Religious Responses to Social Violence in Eleventh-Century Aquitaine

Religious Responses to Social Violence in Eleventh-Century Aquitaine

By Steven D. Sargent

Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, Vol. 12:2 (1985)

Introduction: The late tenth and early eleventh centuries were a time of political anarchy and social disorder in southern France. The progressive partition of Charlemagne’s empire and the impact of the Viking and Muslim invasions had destroyed Carolingian political authority and administrative institutions. As the invasions subsided in the latter half of the tenth century, a state of near anarchy prevailed as scions of the old ruling families and local strongmen struggled to dominate one another and extend their lordship over new lands and peoples. The hundreds of new castles they built enabled them to seize political and economic control over the countryside. As the public justice system disintegrated, private warfare became endemic among the warrior nobility, spreading destruction throughout society. Unable to defend themselves and lacking effective protectors, the unarmed clergy and peasantry suffered coercion, extortion, and rapine at the hands of thc knights.

The lawlessness of this era is graphically depicted in the Chronicle of Ademar of Chabannes (c.988-1034), the chief source for the history of Aquitaine in the early eleventh centurv. As a monk of St. Cybard (Eparchius) in Angouleme, Ademar regarded the spoliation of the clergy and of monasteries in particular as the chief social ill of his day. His narrative is not uniformly pessimistic, however, for the Chronicle also describes the emergence of a vigorous movement of religious revival and reform that swept southern France during his lifetime.

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