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University of Basel

Medieval studies on the holodeck

Lucas Burkart, Jan Rüdiger

The kings of the Middle Ages can be found around and about – even today. Recently, another monarch celebrated his enthronement – almost entirely behind closed doors. This has more to do with medieval history than you might initially think. It also shows why medieval history cannot put complete faith in its own cast of characters.

Kings clearly fall within the remit of historians of the Middle Ages. Surely there can be no dispute about that. Henry, Charles, Rudolph, Arthur and the rest of the curly-headed horsemen in their red cloaks who gallop through our children’s books and feature films are medieval, after all. Of course, kings are still around – and were around before then – in Europe and other parts of the world. However, the fact is that the ‘real’ kings belong in the Middle Ages and that they are somehow ‘more real’ there than anywhere else.

An age of kings

This explains why kings have for so long being central to medieval studies, as well as why we like to assume that the European monarchies as they have developed down to the present day represent the ‘natural’ continuation of medieval Christian kingship. Crowned heads such as those of England and Denmark, with a line of succession going back 1,000 years or more, fit that image wonderfully – they are medieval, right up to today.

Of course, we know full well that that isn’t true. The seven European kingdoms in existence today have been shaped by the same profound changes – revolutions, coups and civil wars – as the rest of the continent, making it easy to dismantle the claims to continuity that the Danes and English (and others) love to make. Even while they take in the splendor of golden coaches and long, ermine-lined robes at the opening of Parliament, weddings or coronations, onlookers are constantly being reminded that this or that ceremony has been around for 150 years at most. Rarely have a historian and his work become part of common knowledge so quickly as Eric Hobsbawm and his Invention of Tradition.

Moreover, the form of government bears little relationship to the title held by the person in a state who signs the laws. As early as 1867, Walter Bagehot distinguished between the dignified parts of the British constitution, above all the queen, and its efficient parts. And taken as a whole, today’s monarchies seem to be more ‘democratic’, if anything, than the European average, although that can have little to do with the kings themselves. Monarchies are therefore no less modern than they are medieval.

History as a place of longing

Yet there is something more to the idea of a ‘king’ – something immune to the arguments of political scientists and transcending the national distinctions that operate so powerfully in other spheres. Felipe and Letizia or Kate and William have the ability to touch even people with no interest in politics. There is something pre-modern about them. However, it can hardly be Weber’s ‘charisma’, which tends rather to be the preserve of politicians from states that did not exist even 30 years ago. Perhaps it is just the word ‘king’, and the short cut to the Middle Ages that it promises. That is as far back as the time machine (still) goes – with medieval, you can’t go wrong.

So, the medieval kings are everywhere. It would seem that the historical material for the period between 500 and 1500 is best organized around this group of a few hundred people. But they are not just people, of course!

In his study The King’s Two Bodies, Ernst Kantorowicz described not just the wealth of symbolism generated by kingship as a legal fiction in medieval Christendom but how this served to legitimate monarchical rule by emphasizing its continuity. Not only does the king possess a mortal body, he symbolizes a ‘body politic’ that can never die: “Le roi est mort, vive le roi!” Sovereignty was always linked somehow to God and his apologists in this world, the theologians and clever legal scholars, who drew on the remnants of Roman law to achieve their ends.

Basing himself on a concept developed by a jurist from the Tudor period, Kantorowicz interpreted medieval kingship as political theology. In so doing, he rejected the negative view associated with the ‘classical’ history of political thought, which held that really there was no political theory between Cicero and William of Ockham. Rightly, Kantorowicz argued that theology is also political theory and that the tradition of explicit discussion of the polis and the state that begins with Aristotle is just one way (our own) of thinking about the whole issue. This was an important contribution to the understanding of the question of ‘the West vs. the rest’, with which political anthropology had been grappling since the 1960s.

Implicitly, therefore, the medieval ages were assigned to the ‘rest’. The era has become a foreign country, alternatively dark or dreamlike, within our own culture – with the added attraction that all of it is set ‘here’, producing a thrilling interplay that sustains today’s thriving tourist industries. As such, it is again what it has mostly been since its invention as a period in the 14th century: deficient, beautiful in the neoromantic sense, and, unlike a lot of things to do with history, reassuringly over.

It’s just words

Since the Middle Ages became popular once again in these terms, academics have been clustering together more and more across disciplinary boundaries in ‘Mittelalterzentren’ grouped as ‘Medieval Studies’. As a result, the intellectual approach and methodology associated with a particular discipline has been replaced by the object of study – those 1,000 years – as the main organizing principle in the field. This helps boost the kings’ status still further, as we see them everywhere, as in a hologram. Historians find that their chronicles and annals are divided up by reign and their documents are dated by regnal years, while art historians hunch over illuminated liturgical manuscripts full of political iconography; scholars with an interest in media and ritual study coronation orders, specialists in German and Romance literature read courtly novels about King Arthur, while their counterparts in Scandinavian studies read the kings’ sagas. In short, kings are so clearly everywhere that it would seem absurd to call into question their overwhelming importance for ‘the Middle Ages’.

