Protection Rackets

Alexander Murray

  • The Crisis of the 12th Century: Power, Lordship and the Origins of European Government by Thomas Bisson
    Princeton, 677 pp, £23.95, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 691 13708 7

Young men who join gangs are participating in an alternative system of social cohesion. Each gang upholds its collective will through a range of penalties which include death, torture and mutilation, and keeps poverty at bay by theft and the sale of contraband, or, in more mature organisations, by kidnap and racketeering. In time, leadership concentrates in the man whose mastery of the idiom is the most complete, and he becomes the ‘godfather’, his authority protected, outside his immediate family, by a perimeter wall of terror.

At some points in the Middle Ages the ‘godfather’ system of social cohesion was the norm. Thomas Bisson, in The Crisis of the 12th Century, asks why this ceased to be the case. Bisson used to be the C.H. Haskins Professor of Medieval History at Harvard. In 1927 Haskins published an influential book called The Renaissance of the 12th Century, on which the title of Bisson’s new book is a tacit comment. Haskins’s own title was in its turn a comment on Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, published in 1860. Burckhardt taught the world what a renaissance was. Haskins wanted the Middle Ages treated in the same manner, so he discussed a list of 12th-century achievements that still govern schoolbooks on the Middle Ages: church reform, monarchies, towns, pilgrimage, schools, new religious orders, Gothic architecture and so on. Bisson takes all these for granted, and sets out instead to redress any imbalance their familiarity may have created by turning his attention to the violent background from which these achievements emerged. Haskins showed that not everything in the 12th century was ‘positively medieval’; Bisson reminds us that a lot of it was.

His book has an anti-hero, the ‘lord’ or dominus. We may be tempted to call him a ‘feudal lord’. The temptation should be resisted, since the title raises more questions than it solves. Bisson anyway prefers other descriptions. He is talking about ‘affective’ lordship: that is, lordly authority which depends on the emotions of fear or love concentrated on one person. Bisson has already analysed this ‘lordship’ in several articles and here expands his reading, extending the term at times to kings and counts – as in ‘lord-king’ or ‘lord-count’ – to show that the core of the holder’s authority, whatever his title, lay more in affective lordship than in an abstract concept of office. Recognising that, by the early 11th century, public authority had retreated in most parts of the former Carolingian world, and had devolved onto lords whose dynastic power was increasingly local, Bisson sets out to explain how it was that public political institutions, of a largely new kind, had emerged by 1215.

That year marks the end of his ‘long’ century, which starts c.1050. His survey deals with all of Western Europe, from Poitou to Poland, England to Sicily. We may think all this has been sufficiently covered by other historians, but what is new about Bisson’s thesis, besides its comprehensive scope and the massive amount of reading he has done, is its emphasis on the badness of lords: power tended to corrupt, then as now, and it made the early 12th-century lord a paradigm of tyranny. Bisson could doubtless have filled his book with stories about bad lords. Tormented Voices, which he published in 1998, told a few, rehearsing petitions to the count-lords of Aragon in the second half of the 12th century that are full of evidence of the murder, plunder and torture by which local castellans terrorised the Catalonian peasantry. (Catalonia’s name probably meant ‘land of castellans’.) Catalonia is Bisson’s home territory, and it looks as if it was this research that opened his eyes to the abrasive violence by which lords ruled, and which he went on to find everywhere.

We hear villagers near Pisa tell their bishop, c.1070, that, having once been free men, paying dues to their castellans only for their own holdings, they now find castellans notching up their demands to the point of assaulting their houses and their wives, seizing their crops and property. Monks were especially vulnerable to such treatment, and especially articulate about it. Each narrative puts its own angle on the universal scourge. Thus the monks of St Aubin, near Le Mans, c.1150, describe the birth of a protection racket. A man called Giraud Berlai plundered all the property-holders in his district until, finally, the St Aubin monks resolved to ‘give up part so as not to lose all,’ agreeing to a formal charter obligating them to pay a regular tribute for Giraud’s ‘protection’ – which they did, until a count of Anjou managed to turn the tables on Giraud, and burned the charter.

Most of the gruesomeness is off-stage. Around 1112, for instance, we hear that a monk from near Burgos told how Alfonso ‘the Battler’, the famed matamoro king of Castile, sent a henchman to rule Sahagún, and went on to chronicle the new lord’s brutalities in ‘digressive and obsessive detail’, saying that captives too poor to pay a ransom were ‘physically abused and tortured to the extent of grotesque indecency, and starved’. One of the few verbatim quotations is the Peterborough chronicler’s notorious lament about the atrocities of King Stephen’s anarchy, when ‘Christ was asleep.’

A verdict on precisely how bad things were, and when and where, depends on fine judgment, which often has to be arbitrary. Drawn on such a big canvas, the picture is bound to be impressionistic. There are, however, other reasons for believing that the predatory behaviour of these lords was increasing in the 11th and early 12th centuries, and two in particular. One is castles. Early in the tenth century someone in what we now call France had discovered that a castle did not have to be a huge fortified camp in the ancient or Roman manner, designed to shield a population from invaders. Similar building techniques could make a castle small and tall, and it could be designed not to shelter but to subject local populations. From his tower the proprietor could survey the territory and, choosing his moment, lead out his mounted armed men, his milites, to wreak their pleasure on the local population and then return to safety. Such castles were relatively cheap and quick to build, not least because locals could be forced to build them. More than a hundred went up in Provence between 930 and 1030, and between 970 and 1020 another 140 were built in the Massif Central (whose undeveloped, hilly sites were a positive advantage).

