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The Medieval Warrior Aristocracy

The Medieval Warrior Aristocracy: Gifts, Violence, Performance, and the Sacred

Andrew Cowell
Series: Gallica
Volume: 6
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 206
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  • Book Info
    The Medieval Warrior Aristocracy
    Book Description:

    The process of identity formation during the central Middle Ages [10th-12th centuries] among the warrior aristocracy was fundamentally centered on the paired practices of gift giving and violent taking, inextricably linked elements of the same basic symbolic economy. These performative practices cannot be understood without reference to a concept of the sacred, which anchored and governed the performances, providing the goal and rationale of social and military action. After focussing on anthropological theory, social history, and chronicles, the author turns to the "literary" persona of the hero as seen in the epic. He argues that the hero was specifically a narrative touchstone used for reflection on the nature and limits of aggressive identity formation among the medieval warrior elite; the hero can be seen, from a theoretical perspective, as a "supplement" to his own society, who both perfectly incarnated its values but also, in attaining full integrity, short-circuited the very mechanisms of identity formation and reciprocity which undergirded the society. The book shows that the relationship between warriors, heroes, and their opponents (especially Saracens) must be understood as a complex, tri-partite structure - not a simple binary opposition - in which the identity of each constituent depends on the other two. ANDREW COWELL is Associate Professor of the Department of French and Italian, and the Department of Linguistics, at the University of Colorado.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-572-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Within the field of medieval studies, a number of interrelated terms and concepts centered around the idea of the individual and individual identity have drawn a great deal of critical attention over the years. If we begin by citing Louis Dumont’s definition of such an individual from his Essays on Individualism – “the independent, autonomous, and thus essentially nonsocial moral being” (Dumont 1986:25) – then broadly speaking, we can say that during much of the history of medieval studies, scholars largely rejected the possibility of such individuals in the Middle Ages. But in the 1960s and 1970s, a number of...

  5. 1 The Power of Giving
    (pp. 15-36)

    In the medieval French epic Girart de Vienne, the attested version of which has been dated to around 1180, a poor knight named Renier arrives at Charlemagne’s court, and offers to serve the king so that he and his brother may win “honor and reward” (1. 681). Charlemagne is not willing to take the young men into his household, but does offer them a nice sum of money, lodging, and new suits of clothing – fine gifts indeed for poorly dressed, unknown strangers. By the rules of classical gift theory, the strangers should be required to accept such gifts, and...

  6. 2 The Symbolic Constitution of the Giving Subject: William the Conqueror and Robert Guiscard
    (pp. 37-51)

    Up to this point, we have been analyzing antagonistic giving and the integrity-drive with an economistic approach. The honor accruing to givers expresses an underlying socioeconomic power, which is banked in the form of honor. More precisely, honor from giving expresses social ties and social obligations (“debts”) which are owed to the holder of the honor. The honor is convertible to goods and services which are the means of exercising power. Honor is thus a classic form of symbolic capital in the sense that Bourdieu uses the term in his economistic analysis of gift culture (1977, esp. Ch. 4).¹ More...

  7. 3 Violence and “Taking”: Towards a Generalized Symbolic Economy
    (pp. 52-63)

    In Geoffrey Malaterra’s early twelfth-century chronicle of the Norman conquest of Sicily and southern Italy, he reports an encounter between the armies of Robert Guiscard and Peter of Tyre. Robert, seeing the great wealth of the opposing army and leaders, considers how he can obtain it. After consideration, he proposes a discussion in the open field between the two forces, involving only himself and Peter. All seems to go well, but then just as the two leaders arise to head back to their respective armies, Robert physically grabs Peter and “interdum portando, interdum volutando, interdum trahendo, usque ad suos perduxit”...

  8. 4 Taking an Identity: The Poem of the Cid
    (pp. 64-86)

    An appreciation of the symbolic capital which plunder represented helps to better understand an epic which has always seemed anomalous in its concern with money and quantification – The Poem of the Cid. This epic, which dates from the end of the twelfth century, is a classic story of the rise of an individual through the construction of de facto social power, as opposed to inherited, juridical or public power and authority, in a fluid social context which left large openings for performative success. The epic is rife with precise accounts of the capture and distribution of money and other...

  9. 5 The Sacred Kept
    (pp. 87-101)

    In the preceding chapters we have come upon instances in which the central goal of an individual seems to be not to give, (or to take), but to keep – recall Roland’s concern with his sword Durendal. The importance of inalienable lands – technically the “honor” of a lord – was also mentioned. In these cases, the individuals are not interested in giving these items away, despite the honor that accrues to giving. It is better to keep than to give. And the violence that centers around these objects is for once less about aggressive taking than defensive protection.


  10. 6 The Hero, Gratuity and Alterity: The Song of Roland
    (pp. 102-114)

    In one of the most familiar scenes of medieval literature, Roland is nominated by his enemy Ganelon to be head of Charlemagne’s rearguard as the French army returns victoriously from Spain through the pass of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees in The Song of Roland. This nomination leads to an escalating confrontation which sets up Roland’s eventual death and the destruction of the rearguard. Most importantly for us, the scene enacts a dynamic of reciprocity and its refusal which is crucial to understanding the nature of the epic hero. But the scene is merely the culmination of a growing conflict between...

  11. 7 The Supplemental Hero: Raoul of Cambrai
    (pp. 115-133)

    Roland is hardly unique as an example of the supplemental hero. In fact, supplementarity is a key feature of medieval heroes in several traditions. In the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, an epic from around the year 1200 which will be discussed in more detail in the following chapter, the hero Siegfried shows the same types of behavior. Arriving at the renowned castle of Worms, he is warmly greeted by the brothers of Kriemhild, whom he hopes to marry, but goes out of his way to increase the odds against his success:

    Mir wart gesaget mære in mînes vater lant, daz...

  12. 8 Female Integrity and Masculine Desires in The Nibelungenlied
    (pp. 134-152)

    In classic gift theory, the most central gift of all is the woman, given by men in marriage exchanges. In theory, women would play the same symbolic role as other gifts – being symbolic rewards for internally-driven accomplishments, as well as symbols of ties between men. In The Song of Roland, Oliver essentially treats his sister Aude this way in his dealings with Roland. As a corollary to this claim, the most central danger in a classical gift economy would be that men would begin to desire women themselves, and to be diverted from their masculine-oriented world of symbolic relationships...

  13. 9 Fractured Identities, and the Solution of Chivalry: William of Orange
    (pp. 153-169)

    As seen in Chapters 6 and 7, The Song of Roland, Raoul of Cambrai, and Gormont and Isembard examine the spectacular and often catastrophic consequences of crossing the boundary between social reciprocity and heroic, asocial integrity, for both the individual hero and the warrior aristocracy as a whole. Those texts emphasize the dangerous potential of the integrity-drive which underlies the performative system of giving and taking. But they also signal – through the specifically literary persona of the hero – their speculative and reflective nature and the supra-real quality of the events they narrate. The hero’s gratuitous breaking of social...

  14. Conclusion: A New, Different Warrior Aristocracy
    (pp. 170-176)

    For the most part in this book, we have not engaged directly with the complex medieval debate about the relative importance of oral and written traditions in the documented epic texts which we possess, though one important exception was the discussion of The Poem of the Cid. There seem to be strong arguments to believe that there were well developed traditions of both oral composition and performance in early medieval France, Spain, Germany, and elsewhere. It may not be possible to assert that the documented epic texts we possess are direct records of those traditions, nor would one want to...

    (pp. 177-192)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 193-198)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 199-199)