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24.01.10 Weiler, Paths to Kingship in Medieval Latin Europe

24.01.10 Weiler, Paths to Kingship in Medieval Latin Europe

As made clear by a recent review published in The Medieval Review, comparative studies of the politics of succession in medieval Europe are alive and well, including in fields beyond that of “History.” [1] In that vein, Björn Weiler has offered a provocative and compelling analysis of commonalities in succession practices from among a wide range of medieval European examples. He argues, convincingly, that our tendency to study kingship in distinct geographical politics “owes more to the concerns of nationals from the nineteenth century” than it does to the realities of medieval Europe and that comparative studies, such as his, are necessary to trace the shared norms and values that lined the path to kingship (8).

Weiler introduces his reader to the central tenet of his study immediately: “This book is about power” (1). In that short and direct sentence, Weiler encapsulates myriad realities about royal politics in medieval Latin Europe, including the processes, assumptions, and mechanisms surrounding how kings were made and how they legitimized and retained their authority and power. Weiler’s text is predicated on analyzing the distinction between the shared values that were universal in medieval politics, while recognizing that they were not uniform in practice. So, while different societies, dynasties, and cultures diverged in precisely how they elevated their kings, there were principles that were shared among them.

Weiler divides his book into five thematic parts of two chapters each. These chapters cover sequential aspects of medieval rites of kingship, beginning with two introductory chapters within the “Foundations” section. These two chapters, “Politics and Power in High Medieval Europe, c. 1000-1200” and “Foundational Texts,” are opportunities for Weiler to lay out the structural supports of his arguments as well as their historical and cultural contexts.

Among these cultural assumptions was a belief among elites in the Latin West that they constituted a “distinct cultural sphere,” despite their cross-cultural ties and cosmopolitan nature. This belief, misguided though it may have been, allows Weiler to more firmly ground his comparative royal traditions within a broader “European” context. One of these binding ties was the role of Christianity, which medieval observers saw as fundamental to how kingship operated; the exemplars from the Old Testament (Saul, David, and Solomon especially) continued to serve as models throughout the period. Finally, Weiler demonstrates that within individual practices of kingship, adherence to tradition as well as divergence from it existed side-by-side within broader schema of shared assumptions.

Chapter two, covering the foundational texts available to medieval authors, gives a good account of the most common biblical and classical authors used by medieval elites to conceptualize kingship. As stated, the biblical examples of Saul, David, and Solomon were the most often cited, though medieval authors pulled examples and inspiration from throughout the Bible. For classical authors, the figures of Cicero and Seneca loomed largest. Finally, the writings of the Church Fathers--especially Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, and Isidore of Seville--served as texts wherein authors could find a unification of classical and Christian ideologies of kingship.

Part two, “Creating Kingship,” discusses the manner by which kings were made, including who made them and under what authority. The two chapters in this part, “Becoming King” and “Conferring Kingship,” focus on what differentiated a king from other secular rulers and tyrants. Weiler deftly shows the balance that had to be struck between placing oneself in a position to gain power and not showing too much of a desire for it. As he writes to lead off the section, “They are most successful at the political game, who sully their hands just enough that the stains of their ambition can be washed off” (65). Weiler’s goal, which he achieves, is to show the reader the essential elements of how kings were made, rather than disentangling particulars about actual kings.

Chapter three, “Becoming King,” focuses on the origins of how polities became kingdoms and how rulers became kings. Weiler shows that kingship emerged as an aspirational state for communities, largely based on the biblical exemplars mentioned above. Having a king meant that the community had moved beyond mere rulership by might and had become something more legitimate and virtuous. Weiler compiles several examples from across Europe to consider how communities elevated their rulers to the status of kings; behind many of their efforts was the core question of who determined whether a ruler was a legitimate king or merely a force-focused tyrant. While medieval observers were very eager to have their kings recognized and confirmed by others, they were loath to have it be seen that these kings were “created” by others; the line between kings and tyrants was partially mediated in the realm of their peers and colleagues.

Chapter four, “Conferring Kingship,” carries that question of how kings were created or confirmed a step further and considers how contemporaries negotiated the “relationship between the recipient of a crown and the person or people authorising its possession” (95). Weiler examines the expectations and tropes of how crowns were conferred, including the belief that only a tyrant would actively desire a throne; the legitimate recipient of kingship had to do so under protest and sufferance. He shows that there was an expectation that the conferrer of the crown be a figure of moral legitimacy and would (ideally) not materially benefit from the action; questions of whether this meant that granting a crown put the grantor into a position to repossess it were largely avoided. It was, ultimately, a balance between wanting the legitimacy inherent in being crowned by a figure of moral and institutional importance, while also maintaining the position of supremacy associated with kingship.

