the aristocracy in confrontation with increasingly prosperous non-aristocratic social groups was common throughout Europe, including England, though the rise of the popolo to political supremacy was, as Coss notes, "quintessentially Italian" (267).

Coss brings his exceptional expertise in medieval English history to his treatment of the English aristocracy in Part 2. Four chapters offer an insightful and comprehensive overview: the aristocracy in 'Carolingian' England (chapter 9), aristocratic society in the Anglo-Norman period (chapter 10), a case study of the highest ranks of the aristocracy (the Earls of Chester, chapter 11), and nobility and state in Angevin and post-Angevin England (chapter 12). Two of the key contrasts with Tuscany in all four chapters is "the strength and persistence of the state in England" and "the relationship of the aristocracy to it" (271). Regarding inheritance rules, primogeniture was the norm under Common Law, whereas Tuscany, division among sons was the rule. Nevertheless, when reflecting on the course of the history of the English aristocracy, Coss finds much in the recent historiography on medieval Tuscany that can illuminate the historian's understanding of the aristocracy in England. For example, Coss finds it useful to apply Maria Elena Cortese's methodology dividing the high (alta aristocrazia) from mid-level aristocracy (aristocrazia media), with the holdings of the latter divided into zonal or multi-zonal holdings. As was true in Tuscany, Coss observes that the English aristocracy was deeply engaged with towns, whether it was through service to bishops or operations of the public courts, among other ways. Regarding the very vexed issue of feudalism in English history, Coss adopts the more stripped-down and concise approach to the problem advanced by Italian historians such as Giovanni Tabacco. They focus on the nature of the feudo-vassalic relation, identifying it as "one among many varieties of the lord-client bond" (313). As was the case in Tuscany, Coss observes that the English aristocracy achieved a level of equilibrium (stability) following "the massive shock of the Conquest" (357). The concept of local or regional lordship (signoria locale) in medieval Italian historiography, Coss argues, is relevant for an understanding of the regional power wielded by the earls of Chester at Coventry. This implies, among others, possession of centralized estates, control of the care of souls, a level of public authority, and the imposition of seigneurial dues on residents of the settlement. Like the Guidi and Aldobrandeschi in Tuscany, the earls of Chester enjoyed "more or less total independence from any other power" (399). Among the most rewarding portions of Part 2 are the extensive analyses of the Magna Carta and "bastard feudalism." Regarding the latter, he revisits his own argument (against K. B. McFarlane), proposing that its origins are found in a "magnate reaction to the growth of central government" (437).

The final chapter of Part 2 offers reflections on a variety of features common to both societies, including vertical relationships (such as lordship), the interaction of center (court) and periphery (locality), the relationship of public to private power, and the nature of change in aristocratic society. Repeating again that the book "is not essentially a work of comparative history" (442), Coss nevertheless reviews a number of common features of the aristocracy. Two are briefly worth noting. The concept from German historiography of Königsnähe, "the interaction between the centre and the periphery (8), appears throughout the book as a useful term of analysis. As Coss argues, it is a constructive way to describe the relations between the regional interests of the aristocracy and the royal court as a source of patronage. He finds it also valid for an understanding of England through the Angevin period and of Tuscany at the time of the marquises. When assessing the factors responsible for historical change within aristocratic societies, Coss highlights three approaches: developments within the aristocracy itself such as its "mode of living" (449), challenges within the societies dominated by the aristocracy (the rise of the popolo and increased peasant prosperity, as examples), and exogenous factors, such as the Norman invasion. No single cause explains change, the author concludes, as developments are "the result of interaction between evolving aristocratic concerns and the broader world they occupied" (450).

One of the many strengths of the book is that it brings some of the most creative developments in the historiography of medieval Italy to a broader audience of Anglophone scholars. Although the author is often at pains to deny that the book is a work of comparative history, he has described many parallels and contrasts that historians of both England and Italy will find instructive. Comparative history, indeed, certainly has a place in the historiography of the Middle Ages, but it is exceedingly difficult to do. Nevertheless, despite demurrals by the author, this reviewer regrets that the author did not present the volume as a straightforward comparative study. As it is, the book almost seems to be two separate but overlapping studies, with methodologies and approaches in medieval Italian historiography (Part 1) used as templates to shed more light on the evolution of the aristocracy in medieval England (Part 2). In addition, the absence, for the most part, of religious traditions, the history of spirituality, the cults of saints, and confraternities in the social and cultural lives of the aristocracy in England and Tuscany is a shortcoming. Instead, churches and their properties appear basically to be controlled and exploited to promote material interests, and the right to make church appointments is simply one of many pathways to regional power. Fifteen years ago, Augustine Thompson lamented in Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125-1325 (2005) that "in the histories of the communes, religion remains oddly alien to the civic life." Yet, "the communes were simultaneously religious and political entities" (3). The same was true for the countryside. The issue of salvation and the fate of souls mattered to rich and poor alike, and the ways by which members of the aristocracy sought to deal with these concerns helped shape aristocratic identities as well. One of the continuing challenges for medievalists in general, not just historians of the medieval aristocracy, is to blend into complex narratives the interaction of socio-economic history with the demands of culture, particularly regarding religious traditions. Coss hints at this only at the very end of his book, when he briefly mentions "spiritual salvation" (449) among the many factors "intrinsic to the aristocratic world itself" (449) that could help account for change.The Aristocracy in England and Tuscany is an outstanding, deeply impressive book. To get a fuller appreciation for the role of religion in the world of the elite (especially in Italy), however, one might do well to supplement it with a reading of Thompson's Cities of God and Brentano's The Two Churches.