Exercise of royal power in early medieval europe

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Exercise of royal power in early medieval Europe: the case of Otto the Great 93673emed_283 389..419

David Bachrach

Current scholarly orthodoxy holds that the German kingdom under the Ottonians (c.9191024) did not possess an administration, much less an administrative system that relied heavily upon the written word. It is the contention of this essay that the exercise of royal power under Otto the Great (93673) relied intrinsically on a substantial royal administrative system that made very considerable use of documents, particularly for the storage of crucial information about royal resources. The focus of this study is on Otto Is use of this written information to exercise royal power in the context of conscating and requisitioning property from both laymen and ecclesiastical institutions. Introduction Ottonian politics is not easy for us moderns to grasp. Quite apart from its being so much about inheritances and feuds within or between kinships, it largely lacked anything which we can recognize as an administration or a bureaucracy, such as we historians have tended to think of as the spine of any body politic which they study. Ottonian rule was not, in Max Webers terminology, bureaucratic but patrimonial.1 Given the depth of Henry Mayr-Hartings knowledge regarding Ottonian historiography and his well-deserved reputation for thorough scholarship, it cannot be doubted that he has accurately set out the orthodox context in which he places his 2007 study of the church of Cologne under the leadership of Archbishop Brun.1

Henry Mayr-Harting, Church and Cosmos in Early Ottonian Germany: The View from Cologne (Oxford, 2007), p. 3.

Early Medieval Europe 2009 17 (4) 389419 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA


David Bachrach

Indeed, in 1928 Marc Bloch, looking back over more than a generation of scholarship, observed that scholars specializing in the history of medieval Germany tended to ignore the problem of administration all together, a tendency that he compared unfavourably with the historiographical tradition in France.2 Taking up the question of Ottonian administration in 1979, after a historiographical gap of almost a century going back to the work of Georg Waitz, Karl Leyser concluded on the basis of an impressionistic investigation of a small selection of the relevant sources that the German royal government operated on the basis of a modest array of institutions and very little use of written documents.3 In contrast with even this mildly optimistic view of governmental capacity, however, in an important article of 1989 Hagen Keller, a leading specialist in Ottonian history, specically rejected the idea that the Ottonian government had any administrative capacity. Keller asserted baldly: Despite the continuity of the idea of empire and the model of Charlemagne, everything that was of particular importance for high Carolingian imperial organization centrality, ofce, law-giving, and writing was absent in its successor states. Indeed they simply came to an end.4 Writing a decade later in 1999, Gerd Althoff defended the provocative subtitle of his work on the Ottonian dynasty, Die Ottonen:2



March Bloch, A Problem in Comparative History: The Administrative Classes in France and in Germany, in Land and Work in Medieval Europe: Selected Papers by Marc Bloch, trans. J.E. Anderson (Berkeley, 1967), pp. 4481, here p. 44. The article was rst published in Revue historique de droit franais et tranger (1928), pp. 4691. Karl Leyser, Rule and Conict in an Early Medeval Society: Ottonian Saxony (London, 1979), p. 102 for the quotation; and also Karl Leyser, Ottonian Government, English Historical Review 96 (1981), pp. 72153, repr. in idem, Medieval Germany and its Neighbours, 9001250 (London, 1982), pp. 68101. It should be emphasized that although Leyser discusses some Ottonian period charters and narrative sources, he does not examine the ways in which royal ofcials recorded, maintained and accessed information that was necessary to carry out the myriad activities that Leyser, himself, recognizes that the Ottonian kings undertook. For the earlier tradition regarding administration in the Ottonian kingdom, Georg Waitz, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte 6, 2nd edn, ed. G. Seeliger (Berlin, 1896), pp. 323 ff., began by looking for continutities between the Carolingian and Ottonian periods. He was frustrated, however, by the lack of prescriptive legislation of the type found in Carolingian era capitularies. For Waitzs observation concerning a lack of higher supervision over economic affairs in Ottonian Germany, see Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte 8, 2nd edn (Kiel, 1878), pp. 21618. Hagen Keller, Zum Charakter der Staatlichkeit zwischen karolingischer Reichsreform und hochmittelalterlichen Herrschaftsausbau, Frhmittelalterliche Studien 23 (1989), pp. 24864, here p. 257: Trotz der Kontinuitt der Idee des Imperiums und der Vorbildhaftigkeit Karls des Groen wirkt gerade das, was in Besonderheit der hochkarolingischen Reichsorganisation ausmachte in Stichworten: Zentralitt, Amt, Gesetzgebung, Schriftlichkeit , in den Nachfolgerreichen des karolingischen Imperiums zunchst nicht fort, sondern bricht geradezu ab. For a slightly more positive assessment of the existence of a royal administration, similar to that set out by Leyser in Ottonian Government, see Hans-Werner Goetz, Staatlichkeit, Herrschaftsordnung und Lehnswesen im Ostfrnkischen Reich als Forschungsprobleme, in Il Feudalesimo nellalto Medioevo, Settimane (Spoleto, 2000), pp. 85147, here p. 123: Wie weit vorwiegend personale oder aber Amtsbindungen das Herrschaftsgefge bestimmten, hing nicht zuletzt von der Existence einer funktionierenden Verwaltung (sic) und deren Einordnung in eine feudale Gesellschaftsordnung ab.

