A Medieval Mess: Abbot Suger and French Feudalism in the 12th Century

Luke Daly

The King as an Administrator

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.
A Medieval Mess: Abbot Suger and French Feudalism in the 12th Century
King Louis VI

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The King as a Protector

Suger also defines kingship as 'namely safeguarding the churches, protecting the poor and the needy, and working for the peace and defence of the kingdom.' Suger reiterates this throughout his life as he writes in The Illustrious King Louis VII, Son of Louis VI that Louis VII 'attacked the count of Clermont and his allies' because he was told 'about the savage attacks on churches' and thus 'encouraged him to avenge the poor and the imprisoned'. This concept reveals a notion of kingship that Suger shares with his contemporaries. Written in The Murder of Charles the Good, Galbert of Bruges provides a close copy of Suger’s statement when he writes about the Count Charles of Flanders: 'he had presided over the kingdom for seven years like a father and protector of churches of God, generous towards the poor.' Ivo of Chartres, however, differs in his approach as 'Time and time again he pointed out the necessity of harmony between kingship and priesthood' which suggests a mutual relationship between the king and the church. Suger’s approach contrasts Ivo’s as rather than a mutual relationship, Suger believes it is the role of a king to protect his church, people, and kingdom. This is particularly interesting as within The Ecclesiastical History [Book XI], Orderic Vitalis states that after his coronation, Louis VI asked 'for help from the bishops all over the kingdom to put an end to the oppressions', which corroborates Ivo’s concept that the relationship between the king and church is mutually based, rather than what Suger describes as the king appearing as a vassal of the church. This is one of the great contradictions of Suger. On one hand Suger upholds the Mouvance concept that 'The king holds from no one' as he is the summit of Suger’s political and feudal hierarchy, yet Suger also upholds that the king must be 'safeguarding the churches' and thus does not hesitate to present Louis VI as a vassal of Saint-Denis. In the dispute between Adam of Saint-Denis and Burchard of Montmorency, 'news of the conflict, when it reached him, bothered the lord Louis and made him angry' resulting in Louis as king-designate, waging war on Burchard on behalf of Saint-Denis. Furthermore, when Louis assembles his host against the threat of Emperor Henry V, Suger writes that 'He then took from the altar the standard belonging to the county of Vexin, which he held as a fief from the church'. Thus, in the same way Louis’s vassals hold land as a physical fief from him, he held this standard as a fief from Saint-Denis. Therefore, in Suger’s mind, this responsibility of the king to protect the church was to be exercised on the behalf of his abbey. This clearly contradicts the Suger’s Mouvance concept outlined earlier, as he is presented as being a vassal of Saint-Denis and the church. This exception, however, extends further than just the church as Louis is also presented as a subject of his land, vassals, and people, according to Suger. In the dispute between Count Matthew of Beaumont and Hugh of Clermont, Hugh immediately went to the king-designate and 'defender of the kingdom' Louis to ask for his help against Count Matthew. Louis 'extended his hand in alliance, promised to give aid, and sent away the man who hope had made joyful; and this hope did not disappoint him.' Once again, this blurs the lines of feudal hierarchy as the king is subject to his vassals, church, people, and kingdom and thus this creates a paradox within feudalism, prompting questions about who is truly subject to whom. Combining the role of king with the crown and kingdom demonstrates that Suger seemingly merges the obligations of Louis as a monarch and feudal lord.

The King as a Sacral Figure

Even to those unfamiliar with medieval history, the concept of a ‘divine right of rule’ is a well- known one as it has endured and reoccurred through centuries of royal history. The so-called, thaumaturgic power of the Capetian kings is explicitly discussed by Guibert of Nogent, but as noted by Marc Bloch, there is an absence of divinity in perceptions of kingship in the intellectual current of the twelfth century. In the Histoire de sa vie, c.1053-1124, Guibert describes the hereditary and traditional divine power and ‘royal touch’ of Louis. He describes a situation at Laon whereby a crowd, sick with scrofula, came to Louis to be cured. According to Guibert, the king surrendered to their prayer and was overcome by divine power and thus touched the sick and drew a cross on them to cure them – two gestures which Marc Bloch states endure long into the Early Modern era of European kingship. Such a royal miracle witnessed and described by Guibert is not necessarily shared by Suger. The Deeds contain very few examples of Capetian divinity. In one such example Suger describes that Louis, at his coronation, cast away 'the sword of secular knighthood' and, 'girded him with the ecclesiastical sword for the punishment of evildoers. In a later passage, regarding the conflict with Hugh of Le Puiset, Suger writes that the church 'pleaded that the king, as the representative of God, render free the part that belonged to God, whose image he maintained and kept alive in his own person.' Whilst these examples would suggest Suger’s perception of kingship complements Guibert’s ‘divine-king’, Suger does not portray Louis as a sacral figure, and places little emphasis on royal consecration. Furthermore, Suger states in the following chapter that 'Louis, king of the French by the grace of God, could not put aside what he had grown accustomed to do in his youth, namely safeguarding the churches, protecting the poor and the needy, and working for the peace and defence of the kingdom' which suggests a continuity between Louis before being anointed king and after, thus showing no attainment of divinity when crowned. In the Deeds, there is no record of a divine inspiration, thaumaturgic power, or royal touch, which is bestowed onto Louis once he becomes king. Any divine aid given by God is also received in battles before his coronation. Bloch speculates that the lack of divine inspiration among contemporaries is in support of Gregorian ideas. As such, Suger’s Deeds is part of the collective reform movement which sought to remove such power from perceptions of kingship and feudalism as they believed it allowed kings to enslave the papacy and clergy. Suger’s conception and influence on the image of kingship is thus one of the most prolific elements of French and Capetian ideology. The creation of liturgical sermons, forged documents, and charters connecting Saint-Denis to kingship allows us to understand how important the king was to the prominence of his abbey Saint-Denis. So next time you see the feudal pyramid, remember that it is not merely that simple!
A Medieval Mess: Abbot Suger and French Feudalism in the 12th Century

Luke Daly

I am Luke Daly, a Medieval Historian who specialises in religion and saints of the 1000-1300s. I am due to start my PhD in October but in the meantime am writing a book with Pen and Sword Publishing called ‘Sainthood: A New History of the Middle Ages through Saints and their Stories.’ I am also host of The Daly Medieval Podcast as well as being a sub-editor for The Historians Magazine.
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