Sunday, July 19, 2009

Daily Life in Charlemagne’s Empire

Pierre Riche’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne is an enjoyable, and comprehensive, survey of society within the Carolingian Empire. The ‘first Europe’ as Riche labels it, the first genuinely European (as distinct from Mediterranean) civilisation.

The book is divided into four parts—the physical and human setting, the powerful and the people, technology and domestic occupations, cults and cultures.

The book is full of tidbits—size of monasteries (p.40), the frequency of famine (p.48), the use of concubines and prostitutes (pp52-3) price lists (pp 118-9)—and revealing anecdotes, used to enliven informative and accessible surveys of various aspects of Carolingian life. Canon law strictures against abortion are cited, it being treated as homicide (p.50) noting that poverty was a militating circumstance (reducing the penance from seven to three years).

An anecdote that particularly struck me was Gerald of Aurillac came across a woman working in the fields. Upon querying her, he found that her husband was sick and the work needed to be done. Gerald gave her money to engage a day labourer because
women should not do the work of men, for God has a horror of what is against nature (p.108).
As fine an example of nature meaning accepted background constraints (or the assumptions I am comfortable with) as one could hope to find
The Orthodox Church required a priest be present at a wedding from the C4th onwards, the same requirement not being imposed in Latin Christendom until the C16th. But Riches notes the steps the Church took to enforce the consensual nature of marriage, such as annulling marriages where the woman had not given her consent (p54) and that barrenness was never grounds for a divorce (p56), which establishes that the Church held to a concept of marriage which did not require it to be procreative, in line with clear teaching in the Gospels (Matthew 19:3-11).

We learn about the requirements (and costs) for the equipment of the emerging class of, for want of a better word, knights and their training (Pp 74-75). Riches takes an implication from this that contemporary medieval historians seem to overlook somewhat:
it is easy that it required endowments of important estates to assure the recruitment of heavy cavalry (p.74).
The advent of primogeniture, for example, makes perfect sense if landholdings had to be a minimum size to support the standing of being a knight. One can see the implications for social arrangements playing themselves out as various capitularies by Charlemagne and his successors progressively moved from a universal requirement of freeborn males to bear arms and serve when summoned to increasingly permitting folk to combine to support one of their number to serve thereby ensuring they had adequate equipment.

The booty of war was a major source of aristocratic wealth (p.80). Priests and prelates accompanied the army into battle (particularly against pagans and infidels). While the military aristocracy had a sense of moral inferiority to the clerks, which was answered by various texts of edification explaining to them—the bellatores, the milites, the militia saecularis—that they should practice the virtues of their position. One can clearly see the beginnings of chivalry and the concept of social orders—those who pray and those who fight (pp80-83): however, as other times and places found (such as ancien regime France or early medieval Japan), the mixing of royal and aristocratic status with the monastic ideal ended in the undermining of the latter (pp 87-9).

Regular assemblies of magnates were a basic element in the governing of the Carolingian realm (pp 93ff). Monarchs were not yet founts of honour and the aristocracy regarded itself as a hereditary caste—the king could grant liberty but not nobility—and was jealous of its right to counsel the monarch (p.99).

We get discussions of typical peasant houses, the joint decision about harvesting and sowing, the use of assemblies of peasants presided over by the count or his delegates to decide matters of justice, the veto right against any newcomer who might wish to share the common resources, the use of the church as also being the social centre—for example, for dancing (pp 108-9): also the multiplicities of laws and the use of ordeals (p.260).

Aristocrats sought out suitable craftsmen, especially blacksmiths (pp 146ff), a noble interest in fostering useful commerce which was to prove enduring—the notion that interest in trade pollutes noble status is very un-medieval. (It was being required to labour with one’s hands to support oneself which de-nobled.) Blacksmithing was particularly prize for its military uses: Louis the German preferred the iron weapons of Norse ambassadors to their gold.

Fear of paganism was very real (pp 181ff), the struggle against it enduring (such as lack of statues in churches, too idol-like). Great brutality was practised against those who backslid into serious pagan practices and in the wars against pagans.

Riches is very sensible about the Carolingian intellectual revival:
Let us leave definitions of the term “Renaissance” to the debates of the erudite and be content to say that in the middle of the eighth century to the end of the ninth century, literary production was greater than it had ever before in the northern domains (p.203).
This being the cultural revival that was more or less bound to occur as soon as political order advanced to a degree that resources became available for intellectual activity beyond (or even not up to) preservation. (Europe experienced another one after the Viking age passed and the new knightly order settled down: and yet another after the disasters of the calamitous fourteenth century were recovered from.)

The creative tension between Scripture and Classical heritage is very evident during the Carolingian cultural revival, as it was in the following two as well. Charlemagne himself could read, but not write (p.219), and was very to promote the liberal arts. Improved typefaces encouraged more productive copying of texts, Riches giving us considerable detail about the process of creating books (Pp206ff).

Riches covers well the sheer shock and dislocation caused by the Norse raids (he refers to them as Normans: the installation of the Normans in Normandy in 911 is the last date in his time line at the end of the book, rather than the end of the Carolingian dynasty almost 80 years later).

Riche discusses (Pp265ff) the forces that ate away at royal power. The use of local support groups—self-protection “friendly societies”—to provide mutual protection was a sign of problems in establishing and maintaining order. We see the use of vassus to mean a free man in service another. The tendency of benefices (land given in return for service) to become inheritable, a mixture of convenience (to ensure continuity when the person who was granted the benefice died) and weakness (to encourage support). The willingness of poorer folk in reduced straits to put themselves in bondage in order to receive protection and support (p.266). Knightly society is clearly emerging.

Monasteries functioned as retirement homes for those who could purchase their support (p.270): while the aged sick or “broken” poor could be recognised as dependants of the Church (p.272).

Riche gives a good sense of change over time. For example, the way that gifting of children to the Church became binding rather than allowing such children an “out” when they reached their majority (pp 211-2ff). Again and again, he stresses the essentially Germanic nature of Carolingian society, the base upon which Christianity and (far more thinly) Classical heritage rested.

Riche provides such an immense amount of revealing detail, that I have only touched on it. (He seems to have read just about every text from the period.) But it is detail provided very lightly: a very enjoyable and enlightening excursion into the life of the past.

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