Security and insecurity of identity and status in the Frankish elite
By Stuart Airlie
Conference Paper (2009)
How neurotic were members of the Carolingian elite? No less an authority than Johannes Fried has described the early Middle Ages as an Angst-‐ridden era: ‘ Angst durchsetzte alle Lebensformen und beherrschte den Alltag.’ Very occasionally, a figure pops up in our sources who might need an appointment with Sigmund Freud. One example would be the disturbed nobleman who appears in Wandalbert of Prüm’s Miracula Sancti Goaris and whose uncontrollable hatred of Romance-‐speakers together with his bizarre strategies for avoiding them might tempt us to classify him as an obsessional neurotic in Freud’s terms. But such figures are rare in our sources as indeed is Freud’s appearance in the relevant historiography; the Freudian couch can be dangerously Procrustean and ahistorical. In general, when our protagonists do appear as going through a mental or spiritual crisis we tend to invoke neither the devil, as contemporaries often did, nor amateur psychology, but the cultural norms and features of the society. Thus, deployment of firmly historical cultural categories has enabled Jinty Nelson and Simon MacLean to cast searching light on what looks like a breakdown of the young Charles the Fat in 873. Similarly, the wretched unhappiness of those secular aristocrats who could not cope with the rigours of monastic discipline has been illuminated through studies of gendered cultural anxiety. Such studies do seem to point to a ‘fear of effeminacy’ as a deep feature of early medieval culture, particularly in the Carolingian world where ‘clerical anxieties concerning bodily control transferred readily into elite lay circles’.
My own concerns today are rather less exciting than all this and much less broad than my title suggests. I will be looking at some anxieties over status, security and identity in a fairly small sample of evidence from the Carolingian era. This is not the same thing as looking at elites in crisis. After all, the Rome meeting of the elites project covered that topic in breadth and detail.6 The concept of crisis is one that leads above all to consideration of change, whether as a short sharp shock or as a development across a longer time-‐span. More recently, Chris Wickham has given us a magisterial survey of elites in a long process of profound crisis and transformation in his Framing the Early Middle Ages (2005). Striking features of Wickham’s work include its scale, in particular its comparative dimension, across time and across space/cultures. But it is also notable for its multiple focus. It zeroes in on objective historical factors, e.g., in its conclusions on post-‐Roman aristocracies as becoming poorer and more localized than before (apart from Francia whose distinctiveness makes it a dangerous model for historical narratives). But it also pays due heed to self-‐perception and self-‐identity in, for example, its sensitivity to the significance of literary culture as a marker of Roman elite identity.