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22.04.07 Lavelle, Places of Contested Power

22.04.07 Lavelle, Places of Contested Power

Ryan Lavelle’s excellent monograph addresses well-established questions of medieval studies--warfare, violence, rebellion--in a new and innovative manner that will prove enlightening for scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. He examines the phenomena of rebellion and resistance from the shared perspective of place--a unique and valuable approach that engages historical study, landscape scholarship, and material culture in a vigorous and lively discourse. Lavelle writes with verve and humor, deftly balancing his variety of approaches while maintaining his core focus on the centrality of space. This book is a triumph of interdisciplinary scholarship and a welcome addition to the study of medieval England and France.

In his introduction, Lavelle explains that his core thesis is “that by considering the conflicts in terms of where those axe-grinders declared their sense of discontent or even where those malcontents faced the axe themselves, we can get closer to understanding the motivations behind the conflicts” (1). In doing so, Lavelle aims to focus on how the utilization of particular space(s) affected both the meaning of the actions and of the spaces themselves. He examines a range of activities including feuds, rebellions, civil wars, and everything in between, and throughout he wrestles with the liminal spaces between these categories of opposition (and the range of ducal, royal, and imperial power that they were opposing). The introduction is very wide-ranging and covers the major themes of the subsequent chapters, though perhaps some of the materials would have been better served folded into the subsequent chapters themselves. Still, that is a minor complaint in an otherwise masterful foundational discussion of the subject.

Lavelle’s first two chapters serve to solidify the analytical foundation laid down in the introduction. In his first chapter, “Reading Conflict: Varieties of Opposition,” Lavelle sets out to delineate the various natures that political opposition took and “how it could have meaning to contemporaries, and ultimately how the paradox of political order could function” (44). He looks at the shifts in rebellions from the aggrievements of members of the royal family in the early Middle Ages to those emerging from the interests of the aristocracy (though perhaps a stronger definition of “aristocracy” in this context would not have gone amiss). Lavelle wisely focuses on the fact that rebellion in the Middle Ages was rarely “radical”: the aristocrats were not usually trying to depose kings and set up republics, for instance, but rather they were often jockeying for stronger positions within the accepted political order. Lavelle also offers a useful corrective to the “‘maximalist’ picture of English rule” that is usually presented for tenth century England by noting that “the fragmentation of political interests played a role in the development of both West Francia and England” (58).

In his short second chapter, “Geography, Topography, and Power,” Lavelle approaches how geography intersected with political interests. He examines topography from the perspective of politics, rather than the more traditional and narrow focus on practical aspects of place and location that we often find in studies of medieval warfare. Lavelle shows how space and location influenced political and military opposition (and responses to opposition) in ways beyond the tactical.

Chapter 3, “Contesting Authority in ‘Public’ Space,” considers how those contesting legitimate authority could use recognized public spaces to enhance their own claims to legitimacy. Furthermore, the use of public space in the reaction(s) of authorities could also help to determine the perception of the “rebellious” act itself, thus public spaces played fundamental roles in the determination of licit authority. In his discussion of the use of public space, Lavelle focuses his attention on the politics of absenteeism, whereby those with rebellious intentions would voluntarily stay away from public gatherings hosted by the target of their ire. In showing that public assemblies were a major tool in the development of medieval royal authority, Lavelle shows that “the subversion of the assembly was a key means by which that authority could be subverted” (112).

Chapters 4 through 7 extend the discussion and analysis to specific types of locations. Chapter 4, “Expressing and Resisting Lordship: Land, Residence, and Rebellion,” examines how authority could be contested within the framework of lordship. Lords operated within a complicated web of cultural assumptions and assurances that could enhance or undermine their loyalty. The concept of lordly generosity rightly comes into direct focus as Lavelle shows the double-edged-sword nature of being very generous as a ruler. He uses the example of King Stephen of England and Earl Ranulf of Chester, showing that as Stephen gave more to Ranulf, Ranulf in turn demanded more to remain loyal (Machiavelli would be nodding in approval at the berating the Peterborough Chronicler gives Stephen...). He also shows the dual reality that the loss of land (or the fear of the loss of land) could mitigate potential rebellions...or kick them off.

