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22.04.22 Bougard/Loré (eds.), Biens publics, biens du roi

22.04.22 Bougard/Loré (eds.), Biens publics, biens du roi

This volume contains the proceedings of a conference organised by the École française de Rome in 2016, with seventeen single- or multi-authored contributions from eighteen historians and archaeologists from Italy, France, Spain, and England, three of them having contributed twice: once in the framing chapters and once in the core papers of the volume. The conference was a truly international and European enterprise, and these proceedings are a polyphonic and pleasingly multilingual volume, with nine chapters in Italian, five in French, two in English and one in Spanish. Moreover, many contributors accepted the challenge of making their research available in languages that are not their usual means of communication: the introduction is in French; the concluding chapters are in English or in Italian; one English author wrote his paper in French; and one article by two Spanish authors is in Italian.

The book is very well thought-through and structured. It consists of an introduction and three sections: section I contains six overview chapters; section II offers five case studies; and section III consists of five short concluding chapters. Together, they cover the subject of the book with a useful diversity of approaches and scale effects, making use of and focusing on different kinds of documentation (legislation, charters, other written sources, archaeology, landscape studies, place names, etc.).

The introductory chapter by Vito Loré provides a description and a historiographical overview of the topic the conference and the book set out to address: the study of the resources of West European rulers between the demise of the late antique system of direct taxation and the consolidation of the high medieval seigneurial regime--in other words, the study of beni pubblici / biens publics, an expression that Chris Wickham, further on in the book, translates as “public property and rights” (413). This includes many sources of revenue (including indirect taxes, e.g., on trade) but is clearly dominated by income from different sorts of landed property. Loré justifies the use of the word “public,” stressing the fact that the distinction between private and public property was not alien to early medieval thought and discourse, but he also introduces a useful distinction between “public” and “royal” lands: here, the second category is a wider one, including both properties strictly identified as “public,” and other kinds of estates that were considered private but were nevertheless available for rulers to make use of (e.g., lands included in a queen’s dower, or conceded to a monastery controlled by the king). Finally, the introduction stresses two important difficulties inherent in the existing (or lack of) documentation: firstly, public and royal lands are difficult to trace in the sources because they usually became visible for us only on occasions when they ceased to be public (e.g., in charters of donation); secondly, this study concerns a period--from the seventh to the early eleventh century--when the pressure of tax and rent levy on rural populations seems to have been less intensive than before and after, a factor which, combined with others, tends to explain the relative shortage of sources on the actual management of public estates.

Section I contains six single-authored synthetic chapters, written by historians, that aim to cover the question of public rights and properties in the most important and best-documented polities and regions of the early medieval West: Italy, first with the Lombard kingdom and the southern quasi-independent duchies of Benevento and Spoleto (Vito Loré, in Italian); then with the Lombard, Carolingian and post-Carolingian “kingdom of Italy” (François Bougard, in French); the Frankish lands, first with Frankia proper from Charlemagne’s reign to the accession of the Capetians (Régine Le Jan, in French); then with the Ottonian kingdoms of Germany and Lotharingia (Charles West, in English); the north-western Spanish kingdom of Asturias-León (Iñaki Martín Viso, in Spanish); and the kingdom of the English, especially Wessex, between the reign of Alfred and “when King Edward was alive and dead,” to use the phrase from Domesday Book (Ryan Lavelle, in French). It is unfortunate that this wide coverage leaves out two important early medieval polities and regions. The first one is the core of the Merovingian kingdom: even if Le Jan rightly reminds her readers that the subject has been adequately treated in pre-existing articles by Josiane Barbier, an overview in English or in Italian would have been quite useful. Similarly, the question of public and royal land in the southern half of Gaul and in north-eastern Spain (Catalonia) is almost completely left out, both in the Carolingian period and under later kings and princes: a chapter on the kingdom(s) of Burgundy, for instance, would have made a decisive contribution to the full “coverage” of the early medieval West. Anyhow, all the chapters in this section provide up-to-date overviews of recent debates and results: indeed, I am sure each of them will become compulsory reading and starting points for further research, at least for students and scholars who generally work in and from the language in which they are written. At first sight, one may regret that these chapters do not adopt the same plan or grid and that they do not tend to address a unified set of questions, but that would have been almost impossible and, in fact, rather artificial, because of the great diversity of sources and their very unequal distribution, both in terms of chronology and geography.

This is indeed a point that almost all authors chose to stress. In the Lombard period, public property and rights are much more well known in Spoleto and (particularly) Benevento than in the kingdom proper. In the Frankish kingdom, historians are very dependent on the study of a few better-documented clusters of royal estates such as the one around Annappes and Cysoing (east of present-day Lille) which was given by Louis the Pious to his sister Gisela and her husband Eberhard of Friuli. In England, the areas north of the Thames are much more difficult to assess without the retrospective (hence problematic) use of Domesday Book, which Lavelle tries to avoid as much as possible in a stimulating exercice de style that historians of early medieval England should look at with curiosity. The kingdom of Asturias-León almost provides a textbook case, the sources being very scarce before the tenth century and very few in several regions: indeed, only Galicia and northern León are adequately covered, other regions being almost devoid of testimonies for royal lands--but, as Martín Viso shows and stresses, it was for very different reasons: in the interior of Portugal and south of the River Duero, the cause must be the general scarcity of written sources; in the Castilian march, the best explanation for the absence of royal lands would be the strength of the local aristocracy, especially the counts of Castile; and in Asturias proper, the lack of sources may actually be due to a reluctance for the alienation of public land in the historical heart of the kingdom.

