Christian Values and Noble Ideas of Rank and their Consequences on Symbolic Acts*
In the Middle Ages a Christian system of values met the values of a noble warrior society. Although these two systems had completely different conceptions of norms, they adapted from each other certain values and symbolic forms to express these values.
The development of this adaptation is depicted by treating the Christian values misericordia, humilitas and clementia. In which way did the noble warrior society take up these values and how did these norms possibly change?
Misericordia, for example, became an essential part of noble behaviour, but the fundamental idea of Christian misericordia was changed. Helping the poor was often motivated by the nobles’ will to prove his mercy, not by personal compassion.
Although the value of humilitas implied a sharp contrast to the values of honor and rank, one can find forms of expression, which revealed a noble’s or ruler’s humility. With his humble behaviour one proved one’s qualification and legitimacy. Humility was expressed with symbolic forms of expression like walking barefoot and in penitential clothes or making footfalls. Similarly, these forms were used in inner-secular communication to acknowledge the existing order of rank.
The ritual of deditio combines the values humilitas and clementia. The author describes this ritual as a pre-arranged stage-play, in which the one’s humility granted the other’s clemency. These ‘stage-plays’ had only little in common with the original Christian virtues, but this way several elements of the Christian virtue system influenced the noble behaviour pattern.
Palabras claves :honor, ritual, valores, rango, acto simbólicos, normas, sociedad guerrera noble, sistema de valores cristiano, representación
Keywords :values, rank, symbolic acts, norms, rules, noble warrior society, christian value system, honour, representation
1Values, as you know, are basic for the production of norms and rules — not only in the Middle Ages. But in the Middle Ages people acknowledged norms and rules and established order mainly by acting in a demonstrative, ritualized and symbolic way. What they publicly did in this manner, was a promise of future behaviour1.
2The existing order of rank for example was ever and again acknowledged by symbolic actions, by doing public service like bearing the sword of the king as a sign of subordination, by taking a certain seat, by greeting the person of higher rank first and in certain manners, by making certain presents at certain opportunities etc., etc. Therefore, the symbolic acts had an important establishing and maintaining function. They brought the values to bear.
3Concerning the Middle Ages, it is especially characteristic that two value systems met: a Christian system of values and the values of a noble warrior society. These systems put clearly different accents, among which a balance was difficult, if not impossible. I will concentrate on these two systems and neglect the traditional line of ancient values2.
4Of course, I am not the first who has taken notice of this tension of Christian values with noble-warrior values. But the pointed question arises, whether in the course of this clash of values the nobility has actually become pious or the Church has become half-hearted3.
5Of course, mentioning only a few aspects of this clash, the Church became more martial in the course of the Middle Ages. See the altered sentence in the Sermon on the Mount: « Blessed are those who persecute because of righteousness [...] [...for theirs is the kingdom of heaven] »4. It was used as the motto of the Militia St. Petri, which was founded by the reform papacy in the eleventh century, that primarily wanted to revise the entanglement of the Church in secular affairs. In that time, the Popes owned vassals, whom they could commit for fights against internal as well as external enemies of the Church. By this they adapted the central bond of the warrior society, the feudal bond, for their own purposes; and they also adapted the symbolic forms of expression: they sent out banners and established symbolic actions of their vassals like the prostration or the strator service and many more5.
6But if you like, even the nobles became more civilized, more pious —thinking, for example, of phenomena like the knighthood or the peace of God movement, noble foundations of churches, monasteries and nunneries as well as of those innumerable donations, with which the nobles and the warriors praised God, the Saints, and the Church6.
7On the other hand, individuals and groups turned also again and again against tendencies within the official Church to copy noble thinking in categories like rank, honour or representation — because that was felt as turning away from the strict demands of the gospel. Not only the friar orders and religious movements forced the radical realization of demands of the gospel, but also groups which this official Church pursued as heretics represented the same ideals7. So one could probably fill many pages with general assessments, and again and again refer to the collision of two value systems and its consequences.
