Elites in the reign of Charlemagne

Elites in the reign of Charlemagne

By Jinty Nelson

Conference Paper (2009)

Introduction: Thanks above all to Régine Le Jan and her colleagues, early medievalists have begunto think in a more concentrated and comparative fashion about elites. They have observed when looking sidelong at late antique and late medieval historiographies a yawning gap in their own back yard, recognised a period-specific scarcity of evidence which helps explain why the gap exists in the first place, and begun systematically to fill it. Though reference to post-founding-fathers sociology has been rare, a glance at some Anglophone work suggests that early medievalists’ new focus on multiple, regional and local elites has, fortuitously or instinctively, gone with a recent social-scientific trend.

Early medievalists’ take-up of the concept has been patchy. Marxisant inclinations, by prescribing the term ‘class’, have inhibited use of the term ‘elite’. One or two recent Anglophone examples illustrate this variety. Tim Reuter, in his historiographical survey paper ‘The Medieval Nobility’, avoided the term, while using it, sparingly though, in other papers. Matthew Innes, in State and Society, is easy with it (though he has no index entry); Julia Smith, in Europe after Rome, is still more so (and does have an extensive index entry); Stuart Airlie and Susan Reynolds make telling use of it; Chris Wickham in Framing the Earlier Middle Ages, has an overwhelming preference for ‘aristocrat(s)’ and ‘aristocracies’, though he uses ‘elite(s)’ from time to time, and actually defines ‘aristocrat’ as ‘a member of a (normally landed) political elite’. His definition of ‘peasant’ is of the expansive kind that includes accumulators of land so successful as to become ‘rich’, ‘medium landowners’, and ‘village elites … in a structurally dominant position that could often last across generations’.

In The Inheritance of Rome, Wickham uses the term ‘élite’ [in that now slightly old-fashioned accented form] in a range of contexts in Part I, dealing with late antiquity, hence echoing specialists in that field since the 1970s, much more rarely in Part II, on ‘the post-Roman West, c.550-c.750’, yet quite frequently again in chapter 16 of Part IV, on ‘the Carolingian Century’, while ‘aristocracy’, ‘aristocrats’, and ‘aristocratic groups’ are ubiquitous throughout (his index has no thematic entries). I myself am in the habit of using the term ‘elite’ frequently: it is neat, can be used substantively as well as adjectively, and is highly adaptable, hence handy in discussions of societies that are both highly regionalised and strongly stratified. Unlike ‘aristocracy’, it engages less with such old questions as was the ruling class one of birth or service? or, was it the creation of rulers or did it predate them? and instead focuses attention on social groups and their interrelations. My impression is that ‘elite’ has become increasingly common currency in Anglophone writing and is increasingly often differentiated by having an adjectival attachment, as in Wickham, Inheritance Part I: provincial, local, urban, barbarian, Roman, Gaulish, political – as well as simply ‘the elite’ in an essentially political sense. The word, borrowed into English from its original French in the mid-eighteenth century, began with a very broad range of reference to social distinction by rank but also to distinction within a group.

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