Regional aristocracy helped curb medieval unrest

November 09, 1999

The regional aristocracy played an important role in creating social cohesion in the later Dutch domains (gewesten) and in curbing the unrest which was prevalent in large parts of Europe after the collapse of the empire of Charlemagne. This contributed to the formation of the provinces of the Low Countries around 1200. These conclusions, reached by historians at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, as part of a project organised by the NWO¹s Council for the Humanities, are based on a study of charters and monastery chronicles. Hitherto, the origin of the principalities in the central Middle Ages had been seen exclusively as the result of bishops, dukes and counts expanding their territories.

The historians found that until about 1150, local landlords and castle owners in the area between the Meuse and the Scheldt had a great deal of power. They even formed a third power block alongside the ecclesiastical authorities (bishops and abbots) and the rising territorial princes (dukes and counts). This is shown, for example, by the social networks involving the regional aristocracy and the clergy. As the power of the duke and bishop declined, this aristocracy founded no less than seven monasteries within only fifteen years. These Premonstratensian monasteries would seem to have been founded on the basis of reciprocal obligations between the local aristocracy and the clergy, with the aristocracy founding the monasteries and donating the land. They then provided protection for monastery property, which gave them financial and legal advantages. By doing so they also gained social status and administrative influence, while the monasteries prayed for them and cared for them when they were ill or aged; they were also assured of burial in consecrated ground.

These social networks could be analysed on the basis of records of exchanges of gifts between the aristocracy and the monasteries. In the period between 900 and 1150, gifts played an important role in creating and maintaining reciprocal obligations, which in their turn formed the basis of social stability. It was only after 1150 that the territorial princes set about acquiring greater power. It was during this period that a system of written law developed for the first time, enabling the Duke of Brabant, amongst others, to maintain law and order within his realm.

According to the historians, the Middle Ages were less violent than is often supposed. Those holding power did frequently threaten the use of force, but they by no means always carried out the threat. In addition, the administration of justice was, in practice, of a far less arbitrary nature than is often imagined. Ceremonies and unwritten rules of behaviour led in most cases to one of the parties eventually backing down.
Further information:
Dr. Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld
T +31 24 322 7866
F +31 24 322 7866

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

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