8But the variety and the complexity of the phenomena, which result from this rivalry, forces a narrower frame of the subject. Therefore, I will investigate the mere question what happened to three central virtues of the Christian value system, when the noble warrior society became familiar with them: I focus the concentration, therefore, on the Christian virtues misericordia (compassion), humilitas (humility), and clementia (clemency), which are surely no marginal phenomena. My first question is, whether the Church succeeded in transmitting these values into the noble warrior society. I prove this by discussing the symbolic acts, by which they were expressed in this society. Doing this I’ll ask too, whether these values survived the transfer undamaged — or, on the contrary, were substantially changed while.
9I like to begin with the Christian virtue which, in the Middle Ages, in certain respects was most successfully transmitted to noble thinking and noble acting: misericordia8. In the Middle Ages, persons of high rank had apparently accepted to appeal to the commitment to compassion and mercy and to convert them into different forms of expression. Several reasons seem to be responsible for this commitment: the virtue of compassion and mercy owned a strong affinity to the virtue of generosity, largitas, munificentia, liberalitas, which, in the ancient world as well as in the world of Germanic peoples, was converted as a Lord’s, as a noble virtue9. In the Middle Ages, generosity was also a commitment of the noble master, which referred to all those, who were related to him with voluntary inferiority — especially the followers and the vassals10.
10The extension of the masters’ generosity to the poor, as it happened under Christian influence, definitely resulted from the Lord’s word: « Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me » (Mt 25, 40). A society, who cultivated a thinking in gift and counter-gift, understood this sentence. Therefore, misericordia became a service that let expect a return given by Christ and so helped to secure one’s own salvation. Therefore, for example, the feedings of the poor were closely connected with other activities in memory of the dead11. Consequently, at certain days, and from everywhere the poor crowded together in the monasteries and nunneries, who celebrated the memory of the leading ranks. The poor knew that on those days the monks and nuns used to remember of a certain king or noble donor, and, thus, would dish especially opulent meals12.
11In the medieval noble society, however, two entirely different forms to express compassion and mercy met, which meant much more than a mere shifting of accents. It was probably more often the case that the poor became objects of compassion and mercy without any personal relationship being developed or merely intended between them and those who had mercy on them. That meant a plain alteration of Christian mercy. Noble thinking in rank and honour, of course, contradicted every intensive and personal contact to the poor. Let’s see how nobles expressed compassion and mercy to the poor.
12The narratives of how the Flemish Count Charles the Good was killed (1120) may be a good example for one type of compassion and mercy. Charles the Good — as the authors tell, and they intend describing the Count’s life to be exemplary — was killed by his enemies while he attended the service, reading psalms, praying, and — in the same time — giving alms to the poor13. Here the poor acted only as objects of misericordia demonstrated by a noble lord who, at the same time, also clearly expressed his devoutness. The question arises, whether this behaviour meant to dilute distinctly the Christian understanding of misericordia.
13The Vita of Albero Archbishop of Trier, written in the middle of the twelfth century, also — in totally and yet comparable words — describes the same role of the poor as objects of royal mercy. The Vita tells in praising words that the Archbishop in earlier years had disguised himself as a beggar stealed to the king’s banquet and overheard all the lords’ conversations, while lying under the table and eating the crumbs, which had fallen on to the floor14. There, the poor were obviously tolerated and they served, similar to the poor of Charles the Good, as proofs of the king’s mercy. But they themselves were totally ignored. The author of this story is convinced that the contemporaries knew that the poor were usually present at the king’s banquet.
14As many other sources also report in a formal manner, that nobles and kings had made the poor ex more (by custom) generous donations, one may argue that in the Middle Ages the Christian virtue of misericordia had become an essential part of noble actions and values, for which the means of public donations were demonstrated — namely the feeding of the poor and even the presence of the poor at the banquets of the mighty15. But little seems to be left from the essence of Christian mercy as, for example, Thomas Aquinas defined it: « Merciful is called whose heart — miserable by mourning for strange misery as for own misery — is inspired for overcoming strange misery as own misery»16.
15The judgement that the poor were merely objects and not subjects confirms at first glance also the Vita of Emperor Henry IV, that made the Emperor to be « a king of the poor ». The poor had accompanied him on his travels, had eaten with him and had even slept in his bedroom, tells the Vita. The poor had been the mourning people at his grave, because with his death they had lost a father. But the mourning of the poor for Henry IV is argued to express therewith a special quality of this king’s misericordia, which implied this qualitatively different understanding of misericordia, that Thomas Aquinas had meant, too: Henry — and the author of the Vita set highest value on this fact — had built a personal relationship with these poor.
