Book Comments: State and Society in the Early Middle Ages by Matthew Innes

22 Aug

This book is good enough that it deserves a full review. Unfortunately, I’m swamped and that won’t change until the second half of next week, by which time I’ll have lost my inspiration. So I’ll keep myself to some fairly brief comments.

Innes, Matthew, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: The Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1000. New York: Cambridge University Press, (2000). Pp. 316, xvi. ISBN: 978-0521027168.

Despite the title, this book mainly discusses the Carolingian period. Yes, Innes touches on some of the transition from the late Roman and Merovingian periods, particularly in Chapter 6, “Political Power from the Fifth to the Eleventh Century” but the main focus is on the Carolingians.

The primary focus is on the nature of power, authority and social structures. Innes chose to concentrate on the Middle Rhine due to the simple chance of source survival. Due to the Lorsch and Fulda source collections, a great deal of information is available for the 8th and 9th centuries from this region.

There are several portions of this book which I consider to be most important – at least for me. Above all, Innes believes that power was developed, projected and utilized based on social relationships, NOT Carolingian state institutions. The relationships which defined this type of structure were vertical rather than horizontal in nature – between the royal family and the upper aristocracy and between the upper and lower aristocracy rather than among individuals of roughly the same social class/level. He believes that it isn’t until the Ottonians where political power began to become independent of social relationships.

This doesn’t mean that horizontal relationships were unimportant, however they did not play a large role in power politics. Innes provides a pretty fair level of detail relating how these horizontal relationships and expansion of kinship groups can be traced through charter evidence, particularly land acquisitions, however the uses of power are typified by vertical, not horizontal relationships.

Another area he covers which interests me a great deal was when he relates how the Church came to be such a dominant landholder. During the later 8th and 9th centuries the Church was granted substantial lands which altered the nature of landholding among free Carolingian peasants. Innes believes these peasants had not held full ownership of these lands, but they often believed they did. The lands in question were actually “owned” by the Merovingian royals, but with extremely loose, almost fossilized obligations which had not been enforced. Innes uses a grant of Charlemagne to the Abbey of Lorsch which involved the villa of Hurfeld, which included Schwanheim as an appurtenance as an example. In 782 the Schwanheim peasants brought a case arguing that they had full ownership and their lands did not belong to Lorsch, and they owed nothing to the monastery. The royal court decided in Lorsch’s favor (in essence deciding that the lands had been owned by the Carolingians, not the peasants and Charlemagne had the right to grant them to the abbey) and the peasants held their land as tenants of Lorsch. (74-5)

In addition to the above segments, the book covers those aspects of society which could be considered government institutions such as maintenance of roads and city walls, the royal messenger system and royal levies. Chapter six provides something of a historical narrative as it relates to the evolution of society and how it crumbled in the 10th century.

Innes provides one more item to add to what I consider a fairly consistent theme of why rebellions – or what have come to later be viewed as rebellions – happened. Often (I’d like to word this “in most cases” but I haven’t seen – or done – a comprehensive review of rebellions) these do not seem to be a quest for freedom but a search for security. As the system of Carolingian royal patronage failed, violence ensued in a struggle to fill the power vacuum until someone stepped forward to fill the void. The same thing happened in Rome in the 3rd century with the formation of the Gallic Empire, in 5th century Western Europe, and again here in the 10th-11th centuries. Locals wanted security. If the current government couldn’t protect them from either external invaders/raiders or internal violence, then people looked for someone who could, breaking their ties with the previous authority. The use of the term “rebellion” to describe these quests for security can mask what was really going on, in my opinion.

This is an interesting, useful book. I think it would make a great book to read with Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome. And Innes uses footnotes. My only caution is that if you’re looking for something which covers the years 400-700 in any depth, you’ll be disappointed. This is a book about the Carolingians.

Wickham, Chris, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 New York: Viking Penguin, (2009). ISBN: 978-0-670-02098-0.


Posted by on August 22, 2010 in Books


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7 responses to “Book Comments: State and Society in the Early Middle Ages by Matthew Innes

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    August 23, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Ah, yes. Matthew was my supervisor and that book has been an immense influence on me. It's a real pain to cite, because he talks about everything significant in about five places each, but I'm just doing the index for mine and remembering that, er, well, so do I. Funny that! :-)

  2. Medieval History Geek

    August 23, 2010 at 10:36 am

    Yes – I have three different sections where he talks about land acquisition by the Church. Very good though. Speaking of your book, make sure B&B brings a copy to K'zoo. The list price is a bit rich for me but throw in a conf discount and I believe I can handle it.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    August 24, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Their representatives have been at every conference I've been to this year–same rep. too, she's hardcore–so I think that's pretty much a given. Hurrah! One sold! Thankyou.

  4. Cullen Chandler

    August 26, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    I like this book, too, and have been influenced by it.While I'm here, let me add that I will be eyeing Jonathan's book at the conference vendor's table!

  5. Jonathan Jarrett

    August 27, 2010 at 10:20 am

    I still say you should ask Susan Vincent if you can review it for EME. Keep the argument going! :-)

  6. Medieval History Geek

    August 27, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    If we get to the booth at the same time and it's the last copy available, I've heard thumb-wrestling's the way to work out the problem. ;)

  7. Cullen Chandler

    September 9, 2010 at 1:32 am

    Wow… I haven't been back to blogs in a long time. An interesting idea, Jonathan. I might see if such can be arranged!


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