By Stuart Airlie
Paper given at Les Élites dans le haut Moyen Âge VIe-XIIe siècle, (Marne-la-Vallée et Paris 1), 27 et 28 novembre 2003
Introduction: This cannot be a comprehensive survey of the historiography on elites in Gaul. The subject is too vast. Furthermore, there already exist a host of historiographical surveys and summings up of scholarship on the aristocracy (to identify, for the moment, elites solely with the aristocracy) from the time of Guilhermoz to our own time. There seems little point here in retracing the differing views in older debates such as that of H. GrahnHoek and F. Irsigler, studies that themselves discuss previous historiography. This is not to dismiss the relevance of older questions, which are real questions about power, nor to denigrate the value of older work. Who can study the Frankish aristocracy of the Carolingian era without still turning to, for example, the work of L. Levillain? So this is not a comprehensive survey. It is both selective and programmatic. I will concentrate on some recent work on the topic and outline problems and opportunities for future research. This seems appropriate for what is after all a new initiative, i.e. this project on the study of elites. I take the term ‘elites’ to signal a call for new approaches. It is a more inclusive term than ‘aristocracy’ or ‘nobility’. It includes kings (and queens) as well as aristocrats. It includes clergy as well as laity. It also calls us to look below the level of the high aristocracy: how broad is an elite? Can it include what historians of Anglo-Saxon England would call ‘the gentry’? How many elites are there? It is a ‘relational’ term: for there to be an elite, there have to be non-elites (potens and pauper), and the actual exercise of power and authority over the non-elite is a subject that the late Tim Reuter thought was insufficiently studied by historians of elites.
Nor, in its limited space, can this survey do justice to the regional variation of Gaul, however we define that territory. I will take it to be, roughly, the Roman province that became the Merovingian and Carolingian kingdoms west of the Rhine. Regional studies have of course played a key role in shaping the historiographical landscape here; one need only mention Duby, Fossier, Lauranson-Rosaz to be reminded of the variety of achievement in this field. Nor is this tradition exhausted. The recent collection of papers, La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne contained studies of elites in firm geographical contexts of Gaul such as in northern Neustria, Aquitaine, Burgundy etc.