He himself has fed you, he has washed you with his own ands, he has cloaked your nakedness. [...] Even at the banquet he was not horror-stricken by the foul abscess of a sick, while the servant wrinkled his nose or stopped up at the bad smell. Blind and lame and people with different deseases lied in his bedroom. He himself put off their shoes and put them to bed, he rose at night in order to cover them, and he did not frighten from touching those who soiled the bed because of their desease17.
16In the tenth century, Abbot Odo of Cluny had already emphasized in his Vita of Count Gerald of Aurillac a similarly personal care of this first nobleman, whom he certified an almost holy conduct of life: Gerald had not only instructed his servants to care for the poor, but had also personally cared for them, « believing that therewith he adopted Jesus Christ and praised Him ». In this context Odo complains, how much those diminish their own merits who only give alms and do not care for any communication with the poor18.
17Indeed, in the case of Henry IV one may doubt, how far this monarch actually practised the behaviour described. Yet, it should be beyond dispute, that Christian philosophers considered only this behaviour to be the proper form of misericordia.
18In individual cases this special care for the poor has certainly be practised. One may look at the example of Saint Elizabeth, the king’s daughter and a land gravine, who agreed to care for the poor in the same manner as it is described in the Vita of Henry IV19. But her behaviour had caused her exclusion from the noble society. Concerning Elizabeth’s life, it may be easy to show how much her handling of practising misericordia provoked the noble society. And many of these examples have exactly to do with the quoted acting out of misery and grief for others’ poverty.
19Thus, according to misericordia it is a fact that in the form of impersonal material care for the poor it became an essential part of noble actions. So far, one can only speak with some uneasiness of a successful adaption of Christian values in the noble society. The essence of the spirit of misericordia got lost, because it demanded compassion and personal care even for the least of one’s brothers. The Church, however, did not insist on the ideal, but was satisfied with variants which were more comfortable to the thinking of nobles, because they did not have any sympathy with basic Christian morals, namely that all men are equal and brothers. Nevertheless, the demand for personal care for any of one’s brothers was not forgotten, but as an ideal it was further found in the concepts of ecclesiastical authors as well as in the lives of individuals, who, however, greatly diverged from noble living habits.
20I want to add now some reflections upon humilitas, a genuinely Christian virtue, that did not have any direct equivalents in ancient thinking20. It is, as Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Philippians, the most innate virtue of Jesus Christ who gave himself up adopting the figure of a servant, became the Son of Men, and, moreover, gave the sign of extreme humility by remaining obedient until his death on the cross21. A greater contrast to noble thinking is hardly possible, because that made hereditary superiority to the basis of its self-assessment. The definition of superciliousness and pride, superbia, could easily be proved as the core of noble self-assessment – as Augustin has called it to be an antipole to humilitas: « amor excellentiae propriae ». The love of one’s own excellence!22
21So it was like the quadrature of the circle attempting to make the nobles familiar with the concept of humilitas. In the Middle Ages – as you know – humilitas was the core of monastic existence. Monks reflected upon its different grades until it was perfect. But it was only applied to this status, and the Church seemed to realize that in the case of nobility it would at most be possible to damp the scope of superbia that was likewise graded in different degrees. And Odo of Cluny did not incidentally quote: « The more horribly the mighty behave, the more cautiously you must address them »23.
22But the fields are all the more interesting, in which the Church, nevertheless, has made the nobles familiar with the humilitas, as a line of conduct. And like according to misericordia I want to ask, whether and how this virtue while being implanted into the noble warrior society was substantially altered — and how it was expressed.