The Normans lost no time in importing this art to England, where some five hundred examples have been dated to between 1066 and 1100, and more to the anarchy after 1135. Looking back on the 1140s, William of Malmesbury would write that ‘castles multiplied throughout England, each defending its own space, or indeed, to say it more truthfully, plundering it.’ Henry II Plantagenet made his first act in England the destruction of all the castles he could not expect to control directly: he said they were ‘built to plunder the poor’. The cost of a horse and its equipment, and the need for full-time practice in using them, put horse-warfare beyond the reach of all but the military class. Add a castle, and the advantage became vertiginous. Its lord was virtually impregnable. The effect of this type of castle on Europe’s political texture was analogous to that of the rifle in 19th-century Africa.

There is also an economic reason to share Bisson’s view that there was an early 12th-century lordship crisis. Charlemagne’s common market had concluded the Rhine’s transformation from a frontier into an artery of north-south trade. This trade doubled after the millennium with the opening of the western Mediterranean to Christian traders. Local trade grew accordingly. More trade meant more money. Traders prefer money to barter because money is easily portable, countable and exchangeable, but the same qualities recommend it to thieves (which is why a thief, given the choice, will normally take money instead of objects that may be worth much more). The commercial revolution of the 11th century consequently entailed a robbery revolution too, extending to the sophisticated forms we call kidnap, ransom and protection-racketeering. Add to this the strategic invulnerability of a castellan, and it’s clear that a castle near a trade route, town or high-yielding estate would present itself to the ambitious as an investment calling for vigorous exploitation. Bisson provides examples from many regions of Europe, and conspicuously from areas of economic growth. When we use English words like ‘customs’ and ‘dues’, it’s worth remembering that they conceal a violent prehistory, when levies on trade were neither customary nor due.

How, this being the case, was the castellans’ hold broken? The answer is that they had an Achilles’ heel: other castellans. It is because they were in other respects invulnerable that 12th-century political history is made by lords and is about lordship (a truth extending, Bisson tells us, even to the dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket). Some readers may wonder whether Bisson’s emphasis on bad lords exacts, as its price, an under-emphasis on good ones, or, to be more precise, on the infinite gradations of badness and goodness (and intelligence). We find next to nothing here, for instance, on the ethic of nobility (as expounded in studies by K.F. Werner and others), and nothing at all on those lordly scions who could actually be classified as good: the saintly religious orders recruited, after all, from the same class as the ruffians. (They would in fact have strengthened Bisson’s case: the conversions of St Bernard and his like implicitly declared the military life as beyond redemption.) Instead, Bisson focuses on general developments, and identifies three, in particular, which combined to feed the emergence of state power.

The earliest is the ‘peace’ movement. In the ‘peace of God’ gatherings that began in southern France in 990, churches and like-minded laity engaged themselves to outlaw violence, vowing to use their collective resources to discipline offenders. Although these resolutions proved imperfect in practice, the diffusion of their bottom-up view of public authority contributed to the top-down versions represented by the rising monarchies.

The rise of these monarchies is the second, and most prominent, development traced here; in particular, the machinery the monarchies devised to control their agents. A king could not be everywhere, so he made local strongmen his representatives, giving them titles like sheriff, prévôt, podestà, vicar or (for churches) advocate, and theoretically binding them by oaths of fidelity. In practice, the evidence demonstrates, such are the corruptions of power that these officers tended to behave like other predatory lords, with the added cachet of a title. Thus in England, before Henry II’s mass castle-sackings in 1166, the standard view of a sheriff was that he was ‘a terrifying lord with a castle’. The same view appears slightly later in northern France, attached to Louis VII’s prévôts. In the Midi and northern Spain it was held of the vicars. A particularly vivid protest survives from Piacenza, about one of the podestà whom Frederick Barbarossa had imposed on defeated cities in 1162. This one was inventing new taxes, selling offices, charging for hitherto free services, seizing crops from local peasantry and so on – all (in Bisson’s words) ‘draped in the legality of an imperial official’.

The response to such behaviour, everywhere, came through government accountancy, which Bisson traces from a ‘prescriptive’ to a ‘judicial’ stage. Prescriptive accountancy simply tells a lord what he possesses, like a Carolingian polyptych or Domesday book, the latter with the extra sophistication – appropriate to an area of economic growth, and found also in Flemish accounting, though not, surprisingly, in the otherwise precocious Sicily – of recording changes in an estate’s value. Prescriptive accountancy nevertheless proved too weak to control agents’ usurpations. So it was augmented by a judicial kind, whereby agents were summoned into the king’s presence as to a court, and their takings calculated arithmetically. The English exchequer and its pipe rolls are again the precocious example, though papal accounting, with many of the same problems and vices (‘“corruption” itself may be the conceptual anachronism’), is a conspicuous analogue.

The third development traced here is that of charters, more than five hundred of which survive from the long 12th century. They document the erosion of lordly power by the state. Most were for towns, and listed the liberties the town wanted and which the overlord promised. The first liberty, almost always, was from ‘tallage’ (arbitrary levies) and unjust seizure. The erosion was gradual and could be reversed. Thanks to those Catalans, an Aragonese royal charter in 1202 had in effect to legalise illegality by conceding that if lords who were not the king’s direct vassals ‘maltreat their peasants, or seize from them, they are in no way answerable to the king’.

All this government machinery put a premium on reading and writing. As these spread, ideas became more articulate. From Cicero was drawn the idea of a res publica, and from Justinian that of a law – civil and canon – higher than a congeries of private rights. Bisson is interested in theory less as a topic of scholastic debate than in its embodiment in government acts. In these, all over Europe, he finds lordship declining as the main principle of social cohesion, in favour of kingship qua political office – a concept implied in the last clause of Magna Carta. The story is an old one, but so many-sided as to invite constant retelling from new angles. Bisson has found a new angle, and writes with prodigious sweep and learning.