Chapter 5, “The Wind, Rain, and Storm May Enter but the King Cannot: Fortress and Aristocratic Opposition,” looks at fortresses as focal points of opposition. Lavelle considers the various roles that fortified locations could play in resistance, including questions around the building and development of castles in one’s own lands, as well as seizing castles from one’s lord. This chapter also gives Lavelle the chance to examine the role that women--primarily wives and mothers--played in the defense of fortifications during rebellion, and he rightly demonstrates that their holding of fortresses was not nearly as exceptional as we are led to believe. Lavelle traces the intersection making private locations into a public arena and how the use of land “could be a means of conveying the importance of a dispute to an audience” (211). The castle comes to symbolize not just a military capacity for resistance (as Lavelle notes, an argument that “is about as medieval as a medievalist can get”) but also a location and structure that could heighten legitimacy and status among a group of elites who did often see themselves as primus inter pares (212).

Chapter 6, “Unrest in the Urbs,” brings the discussion of resistance and rebellion to the urban communities of France and England. Lavelle focuses on four case studies of urban revolt: Dover (1051), Exeter (1068), Rouen (1090), and Laon (1112). In the case of Dover, the rebellion against Count Eustace II of Boulogne was touched off when he demanded the right of hospitality from the inhabitants. Exeter’s rebellion against William I was of murkier origins, though there is a sense that they were perhaps incited by the sons of the recently-killed King Harold Godwineson or that they were fighting out of a communal attachment to an autonomous league of towns in southwestern England (or both). Rouen’s resistance brought Henry, brother to Duke Robert of Normandy, into conflict with leading citizen Conan, whom he famously killed by flinging him off a tower. Finally, Laon’s rebellion was directed against the controversial figure of Bishop Gaudry and caught the attention of prolific commentator Guibert de Nogent. In each case Lavelle seeks to “address the links between urban oligarchies and the expression of unrest in towns” and in each case Lavelle shows how locational politics within urban environments could be used to support the interests of urban political elites (214-215).

Chapter 7, “Sacred Places and Profane Actions,” focuses on the use of sacred space in disputes, with Lavelle arguing that the use of sacred space (by either side) could heighten the sense of legitimacy in disputes. The main takeaway from the chapter is the utter inseparability of sacred space from political acts of resistance. As Lavelle notes, “The key factor to emerge from this chapter is the variety of the involvement of religious factors in conflict and the variety of conflict involving religious and indeed sacred spaces” (276). Ultimately, he notes that religious support was sometimes used to the bolster the legitimacy of the ruler imposing their will (imperial, royal, ducal, etc.) and sometimes used to support the justifications of the rebels.

The final chapter, “Moving and Acting: Across Landscapes and Badlands to Battlefields,” looks at the balances between practical issues in strategic decision-making. This chapter examines how liminal spaces--“badlands” and “bandit country”--could be constructed and “othered” by contemporary authors (279). Lavelle considers how the locations of battlefields could influence the cultural construct of the rebellion, with a specific focus on the example of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047. While battle itself was relatively rare in medieval warfare, it was still “the final step beyond the declaration of open rebellion, the point at which the forces lined up against an authority claiming to be legitimate pitted themselves violently in order to invoke the judgment of God” (323).

Overall, Lavelle’s monograph gives us a new and innovative approach to considering medieval acts of resistance and rebellion. His focus on space allows him to bring in additional analytical tools to disentangle the myriad factors feeding medieval resistances, including questions of motives, legitimacy, practical strategic considerations, and others. He vibrantly weaves these discussions together to illuminate the “complex webs of meaning” behind these activities (328). Ultimately, this book will prove a valuable resource for those interested in how power was projected and contested in medieval France and England.