Part three, “Succession,” takes as its focus all of the assumptions and norms associated with how kingship was passed from one holder to the next. Without succession, kingship remained only an individual accolade that died with the ruler who achieved it. Weiler uses this section to take aim at core assumptions regarding royal succession--that the default model was kingship smoothly passing from father to son (it was not) and that elites were largely sidelined in the process (they were not). Instead, Weiler demonstrates that the elites were often the most important variable in how kingship passed down, as they were the power-brokers still around after the king had died.

Chapters five and six, “Duties, Norms, and Process” and “Succession,” serve as the analytical heart of the book in the sense that how one became a legitimate king initially was the most important aspect of creating kingship. It is here that Weiler is able to bring out his argument fully that the process whereby someone was elevated to kingship set the stage for how his reign would be perceived. Weiler reiterates that a prospective king had to show a reticence to take on power (feigned though it may be) and had to carefully balance the overlapping priorities of ensuring peace and tranquility, the well-being of his dependents, the common good, and his own salvation. These various priorities also had to be balanced against the preparation of the subsequent king. As Weiler notes, “For a succession to unfold as planned, it was not enough just to designate heirs, or even have them publicly accepted. They had to be readied for the moment when claims would have to be validated by the kingdom’s elites” (164). Succession was, as he says, “a process, not an event” (165), and it typically unfolded over a series of years. Heirs were often trained for leadership from an early age, and in some cases (especially Germany and France) were crowned while the current king still lived. Regardless, the period of succession, no matter the preparations, was still one of uncertainty, crisis, and danger that all of the preparation for legitimate succession served to ameliorate.

Part four, “Election,” considers how the will of the populace was garnered and incorporated into the process of choosing a king. Theoretically, all kings were “chosen” by the people that they ruled, but as Weiler notes, “the people’s freedom to choose was, however, circumscribed by norms as well as needs” (227). The two chapters contained in this part, “Unanimity and Probity” and “Choosing a King,” go over the processes necessary for gaining the kind of acclamation associated with divine kingship. As kingship was seen as a gift from God, there *should* be unanimous approval for the choice from among those to be ruled. One could not, for example, openly campaign to be king, since it could be equated with simony (as kingship was a divine office). However, Weiler points out that this “unanimity” “could be achieved over time, had to occur for the right reasons, had to be conducted by the right kind of people and had to result in the elevation of the right kind of person” (247). Thus, this process played out in much the same way as other political processes, including in campaigning for the office, but it did so constrained by the need to appear to be avoiding those very vices.

The final part of the book, “Inauguration,” considers the process whereby kings were crowned and enthroned. Here, as throughout the book, Weiler makes a compelling case that the norms and processes around these events were at least important, if not more so, than the “events” themselves; without the processes and structural supports, individual acts (such as designating an heir) could and would be insufficient. Weiler also shows that by elevating the consecrating and anointing above all other elements and making it an assumption of “legitimate” kingship, modern historians have enshrined the clerical perspective as normative and have given it outsized importance in the entire procedure of making someone a king.

Weiler shows that the ceremonies and traditions associated with enthroning a king were focused on establishing legitimacy and undermining opposition. While the actual act of consecrating a king mattered (though Weiler humorously compares defining sacral kingship as being akin to nailing jelly to a wall), what was more important were the actions taken by the new king within the first several years to solidify his power and to show that God and the people had made a wise choice. These mechanisms could include giving feasts, hosting and participating in public processions, doing justice, and winning wars (notably, Weiler argues that new kings often embarked on a low-stakes, winnable war early in their reigns).

In his conclusion, Weiler posits three key points: 1) There was nothing inevitable about the emergence of nation-states, and too many studies of medieval kingship have read the evidence backward from nineteenth-century assumptions about their inevitability; 2) the examples from the high medieval period speak to shared norms and assumptions about what made a good king across geographical boundaries; 3) the values that he finds associated with European kingship were neither specifically European nor western. His final sentence serves as a challenge and call to contextualize medieval European kingship into a broader, global perspective. With that laudable goal in mind, Weiler’s book does an excellent job establishing the cultural norms and assumptions for the medieval European aspect of that project.



1. See Jonathan R. Lyon, “Review of Kokkonen et al., The Politics of Succession: Forging Stable Monarchies in Europe, AD 1000-1800,” The Medieval Review 23.10.04.