The narrative of the twelfth century is one defined by kingship, religion, and violence. The crusades in the East, combined with a crisis of violence in continental Europe, redefined the conditions in which an individual could attain power. This century thus witnessed a contemporary intellectual current focusing on the nature and concept of kingship and feudalism. One such scholar who dominated this field was Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis. During his lifetime (c.1081 to c.1151) he witnessed the reigns of three successive Frankish kings; he rose to become abbot of a highly acclaimed monastic community, and, unlike his contemporaries, had an active role in kingship and secular politics as regent of Francia, c.1147–1149. Suger was a remarkable scholar, historian, and statesman whose texts have brought historians a wealth of insight on an individual’s perspective of feudalism and kingship.
In your history classes when you were young you may have been shown the typical pyramid of feudalism with peasants on the bottom and the king at the top. What will become clear, however, is that The Vita Ludovici Regis (or, The Deeds of King Louis) by Abbot Suger demonstrates that this was far more complex, messy, and full of contradiction. Suger presents the king through three overarching themes: (1) Administrator of the kingdom; (2) A protector of the poor and churches; and (3) A figure with virtuous attributes and religious association.
In the prologue of the Deeds, Suger writes to Lord Josselin regarding Louis VI’s 'wonderful valor in administering the affairs of the kingdom.' Suger conceived that as an administrator of the kingdom, the king was responsible for the defence of the nation against foreign and domestic enemies. Domestic threats during Louis’s reign are a particular point of interest as they provide an insight into Suger’s perspective of the twelfth-century feudal structures, as well as the relationship between the king and those within the hierarchy. Jean-François Lemarignier has outlined a theory that, presented within the Deeds, Suger perceives royal suzerainty, at the pinnacle of feudal ties.
The concept of suzerainty is best exemplified through the example of the Auvergne campaign. In the first campaign against Count William VI in c.1122, Count Fulk of Anjou, Count Conan of Brittany, the Count of Nevers, and many other magnates owed their feudatory and allegiance to Louis VI. Equally, during the second expedition in c.1126, Louis’s suzerainty is demonstrated by his host, which consisted of the 'Count Charles of Flanders, Count Fulk of Anjou, the Count of Brittany, a host from Normandy that owed tribute to the English King Henry, some barons, and enough of the magnates of the kingdom to have conquered even Spain.' In this passage, Suger regards Louis as the highest feudal lord in France to which barons, counts, and magnates owe their direct feudatory and allegiance. The intervention of the Duke of Aquitaine, however, shows the complexities and paradoxes of this perceived suzerainty. After seeking peace, the Duke William of Aquitaine met with Louis, and Suger details that the duke said, 'For even as justice demands the service of a vassal, so it also demands a just lordship. The count holds the Auvergne from me, which I in turn hold from you.' Notably, Suger details that the duke 'addressed him as his lord', once again highlighting Louis’s supreme suzerainty. In this campaign, Louis is extending his jurisdiction over a sub-vassal who does not have direct feudatory from him. As Louis held suzerainty over the dukedom and its lands, by extension this meant that he held suzerainty over the sub-vassal. This prompts the notion that land-based fiefs were regarded as more important than personal relationships. To Suger, as Louis is the King of Francia and all the kingdom’s land, his land fief prompted an authority and obligation which personal ties could not, explaining why he intervened against a sub-vassal whom he had no diplomatic and personal connection with.
This passage and campaign demonstrate the confusing and paradoxical feudal system of the twelfth-century, as the lines which defined the hierarchy, and the nature of feudal relationships, were becoming blurred. Suzerainty and feudal relationships became a primary tool for Louis and his government, and Suger understood feudalism through the notion of Mouvance. In the Deeds, he denotes the term feodum, to the select principalities and vassals whom Louis had overlordship of. In c.1109, Suger writes to the envoys of Henry I of England that 'Your efforts have gained for you the duchy of Normandy by the noble leave of the lord king of the French. […] the duchy was given in vassalage as fief by that same munificent right hand.' Further, he held that 'Louis, king of the French, conducted himself toward Henry, king of the English and duke of the Normans, as toward a vassal, for he always kept in mind the lofty rank by which he towered over him.'
According to Suger, royal policy focused on strengthening ties between the king and his great vassals, even though according to the Auvergne campaign, Suger also perceived physical land-based fiefs as stronger than personal ties. Louis’s ability to administer justice, however, was strengthened by the aid of bishops and vassals, as exemplified in the campaigns against Henry I of England (c.1109-1118) and Emperor Henry V (c.1124). The twelfth century, however, saw a shift in power, which placed great vassals almost equal to the king, resulting in a relationship and service that was mutual rather than owed. Suger subscribed to this concept, as shown through his interactions with Count Theobald in c.1137. Theobald’s brother, Stephen, had ascended to the English throne, and as the Count of Champagne, Theobald held Auxerre, Maligny, Ervy, Troyes, and Châteauvillain as fiefs from Duke Odo II of Burgundy, placing him as a strategic asset.
Suger, in an attempt to admit Theobald to the king’s entourage, continuously referred to him as “Palatine”, and writes 'For it was our intention to bind that man to the lord king by an oath of fidelity since he excelled all in the kingdom in his faith and oath and legitimacy of his decrees'. This scenario demonstrates that Suger saw personal relationship as a strong approach to feudal relationship, even though this contradicts the previous example of land-based fiefs at Auvergne.
In simple terms, Suger himself defined what feudalism meant based on a situation, which is why his concepts contradict over time. In the example of Theobald, Suger saw personal relationship as the effective feudal tool to secure strategic alliances, whilst at Auvergne, the land-based fief was able to create a chain of authority that personal relationships could not. What is certain, however, is that although the nature of feudalism was fluid, Suger placed Louis at the summit of this hierarchical pyramid.