Wolfram, Herwig, Conrad II, 990-1039: Emperor of Three Kingdoms.
A reader who sought out Herwig Wolfram's biography of Conrad II (r. 1024-39) with the aim of, for example, using it as a reference tool to determine the first Salian emperor's activities in the spring of 1032 will almost certainly find themselves placing the book back on the shelf and shaking their head in puzzlement. Such a reader might, perhaps, be left wondering why Chapter 8, entitled 'The Emperor in Germany (1027): Court Diets, Synods, Confidential Discussions, and Compromises', leads directly into a chapter concerned with the emperor's second Italian venture of 1036-38, passing over nearly a decade in apparent silence. The answer is to be found in the fact that Wolfram has written something of a rarity amongst the plethora of biographies of medieval royalty that jostle for precedence on the academic bookshelf: an interesting and thought-provoking book.
Conrad II is structured into five main sections, sandwiched between an introductory sketch of the medieval world in the early eleventh century and an epilogue in two parts, the first part of which, Chapter 22, summarises the essence of Wolfram's portrait of Conrad. In 'From Worms to Basle', the book's first section, Wolfram offers a study of Conrad and his wife Gisela's rise to power, situating this within the broader context of early eleventh-century imperial politics. This is followed by 'Conflicts and their Resolution', a wide-ranging study of Conrad's approach to dealing with resistance and to governing the German and Italian lands of the Empire. This section of the book is particularly notable for the changes it highlights in the emperor's approach to dealing with Italy: in 1026-27 Conrad swept into the Italian peninsula as the defender of episcopal rights; by the time he returned in 1036 he had reversed this policy, becoming the defender of lay rights against episcopal encroachments. In its first half, the third section, 'The Realm', examines what, amongst other things, Conrad's attitude towards the imperial insignia and public crown wearing tell us about his conception of royal authority. The second part of this section includes a stimulating analysis of the various layers that comprised the political 'classes' of Conrad's empire. The fourth section, 'Foreign Policy', focuses primarily on Conrad's dealings with the Empire's eastern neighbours, but frames this discussion by considering his Byzantine and Burgundian policies. The book ends with a section exploring Conrad's attitude towards the Church.
In his introductory comments, Wolfram states his purpose as being, in part, 'to tell Conrad's story in modern language, from a modern perspective, and with an eye to modern modes of interpretation' (p. xviii). If the book has an important flaw, it is that Wolfram does not dwell sufficiently on elucidating the perspective he adopts and these 'modern modes of interpretation'. In an interview given in 2003, the author explains the aim of Conrad II far more explicitly than he does in the book itself: it is an attempt 'to reinvent politics and policy for the historical profession' and to produce a biography in a similar vein to Jacques Le Goff's Saint Louis (Paris, 1996) (John Eldevik and Christoph Sonnlechner, 'An Interview with Herwig Wolfram', Comitatus, 34 , pp. 187-95). If Wolfram's decision to let the book's approach speak for itself may confuse some of its readers, this should not, however, detract from its author's considerable achievements.
In adopting a thematic structure, Wolfram is consciously seeking to produce the antithesis of H. Bresslau's Jahrbucher des Deutschen Reichs unter Konrad II, 2 vols (Leipzig, 1879-1884). At the same time, his primary concern lies with revising Bresslau's influential portrait of Conrad, based on advances in our understanding of medieval society and politics. The result is a convincing depiction of an emperor who lacked the 'high-handedness' and 'ruthlessness' with which Bresslau endowed him, but who nevertheless departed strikingly from his predecessor Henry II's policies in almost every respect: 'the new king did not immediately introduce an entirely new set of policies, but instead adopted his predecessor's political methods and goals, put them to the test, and then made a drastic break with tradition as soon as he recognized their deficiencies' (p. 321). This approach characterised not only Conrad's Italian policy, but also his dealings with the Empire's eastern neighbours and the Church. In this latter area, in particular, Wolfram paints a very different Conrad from Bresslau's unrelentingly secular ruler: '[w]hen it came to the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the Salian ruler did not pursue an antimonastic or antiepiscopal or even a broadly antichurch policy, nor would he have entertained one. He did, however, swiftly and utterly dispense with the sort of favoritism Henry [II] had shown the clergy to the detriment of the secular nobility' (p. 322). Rejecting recent views that the reign lacked any form of conceptual underpinning, Wolfram returns frequently to the idea that the emperor espoused an emerging 'transpersonal' conception of rulership: 'Conrad's success seems to have been a function of his ability to pursue two incongruous political courses--the exercise of personal authority and the institution of a transpersonal polity--almost simultaneously' (p. 328; see also pp. 115, 143, 153, 324-5, 331).
This is a book that benefits from being read in its entirety: only after it is digested fully can Wolfram's conception of Conrad and his reign be appreciated properly. This is not a book without flaws: the nature of the Burgundian law 'restored' by Conrad (p. 339) is, for example, one of several topics Wolfram raises but leaves unanswered. Nevertheless, Penn State Press has performed an important service in making a work as significant for its general approach, as its reassessment of the first Salian emperor, available to an English-speaking audience.
School of History
University of Canterbury, Christchurch
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2008|
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