23Concerning their behaviour towards God, nobles as well as kings had to prove humility, because considering their sinfulness, only this behaviour could be an appropriate attitude towards the power of heaven. Apparently, the Church has systematically and also successfully made this demand. In times of the sacred kingship in the 10th and 11th century, this meant that even kings publicly degraded themselves to barefootedness, to prostration or to tears of repentance at their sins, in order to express symbolically their worship of God and the Saints and their dependence on God’s and the Saints’ support24. By proving their humility, they also proved to be fit for office — and were forced to do so — because God consented to heigthen only the one who first had lowered himself. For the historians in the tenth and eleventh centuries this quotation of the Luke gospel was even the motto, by which they described the life of the kings as one of God’s temptations, as humiliatio before their exaltatio25. A quite informative example is given by the historiographer Liutprand of Cremona, who tells the story how Otto the Great, when some of his warriors had got into difficulties — and he couldn’t help them —, dismounted from his horse, knelt down, and in tears prayed for God’s help. And God rewarded him with the victory — what Liutprand, who dedicated his work to the king, plainly told by directly addressing him: « Even you have earlier not known how much God loves you »; so he made him clear that God had only granted him the victory because of his demonstrated humility26.
24Noble Bishops had also in individual cases used the same forms of expression when taking office: they refused the usual entry into their episcopal seat, sent their insignia of office in advance, and entered the town barefooted and clothed in a penitential robe and, so humbly demonstrated their awareness of their own unworthiness27. Barefootedness, penitential robe, prostration, and tears were the precedentially used symbolic forms of expression, in order to make such a humble attitude quite striking, and it honoured kings and nobles when assuming these attitudes towards God and the Saints. On the other hand, it might be symptomatic that the expressive forms of such royal behaviour disappeared, when they — by Henry’s IV barefootedness in Canossa — got a certain additional sense: namely, to subordinate himself to the Pope28.
25With the literary example of the Good Gerhart written by Rudolf of Ems, a poem of the 13th century, may be proved how difficult it was on this field to make the demand for humility compatible with the thinking of gift and counter-gift, which dominated the noble mentality and practice. In the framing story Emperor Otto reports in a prayer a proud balance of his efficient actions: considering his excellent good works — he has after all conquered the pagans and founded an archbishopric — he is sure of getting a prominent place in heaven as a return, and now he asks God for being informed about this place29. A voice of heaven, indeed, confirms his great merits, and in fact a place at the side of God Almighty has been made ready for him, but the voice, however, adds that Otto now has lost all these merits because of missing humility. Then he is referred to the example of the merchant Gerhart, living in Cologne, whose humility is so perfect, that he does not at all know anything about himself being humble30. And exactly this is confirmed at the following visit the emperor made in Cologne. Nevertheless, this example also proves that the demand for humility towards God is also strictly required from kings.
26So I ask in a next step, whether humble behaviour might also have had its place in inner-secular communication of the mighty. Did the obligation to humble self-denial also mould or influence forms of communication within the noble society itself? This perspective leads to a perhaps surprising statement: the same symbolic forms, having expressed humility towards God, were also used to acknowledge the existing order of rank in the world and even to accentuate it. Those of lower rank namely used in different situations the arsenal of expressive forms of humble self-abasement, in order to honour those of higher rank, to put them in a merciful mood or to reconcile them. And this was not left to them to do independently, but it was a concrete part of the customs.
27The humble requests made by the followers, together with their appropriate symbolic forms of expression, generally evoked reactions graciously granted by their master who kindly and mildly met their requests31. The humble self-abasement expressed by a request that was made submissively or on bended knees meant to presuppose the establishment of clementia or gratia. So the position of the master who generously granted a request was left to the one of higher rank, and even firm demands were made in form of humble requests. This behaviour was the predominant style throughout the centuries. The behaviour of both sides — the requesting as well as the granting one — orientated itself formally by expressive forms of Christian cardinal virtues, but was substantially as well as entirely determined by the intention to enforce concrete interests. We are observing a stage-play, which was often pre-negotiated and pre-arranged. The expressive forms of humility and clemency secured the binding force of the drama.
28This phenomenon is, in particular, plainly comprehensible within the proceeding of amicable ending of conflicts, with which the granting of clementia was dependent on humilitas demonstrated by effective actions. The noble society, who practised such procedures from the ninth century until early modern times, had borrowed loans from the ecclesiastical penitential practice32. Almost all forms of expression, with which the sinner showed his humility towards God, his penitence and his readiness to mend his way, also play a role in the procedure of dealing with conflicts: the barefootedness, the penitential robe, the prostration, and the verbal request for forgiveness. They became firm elements of the ritual of deditio and remained it for a long time. Individual cases show that then humiliation of the one of lower rank was at the end of the conflict the more severe the more successful he had acted there33. You see, the significance of Christian cardinal virtues was incisively altered, when using expressions of them in the rituals of conflict settlement.