Early Medieval Europe 2009 17 (4) 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Exercise of royal power: the case of Otto the Great


Knigsherrschaft ohne Staat, by simply asserting the absence of royal administration of any type, much less written administration.5 Against this historiographical tradition must be set the realities of Otto Is rule. In the course of three and a half decades (93673), Otto had a record of extraordinary achievement in many facets of public life. In the realm of military affairs, Otto and his military commanders launched dozens of successful campaigns of conquest in the Slavic east as well as in the Italian kingdom; the latter Otto eventually conquered and incorporated into his empire in 962.6 Otto launched a massive invasion of the west Frankish kingdom in 946 during the course of which he established himself as the hegemon in west Frankish affairs.7 The king weathered two major civil wars (9389, 9534) in which he overcame the array of military and political forces commanded by his brother Henry, his son Liudolf, the dukes of Swabia, Franconia, and Lotharingia, as well as numerous5



Gerd Althoff, Die Ottonen: Knigsherrschaft ohne Staat (Stuttgart, 2000), p. 8: Mit den konstitutiven Elementen moderner Staatlichkeit Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung, mterorganisation, Gerichtswesen, Gewaltmonopol lt sich Knigsherrschaft im 10. Jahrhundert nicht zureichend erfassen. This study, which is a popularizing adaptation of Althoffs collection of essays, Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter: Kommunikation in Frieden und Fehde, takes as its central premise that the Weberian model of the state is the appropriate benchmark against which to compare the Ottonian and Salian kingdoms. See the devastating review of Gerd Althoff, Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter: Kommunikation in Frieden und Fehde (Darmstadt, 1997), by Howard Kaminsky in Speculum 74 (1999), pp. 6879. Although sympathetic to Althoffs effort to project the Ottonian kingdom as a Weberian archaic polity, Kaminsky emphasizes Althoffs, slack way with his Latin sources. These are quoted in German translations that are sometimes wrong but that are not corrected by reference to the Latin originals (usually quoted in the footnotes), themselves sometimes misunderstood. Some of the mistakes are serious, and one or two are tendentious (p. 688). The corresponding Anglophone tradition before the publication of Mayr-Harting, Church and Cosmos, is neatly summed up by John W. Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship and Royal Monasteries in Early Medieval Germany c. 9361075 (Cambridge, 1993), p. 5: Since the Ottonian and the Salian kings lacked the governmental infrastructure of the Carolingian kingdom and empire at the height of its power, they governed less through their representatives or written instructions sent out from the court and generally had to make their will manifest in person. There is little doubt that the Ottonian kings made less use of the written word in government than the Carolingians had at the height of their power. In fact, the east Frankish kingdom of the Carolingians already used the written word in government less than did its west Frankish or Italian contemporaries (my emphasis). For an overview of Ottos military campaigns within the context of Ottonian and Salian warfare, see Bruno Scherff, Studien zum Heer der Ottonen und der ersten Salier (9191056) (Bonn, 1985). Concerning military organization of Germany under Henry I and Otto I, see Bernard S. Bachrach and David S. Bachrach, Saxon Military Revolution, 912973?: Myth and Reality, EME 15 (2007), pp. 186222; and David S. Bachrach, The Military Organization of Ottonian Germany, c. 9001018: The Views of Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg, Journal of Military History 72 (2008), pp. 106188. For the most part, the administrative aspects of Ottonian military organization have been ignored by specialists in both German and military history. See the discussion by David S. Bachrach, Memory, Epistemology, and the Writing of Early Medieval Mi