Evergates, Theodore, The Aristocracy in the County of Champagne, 1100-1300.
When Bernard of Clairvaux's aunt Anolz entered the convent of Jully-les-Nonnains in 1128, she took with her a gift of considerable value: the annual fief-rent that she and her late husband had earned from their estates. That the decision to alienate these revenues was hers to make, appears to have created little or no controversy. The implication is that the partnership of husband and wife as joint decision makers and custodians of family land was strong enough to outweigh any possibility of the dead husband's relatives seeking to overrule Anolz's generosity. It is an image of family relations that might not immediately seem familiar to all students of the period, but it is from such anecdotes that Professor Theodore Evergates seeks to build his comprehensive and authoritative analysis of the lives of the aristocracy in Champagne during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Evergates has spent a career among the rich archival sources of medieval Champagne and this study is a culmination of those efforts. In the first part of the book, he traces the development of the comital state to provide the necessary background for his close study of the region's elites. While the book is not primarily intended as a chronological survey, the first two chapters do provide an elegant outline of the political narrative. The focus is on the development, under several generations of the well-known comital family, of a coherent principality with centralised institutions. There is an equal emphasis on the validity of a 'feudal' model of fief-based economic and political relationships; one that Evergates regrets modern historians have been too quick to dismiss.
It is Chapter 4, on the aristocratic family, that is the book's most important. Here, Evergates forcefully asserts his view on the 'centrality of the conjugal unit' (p. 99) as the basic entity of aristocratic social organisation, a theme that builds on the evidence provided by witnesses such as the widowed Anolz. Subsequent chapters develop the argument by studying the details of marriage, inheritance, and the 'aristocratic life course'. This last involves a demographic analysis--based on prosopographical studies of Champagne's leading families--of factors such as longevity, age at marriage, length of marriage, and incidence of remarriage or entry into monastic houses by the widowed. Appendices provide a wealth of information in the form of quantitative tables, genealogical charts and a prosopographical register of some 64 prominent individuals. As always with medieval evidence, the size of the statistical sample from which Evergates builds his demographic conclusions is far from ideal, but there can be no doubt that his efforts are as exhaustive as they can possibly be. In themselves, the appendices provide an excellent resource for future scholars to consult.
What is the point of all this? Beyond the author's professed desire to undertake a 'sociological analysis of a regional elite' (p. 1), a goal he unquestionably fulfils, Evergates wishes to banish once and for all the influential model of the medieval family most closely associated with Georges Duby. This model had asserted the importance of changes in aristocratic self-identification and inheritance practices around the turn of the millennium. In Duby's view, this meant that until the late twelfth century, elite French families passed on property by strict primogeniture wherever possible as a way of asserting a linear, patrilineal identity that Duby referred to as 'agnatic'. These practices effectively disenfranchised daughters and younger sons, the latter group forming the basis of Duby's now notorious bands of 'youths' (iuvenes) who were so important to his conception of the chivalrous society.
Evergates firmly, but diplomatically, challenges Duby on every level. There have been numerous previous attempts to question elements of the older model, but one senses Evergates' frustration that it has retained such currency despite its obvious flaws (not least the way in which Duby, in the latter part of his career, tended to rely on grand sweeping statements rather than rigorous scholarly documentation). Thus Evergates labels the use of the term 'agnatic' as 'unfortunate' and states that 'modern historians have distorted the medieval meaning ... of the aristocratic family' (p. 87); he claims that the 'normative model' of inheritance rights is 'untenable' (p. 119); and he destroys the myth of disenfranchised younger sons. All of this is a clear rejection of Duby's thesis. The close studies of documents from Champagne show, instead, that partibility of estates was far more common than strict primogeniture; that the rights of eldest sons were 'preferential, not exclusionary' (p. 120); and that women enjoyed substantial influence over, and took a full part in, the allocation of property rights within the family. The emphasis that Evergates places on the 'conjugal unit' is therefore intended to replace Duby's patrilineal model of strict male dominance with an image of the aristocratic family that saw itself as bilineal (with descent through female lines just as valid as descent through male lines) and which tried to provide as fairly as possible for all offspring and for the surviving marital partner. No doubt Bernard's aunt Anolz would approve whole-heartedly.
Department of History
University of Auckland
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2008|
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