29Concerning these proceedings, humilitas respectively its symbolic forms of expression did no longer originate from the consciousness of one’s own unworthiness, but they were rather established as satisfactions in order to give them to the vis-a-vis for suffered harm or insults. The humilitas was entirely temporary, exactly measured in doses, and after the ritual of deditio one had done quite enough. The order of rank affected by the conflict was reestablished, and one did not hope for, but had a claim to clementia and gratia of the one who had been honoured by exactly dosed and negotiated humilitas. And the extent of this clementia was not least orientated towards the rank of persons. So the queer situation could arise, that the leaders of high rank participated in their enemies' clementia and, thus, got away unmolested after a conflict, while their supporters paid for it with their lives34. In other cases clemency could mean, not to kill but to blind, to put in prison or to exile. Clemency could be as exactly dosed as humility.
30Meanwhile it might be well-known, with which effort one knew to evoke the impression of authenticity at such ceremonial representations: repentance and despair, tears and self-accusations on one side, kindly lifting-up from the floor and kiss of peace on the other side, not least tears of joy by the audience are suggesting a dramatic event with open end and veiling the ceremonial character of the representation, whose details had possibly been object of tough negotiations35.
31All this is merely far from having to do with the meanings of the Christian virtues humilitas and clementia. All these successive actions rather reveal a retaliative thinking, as Otto the Great had expressed it in his prayer in Rudolf of Ems, too: one could recall with certain deeds certain returns. And herewith the deed of public self-abasement established a claim on an adequate return which meant to give up a claim to punish. One had simply transmitted in form of an analogy a sinner's behaviour towards God to the conditions within the order of rulership: the one of higher rank got satisfactio, that the one of lower rank, who had risked to resist him, now humiliated himself before him, whereby the old order was reestablished. The one of lower rank got help in facilitating him his self-disgrace, because he was safe from being threatened with punishments because of the other one's clementia. As concerning misericordia all this did not depend on purpose and spirit; it was sufficient that external behaviour established adequate effects. So far my remarks to the clash of values in the Middle Ages, which of course need further treatment.
32Finally, I only want to ask briefly: do these observations mark the resistance of the medieval nobility against Christian ideas? Did the two value systems remain incompatible with one another like fire and water? My short answer is: neither the one, nor the other.
33Both sides had to cut their demands and to abandon the strict realization of their values. For this they had the necessary willingness without completely denying themselves.
34In many cases they have been content with all they could reach and have not tried to realize their ideals. The Churchmen knew from the gospel, that even the righteous man sinned seven times a day. So they didn’t expect or demand perfection.
35By this way and with this mentality the Church acted as a stabilizer within kingship and nobility — and not as a blasting explosive, what it should have been when consequently insisting on its ideals.
36But the Church would be wrongly described as a submissive instrument of the nobility, because the fact that the priests were responsible for the souls of men — and thus for the kings, too, — was always a well-known position and formed its self-image as a reminding and correcting institution. So the mighty of the Middle Ages, who ruled under influence and control of clerics, have not become saints, even when the Church made some of them saints. But the restriction of despotism, the binding of the mighty to rules and norms of course did exist — and for this the Church was not alone but not the least responsible. Even if the Church often acted on the principle that the end justifies the means, it influenced the mighty of the Middle Ages that they — in different fields — did not need to fear the comparison with the mighty of modern times.
This article was presented at the Conference ‘Culture, language and political practices in medieval societies’ [Research Project: BHA2002-03076, IP: Isabel Alfonso], held in Madrid on feb. 15th-16th 2007 at the Instituto de Historia (CSIC).
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Gerd ALTHOFF , « Christian Values and Noble Ideas of Rank and their Consequences on Symbolic Acts », e-Spania [En ligne], 4 | décembre 2007, mis en ligne le 22 décembre 2007, consulté le 30 mars 2017. URL : http://e-spania.revues.org/4053 ; DOI : 10.4000/e-spania.4053Haut de page
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