Conrad II 990-1039: Emperor of Three Kingdoms.
The inclination to tell stories, sad or otherwise, about the deaths, lives, and deeds of medieval kings remains alive and well among professional historians. Books about medieval kings also appear to have retained their popularity with publishers and the reading public. Given the frequently, though by no means universally expressed, sentiment that top-down political history is passe, the enduring attraction of royal biographies might appear somewhat surprising. One might counter that for an era such as the Middle Ages, in which the outlines of the modem bureaucratic state were barely visible, a book that focuses as much on the people who governed as it does on institutions of government should require no particular justification. Medieval writers expected that kings would possess and exercise power; and they expressed disappointment when power was lacking or exercised poorly. Like some of their modern counterparts, they preferred to place political events against a backdrop defined by individual personalities rather than by impersonal forces or complex dynamics of long duration. In this sense, modem biographers of medieval kings are simply following the lead of their medieval informants and, arguably, providing a view of medieval politics that is uniquely "medieval."
The biography under review here is the work of one of Austria's most esteemed medievalists. Readers unfamiliar with Herwig Wolfram's extensive publications in German will likely know the English translation of his influential and much revered History of the Goths. Conrad II, Wolfram's subject, was the founder of the Salian dynasty, a royal house whose involvement in the Investiture Struggle has typically lent an undertone of failure, even tragedy to its history. Typically characterized by, and implicitly praised for, his cool, unprincipled pragmatism, particularly in his dealings with the church, Conrad II tends to emerge as his dynasty's success story. Without necessarily rejecting this characterization, Wolfram provides an interpretation of his reign that is at once more nuanced and complex. He paints a portrait of the king and his queen, Gisela, as "good politicians" in the sense that good politics involves "keeping one's eye on the ball, not being too short-sighted or looking beyond the immediate horizon" (p. xix). With regard to Conrad's ecclesiastical policies, Wolfram argues that Conrad had no broadly defined vision, but rather "reached politically motivated decisions on a case-by-case basis with an eye to, at most, their medium term effects" (p. 314). His mundane religious sensibilities may have displeased proponents of ecclesiastical reform, but were clearly of his time and place. In short, one might conclude that Conrad was cool and typically pragmatic, but not altogether lacking in principles.
As the guiding principle of this biography, Wolfram states that he intended to "tell Conrad's story in modern language, from a modern perspective, and with an eye to modern modes of interpretation" (p. xviii). Readers familiar with current trends in medieval scholarship will not be surprised, for example, by the emphasis on conflict-resolution as a continuing theme during Conrad's reign. Equally modem, one might argue, is Wolfram's emphasis on Conrad's apparent embrace of a transpersonal or institutional conception of kingship. The locus classicus for this modern-sounding concept occurs in a contemporary biography by Wipo, a member of the royal chapel. Wipo has Conrad rebuke the citizens of Pavia because, during the interregnum prior to his election as king, they had destroyed the royal palace located in their city. The Pavese claimed that they could not have committed a crime against the king because, at the time, they had no king. Conrad responds that the kingdom continued to exist, even if the king was dead, "just as a ship remains even if its steersman falls." Previous studies relating to Conrad's reign have tended to agree that the king, and at least some of his contemporaries, were beginning to think about government in institutional rather than personal terms. Wolfram appears to have taken this interpretation a step further by identifying this type of thinking as a pervasive element in Conrad's policies and public acts. It may even have affected less obviously political aspects of his reign. Wolfram suggests, for example, that Conrad expressed his belief in the undying nature of sovereignty through his veneration of the crucifix.
In terms of its contents, Wolfram's biography ranges far and wide, treating topics both general and specific. For readers unfamiliar with the arcana of German medieval historiography, a preliminary chapter defines key terminology and provides useful information on topics such as the geography and political structure of the Empire. In chapters one through nine, Wolfram provides a roughly chronological narrative of Conrad's reign. Detailed discussions are devoted to Conrad's lineage and history prior to his succession, to his election and coronation, and to his initial progress through the realm. A chapter devoted to the dynasty's internal dynamics focuses on the rebellions instigated by Conrad's in-laws and relatives. Accounts of Conrad's expeditions to Italy provide an opportunity to discuss the monarch's impact on relations between the ranks of the lower nobility or valvassores and the great ecclesiastical and secular feudatories. The remainder of the book is organized topically rather than chronologically. A chapter is devoted to Conrad's efforts to secure his dynasty's survival through marriage alliances and public displays of piety, the latter including, most notably, the development of the cathedral of Speyer as a centre for the burial and commemoration of the Salian dead. Other chapters examine the monarch's relations with the various ranks of the German nobility, including the rising class of unfree ministeriales, and his diplomatic relations with Byzantium, France, Venice, and Burgundy. On the northern and eastern frontiers, Wolfram suggests that Germany's expansion be understood as a mutual and reciprocal process, rather than as an exclusively unilateral one. Conrad's ecclesiastical policies are discussed within the context of the "Imperial Church System," a controversial term that Wolfram employs with some hesitancy and much qualification. As one of its more useful features, this section also provides an extensive series of biographies of archbishops, bishops, and abbots, arranged according to their respective institutions.
In this reviewer's opinion, a scholarly biography of a medieval king should not only reveal the chief attributes of the ruler himself, but also the attributes of the milieu in which he lived and worked. A biography of a king should also be a biography of a kingdom. It is to Wolfram's credit that his biography of Conrad II, the first emperor of the Salian line, has largely attained this goal. Both the emperor and his empire are revealed in all their complexity, in a portrait that is at once accessible and grounded in current scholarship.
David A. Warner
Rhode Island School of Design
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|Author:||Warner, David A.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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