Medieval Political Assemblies A study of narrative sources pertaining to the period c.870-1141 in an East-West comparative perspective
By Tallak Liavåg Rundholt
Master’s Thesis, University of Bergen, 2009
Introduction: From the fall of Rome to the advent of absolutism there was in Christendom a continuous tradition of political assemblies: gatherings great and small convened, conversed and consulted on nigh-on every topic imaginable. Scholarly research on the subject is equally inexhaustible, and any approach to the matter must be undertaken with great care and a measure of humility. Depending on the definition of assemblies, knowledge of them is based on a number of different sources: administrative material in the form of cartularies, writs and diplomas; narratives in the form of chronicles and annals; epics, oral tradition – even archaeology. Different sources have diverse uses; their value changes according to the nature of the inquiry. This thesis will examine five influential narrative sources in order to shed light on a number of scholarly controversies. What functions did political assemblies have in the Middle Ages? To what degree were they avenues of deliberation and active exertion of power, and conversely, how much of what went on in assembly must be considered nothing but a staged political ritual for the benefit of the monarch and the highest nobility?
The weight of historical research on this topic rests firmly on north-western Europe and the Empire; few comparisons have been drawn to developments in east-central Europe. This thesis will attempt in part to rectify this by examining two well-known ‘western European’ works in the light of three less-examined ‘eastern-European’ counterparts. For this purpose I will use the Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, the anonymous Gesta principum Polonorum, the Chronica Beomorum of Cosmas of Prague, the Historia Ecclesiastica of Orderic Vitalis and the Gesta Hungarorum of Simon Kéza. It is hoped that this spectrum of written sources, while limited by constraints of time and practical necessity, will nonetheless serve to add a broader European dimension to central theories and assumptions regarding medieval political assemblies. It follows from this selection that for German and Anglo-Norman lands, emphasis will lie on the 10th , 11th and 12th centuries, whereas the 13th century will to a point also be considered for east-central Europe; specifically Hungary. This discrepancy between east and west may present certain challenges, but may equally provide a diachronic perspective in addition to a synchronic treatment of different geographical and cultural areas.