Another important aspect common to all authors in this section (and indeed in the book) is the strong conviction that the impression of a constant alienation of public and royal property in the course of the early medieval centuries must be qualified and reinterpreted as an aspect of the constant circulation of landed property. For a king, giving away some of his estates was not an inevitable path to poverty and powerlessness: most often, it was a political tool, which was generally counterbalanced by “incoming” estates. As Le Jan puts it, the Carolingian royal fiscus “expanded through specific means--gifts to the king, escheats, confiscations--but it was intended to be given away” (121). Only in a few contexts, such as the West Frankish kingdom in the second half of the tenth century, did the movement towards alienation result in an actual impoverishment and marginalisation of the king in the core of his own kingdom. Moreover, and even there and then, public estates that were alienated somehow retained much of their public character. Symbolically, but also in terms of rights and agency, owners of public estates were public players: they were part of a public sphere and their actions concerning these lands had to be carried out in public.

Section II contains five case studies, often multi-authored, mostly written by archaeologists, and much more localized in scope. Fabio Saggioro describes (in Italian) several estates in the Po valley, dwelling particularly on the subject of the exploitation of natural resources, here the steatite deposits in the Alpine district of Chiavenna. Maria Turchiano and Giuliano Volpe report (in Italian) on a wide landscape survey covering the eastern part of the duchy of Benevento, that is present-day Molise and north-western Puglia: the heart of the project was the excavated site in Faragola, an early medieval estate centre built near an earlier Roman villa. Giovanni Bianchi, Federico Cantini and Simone Maria Collavini concentrate (in Italian) on Tuscany, an area where several of the aspects highlighted elsewhere are illustrated on another scale: regional unbalance, written sources here favouring northern Tuscany; the circulation of estates and the constitution of clusters for members of the royal family, here Queens Bertha and Adelaide; the link between public land and natural resources, here salt marshes and mines. Luc Bourgeois’s article (in French) concerns the county of Poitou, in north-western Aquitaine, from the seventh to the tenth century: it is the only one in this book that provides a sustained reflection on the Merovingian period. The fifth chapter, by Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo and Igor Santos Salazar (in Italian), is on the border region between the kingdoms of Asturias-León and Pamplona, that is, sectors in the upper Ebro valley, today in southern Navarra, northern La Rioja and Álava: in these small border districts, public estates (identified through a combination of charters, toponymy, and landscape archaeology) were instrumental in the emergence of new polities in the early eleventh century.

The specific input of archaeology, Bourgeois writes, is twofold: it brings information about how places of power were structured, and it helps to situate these settlements and landscapes within long-term chronologies. For instance, in the case of Poitou, Bourgeois shows that there were strong continuities in terms of public land between the late antique, Merovingian, Carolingian and post-Carolingian periods: the “networks of authority” remained essentially stable, with a continued “attraction from power centres and elite residences inherited from the past” (377); the only new occurrences were linked with natural resources such as silver mines of Melle, which were first exploited in the eighth century and became then a focus of royal authority in the county. Naturally, most of the maps, photographs and sketches of the book are in this section: the ones in black and white are printed within the individual papers, the ones in colour (fourteen in total) are grouped together at the end of the book. Unfortunately, several maps (not all) are in very small print, which makes them almost illegible: considering the great pains some authors must have taken to conceive of and/or draw these maps, it is a pity most of the maps with a landscape layout have not been given a simple quarter turn that would have made them immediately larger on the page.

Section III is again very different in terms of form, scope, and approach. It consists of five short single-authored chapters (nine or ten pages each) emanating from the table ronde that served as a conclusion for the conference. One of the chapters (by Chris Wickham) is in English, the other four (by Simone Maria Collavini, Savatore Cosentino, Tiziana Lazzari, Giuliano Volpe) are in Italian. Wickham puts forward a tenfold typology of public lands and rights and concludes with the fact that, depending on the category they fell in, some of these beni pubblici were very much like private property, others being very different: unfortunately, our sources are often so uninformative that we cannot ascribe a particular mention to one category. Collavini’s chapter also contains an interesting typology, this time of all the “marginal” sources that can help us counterbalance the domination of diplomatic sources: indeed, charters and diplomas are often not that helpful, since they inform us about those estates rulers would prefer to part with and not those they wanted to keep--precisely those we would like to know more about! Cosentino offers a comparison between the western European situation described in this book and the one that prevailed in Byzantium at the same time: even if direct taxation was maintained in the East, “crown property was crucial for the preservation and reinforcement of the Empire” (442), especially through the serious difficulties it went through from the seventh to the ninth century. Lazzari reasserts her interpretation, developed in other publications but challenged by Bougard earlier in this book, of how Italian kings created “reserves of land” through large-scale gifts of public estates to royal monasteries and, even more strategically, to queens. Finally, Volpe reflects on the contribution of landscape archaeology: he believes it balances the “site-centred” and very localised approaches of traditional archaeology, offering a path towards a “multidisciplinary unification” of historical discourses on long-term evolutions.

All in all, the introduction and the three sections make for a very balanced book, both wide-scoped and with useful insights into specific regions, putting forward strong ideas and bringing nuances to the overall picture. The chapters from Section I may be used as textbook syntheses, while those in Section II develop topics and areas that may seem more marginal and are less well covered elsewhere. Likewise, there are both echoes and pertinent differences between the introduction and the Section III conclusions: all of them aim to provide an overview of the subject, but Loré’s introduction is more neutral and factual, while the five conclusions are more personal and open towards further research. This makes all the chapters fully complementary and the whole volume enjoyably comprehensive.