Early Middle Ages

Challenges faced by kingsA great deal of turmoil characterized the administrations of rulers during the High Middle Ages.  The feudal system scattered loyalties unevenly throughout the state, and the distribution of fiefs between family members complicated this system further by enabling family ties to control these loyalties. In addition, the Church claimed its sovereignty over both man and land, and denied that high rulers had any authority over the clergy.

These were significant challenges in themselves.   Adding to this were the typical problems of difficult terrain and management of large territories, such as the region now known as France.  High rulers were in a quandary. 

The erection of strategically placed fortresses enabled rulers to both establish secure outposts, and to act as symbols of power.  These stone fortresses were large enough to house entire garrisons of soldiers; small cities in themselves.  Surrounded by either rugged terrain or ditches, entry points were secure.  High battlements were both functional and imposing.  Often, the sight of these structures alone was a successful deterrent to rebellion, and on documented occasions otherwise uncommitted regional rulers were intimidated into formalizing a subservient relationship with the ruler.

While military resolutions remained an option, high rulers wisely also sought peaceful solutions.  They participated in religious observances and claimed their rule was blessed by God; while religion was probably held in great awe and esteem by many high rulers, it is undeniable that their participation was significant in lending credibility to their power.  The German duke Frederick Barbarossa was elected by a council of princes to his position as king, and was blessed in a church, thereby gaining blessings from God and from man for his tenure.

Finally, rulers also participated in establishing relationships with other powerful people.  Arrangements such as marriage, and oaths of loyalty created bonds which legitimized claims for power, and provided a pool of resources from which rulers could draw in times of need.

Centralization of power

The feudal system was by nature fractious.  Knights and nobles owed service to others, but in turn frequently had vassals of their own.  Not only were loyalties diluted, but lords handled and adjudicated disputes and other complaints involving their vassals. 

The role of the Church complicated this system even more.  Members of the clergy were often lords and vassals to other lords, and the Church claimed that all clergy were answerable only to Rome, not to local officials. 

Medieval rulers undertook the daunting task of centralizing power by firming establishing their legal authority over both laypersons and clergy. 

Rulers produced clear documents detailing the boundaries of their powers.  There was to be no doubt that these kings and princes were the first authority in all legal matters, and they specifically empowered themselves to adjudicate complains against members of the clergy.  This was in direct contradiction to the Church’s position that all clergy were answerable only to the Church; rulers lent themselves credibility by depicting themselves as appointed and blessed by God.

Rulers also undertook construction of castles in strategic locations, and manned these castles with loyal troops.  This was a clear message cautioning vassals against raising their own troops against the ruler, while also serving as a means of domestic defense.  These actions were both threats against internal enemies, and comfort to subordinates who could look to one central figure for domestic peace.

Monks and priests as royal scribes

It is reasonable to conjecture that many rulers were devout Christians, and that their sincere devotion to God influenced the method by which they ruled their regions.  That said, it is equally reasonable to assume that they were fallable, and not above taking advantage of the fact that their vassals looked to them for support, assurance, security, and financial support.

Monks and priests tended to be educated, and monks in particular, literate.  Because it is likely that most of the proclamations, treatises, and legal documents produced by a ruler were written by these members of the clergy, the language they used to express the rulers’ proclaimed dominion over the Church was couched in language derived from biblical terminology, and so whether or not intentional, implied that the ruler possessed some of the same characteristics of the clergy themselves. 

In addition, the fact that these clergy were in the position to write these documents must have created a dissonance that could only be resolved by suggesting complicity between the Church and the ruler, in establishing the bounds of the ruler’s authority.  This is perhaps the reason why the document introductory statements include references to popes, bishops, and other significant member of the Church.  There is much emphasis on references to participation of Church authorities in events such as coronations, which has the effect of bolstering the appearance of such complicity.

As for members of the clergy who recorded events independently, their motivations are equally interesting.  Again, there is a great amount of writing focussing on Church authories interacting with rulers.  However, with greater independence the writing is more detached and less flowery; fewer statements of compliment, and more communication of events instead of image.  However, by and large the natural language of the clergy coupled with an understandable tendency to view high rulers as bigger than life lends the narratives a storylike quality.

Significant components to creation of the Medieval State

High rulers during the Middle Ages had a significant challenge in establishing authority given the feudal system.  Loyalties were spread thin amongst numerous vassals, constant wars threatened, and the Church was a growing power attempting to establish dominion over all of Europe. 

The most important action taken by high rulers to combat these challenges was to document their authority in written form.  Because education was not generally available to either commoners or nobles, the written word had great impact.  The writings with which most people were familiar were religious in nature and, as a consequence, significant and respected.  Rulers such as the kings and princes in the Middle Ages were wise to take advantage of this awe, and concurrently legitimize their power through documents.

In causing these documents to be produced, rulers also attempted to establish themselves as powers equal to that of the Church.  Though this was not met with complete success, the challenge to the Church was clear and it can be argued that this introduced some checks and balances against complete domination by the Church.   With considerable desire to influence the political scene, the Church was forced to confront a single set of leaders, rather than a disparate, infighting, and nearly impotent group of nobles. 

Finally, rulers built castles which served not only for national defense but a symbol of power.  By distributing these castles throughout the land, the idea of the high ruler was ever-present, even in his actual absence.  These served as deterrents against civil disturbances as well.


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