Or would it? Let’s give it a try by asking, “Were kings relevant to people’s lives in the Middle Ages?” When, where and for whom?

The very first step brings us up short, as it forces us to ask what kings actually are. The word itself is early medieval – cyng, kuning, künec – for the Latin rex. Thus far, everything seems clear. The only thing is, haven’t we been taken in here by an effective linguistic trick? We do not know who in the post-Roman West hit on the idea of using a Germanic word that may meant ‘someone with many relatives’ or ‘someone with knowledge of (future) things’ to translate rex – how, that is to say, a clan chief and/or a kind of seer from the misty forests of Central Europe became linguistically identical to Romulus and all the Etruscan, Persian and other kings with whom Rome had had dealings. But the trick was successful and is still working today, as through Latin historiography Europe became accustomed to seeing ‘kings’ everywhere (apart from in the Roman Empire itself). We call the Babylonian Hammurabi from the 18th century BC a ‘king’, just as we do Romulus, Clovis, Juan Carlos and Bhumibol of Thailand, who has been on the throne since 1946.

There was a second aspect with, perhaps, even more profound implications. The glossing of ‘king’ as rex turned the forest gang leader into not just a Romulus or a Pyrrhus, but a David or a Solomon – someone to whom God had entrusted the leadership of his people on earth, in anticipation of that future regnum whose coming is invoked ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ in the Lord’s Prayer.

Gang leaders and that little bit extra

This role places quite a burden on all the Aethelwolds, Pepins, Harolds, Charleses and Henrys. On the one hand, a king must perform the everyday tasks of accumulating resources – internally, by raising taxes, and externally, by waging wars of pillage – and reinvesting – by bestowing gifts, entertaining and traveling around in a tactically shrewd manner. On the other, he must embody the divine ordo on earth. At the point where the two intersect, he must be a rex iustus and strike the right balance between severity and leniency – for ‘justice’ was both the key term in medieval governance theory and, at the same time, a practical necessity if he wanted to live to see another day as king. The job description of a medieval king went something like ‘between a gang leader and the Lord’s anointed’.

The next question is, for what parts of the job was a king absolutely necessary? It can hardly have been to accumulate resources – anyone who turned up at a monastery or in a peasant village with the necessary force could manage that. More regularized forms of government like the Roman or modern state taxation systems were out of the question. Even Charlemagne – who, as a gang leader on a grand scale, certainly knew how to rake in money – had to rely on political symbolism here. For that was what was needed to be a ‘David’ – to have that little bit extra. The vast majority of people had no concrete dealings with the monarchy, for either good or ill, until at least the 13th century, not even through general taxation or the law. And it is by no means certain that they always knew who their respective kings were at any given time.

Yet for the articulate part of the medieval population – the only people whose attitudes and opinions we know about – it was imperative that there should be a ‘king’, almost regardless of who it was. Without one, the divine order of the universe set forth in human history could not be described. ‘King’ was primarily a concept; only rarely and for a few people was it part of daily life. In that respect, the kings of the early and even the high Middle Ages are not dissimilar to their dead counterparts, the saints.

The medieval present

When, from the 13th century onwards, external sources of revenue became insignificant in comparison with internal ones, this concept was taken over by the emerging tax regimes of England, Aragon and France. Monarchies gradually became a palpable reality, although to nowhere near the same extent as the omnipresent modern state. It is for precisely this reason that medievalists need to look beyond their own period. If we adopt a period-based approach and restrict our view of kingship to the time frame ‘500–1500’, all we will see is the hologram: kings everywhere. In this period, which produced relatively little written or pictorial material overall and in which production of that material was limited to a narrow social and intellectual elite, the sources are so unanimous that we cannot help but appropriate their logic. To escape this vicious circle, we need to make comparisons or connections with the ancient and modern periods.

This raises the question of whether the European monarchs of today are really any different from medieval kings in terms of their function as dignified parts. Historians are trained to be suspicious of the vocal claims made on behalf of political systems like ethnic nationalism, socialism, democracy and the separation of powers; so why shouldn’t the same apply to the Middle Ages? However, we cannot arrive at this critical view through historical parthenogenesis; rather, it requires a comparative approach across different periods. Unless we sometimes step behind or to the side of the hologram, we will believe that what we see in history is really there.

Thus, even the protocol followed for the investiture of the Spanish king in June 2014 throws up a fundamental question for any monarchy that history needs to address – its relationship with the ‘ruled’, its subjects, the people. By persuading the royal family to forgo a huge ceremony with guests from the upper echelons of the European nobility, the social crisis in Spain seems to have deprived it of its last remaining function: to provide symbolic legitimacy for the handing over of power. This prompts the historian to wonder whether, even before the establishment of parliaments and democracy, the populus was not more influential and kings were less powerful than the sources would have us believe. Perhaps a medieval king, caught between the need to raise revenue and to embody the universal order, was not all that different from his titular successors in the third millennium.

Professor Lucas Burkart is Professor of Late Medieval and Renaissance History and Professor Jan Rüdiger is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Basel.

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