Friday, March 13, 2009

Warrior rule in Europe (and Japan)

The First European Revolution by R. I. Moore is the book synthesising post-Reynolds contemporary medieval scholarship on the transition from ‘Dark Age’ to ‘medieval’ that I have been looking for. It also throws surprising light on some contemporary social patterns (as I will discuss in my next post).

I enjoyed the book immensely, and found it very enlightening and informative. Moore makes it very clear just how much the creation of post-classical Western civilisation was based on the squabbling alliance of warlord and Church. What struck me though, is that Moore describes a revolution without a driver. Yet the driver is clear enough from his own analysis: the increase in the coercive power of mounted warriors and the competitive predation that released. All the changes he elucidates – the collapse of central power; the castle-building; the change to patrilineal, singular land ownership; the shift to primogeniture; the mass enserfment; the shifts in Church practice and doctrine – came from that.

In Dark Age Europe, military power rested on deploying masses of foot soldiers leavened by bodyguards. Even in conditions of scarce administrative resources, that gave an inherent advantage to kings – they could summon more foot soldiers than anyone else: mass won. But mounted, self-equipped, self-trained warriors had a level of concentrated leverage – both against royal power and against lower orders – that foot-bound troops did not have. Mass no longer won; training, motivation and equipment won. Royal power suffered commensurately since, in conditions of scarce administrative skills, it had no inherent advantage. Though, as Moore rightly argues, as administrative skills became less scarce, royal power improved. Reynolds’ later-medieval ‘feudalisation’ is clearly about how central power sought to deal with the coercive premium of self-funding knights. At least obligated, and hopefully conditional, land tenure was better for royal power than unencumbered freehold.
Moore broadly understands, but does not explicitly articulate, the central importance of selective pressures on the evolution of social formations. Thus, the sexual restriction of younger siblings who were barred from the marriage market by being landless (p.89) had to have a powerful social force behind it. Which it did – the demands of power itself. Younger sons did not inherit the patrimony, but it still equipped, trained and defended them (as it would not any sons they might have) that it could not do satisfactorily if divided: particularly in highly competitive circumstances.

Similarly, the shift from limited slavery to mass serfdom permits localised control of scarce labour but requires concentrated, local coercive power to enforce.

Castles are for mounted troops. Foot soldiers build forts. A castle can dominate up to 800sqkm, the range there-and-back of mounted troops in a day. Mounted troops have the range and concentration of effect required to impose order and extract sufficient concentrated surplus permitting localised castle-building. Hence the lack of castles, as distinct from royal burghs, in the foot-soldier-dominated Englisc (“Anglo-Saxon”) kindgom prior to the Norman conquest.

Competition to equip, maintain and develop personal warrior efficiency therefore drove demands of wealth. A more layered society created a premium to retain coherent lands, able to support wealth and maintain status: commercial variety created easier opportunities to do so. Hence the spread down the social order of primogeniture.

The medieval order is the knightly order—the social order where the milites, the bellatores, the mounted warrior was central—that is what is distinctive about it. Kings and priests existed before and after. Scarcity of administrative resources was shared with the Dark Ages. The properly medieval comes with the rise of the knights, the modern with their eclipse. The abandonment of the tournament as a great act of social display is as good enough a marker of the passing of the medieval as anything.

Moore identifies the collapse of central power as the loss of booty from conquest to buttress royal power. This is an important factor, but will not do to drive his revolution – Englisc royal power neither relied on booty nor decayed. Indeed, it was precisely the strength of royal dominance that made the kingdom such an attractive target (due to the income it could extract).

It was clearly true that booty could provide a buttress for royal power: hence the advantages of Ottonian Germany and Castile over France and Catalonia. And it provides an excellent explanation why the replacement of appointed local power by inherited local power in Japan, with its open northern frontier, was much more similar to the German than the French pattern.

Which points to Moore’s biggest analytical failing: there is not a single reference to Japan (a mistake which, for example, Marc Bloch did not make). Moore does use other societies for compare and contrast (I loved the ‘cowrie shell’ analysis of patterns of land swapping between noble clans and monasteries). Moore understands the profound difference between Latin Europe and imperial Chinese rule: but not the reasons for them – a mistake likely to be avoided if he had considered the case of Japan. Just as he would have been much better placed to understand the implications of increased coercive effectiveness of mounted warriors. Examining the samurai makes the knights so much more explicable (and vice versa). Thus chivalry and bushido are both religiously embedded warrior codes using honour to get an ethical handle on the predation paradox – we need political authority to protect us against social predators, but rulership itself is the most dangerous of all social predators – for warriors directly embedded in society. This is quite distinct from the duty-of-office applicable to centrally paid, equipped and trained soldiers: the Roman and the modern model,

But Japan and Europe shared other features. One was vertically divided authority – in Europe, Crown and Church. In Japan, tenno (imperial civil government) and bakufu (military government). (C16th European commentators on Japan, trying to understand the roles of mikado and shogun called the former ‘the Pope’ and the latter ‘the King’ of Japan: they were not so far wrong.) A book such as Warrior rule in Japan makes quite clear how central legal jurisdiction was in building authority in Japan: all the way down the society, just as in Latin Europe but not as in the rest of Eurasia, such as China (though some of the references to European medieval history and terms in Warrior Rule made me shudder.)

In China, rule tended towards being simply social predation. A minimal level of public goods being provided to make predation more convenient. In Japan and Latin Europe, with their competitive jurisdictions (both institutionally – vertically – and territorially – laterally), provision of public goods was a way of buttressing and constructing authority. So in both societies, authority was much more socially pervasive and the level of provision of public goods much higher. Which includes the way that Church sought to present itself – as arbiter and mediator (p.85) with personal chastity and poverty both differentiating from and supplementing the bellatores (p.87).

Medieval Europe and medieval Japan were both periods of warrior rule. Each is made more understandable by being examined the light of the other.

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