As some of my longer-standing readers can attest, I have been somewhat absent from the blogosphere for the past few months–mostly for reasons that even I find uninteresting (work, life, etc.) But another rather unhelpful factor has been my acquisition of the complete West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s saga of American presidential politics whose addictive power comes in second only to Battlestar Galactica. With talk of Congressional whips, election polls, and executive powers filling my brain space, I’ve been thinking a lot about the visualisation of politics and the broader ways in which societies define (and redefine) themselves.
Current rhetoric, for example, has envisioned a divided America, split between job-creators and job-holders, while in Britain the debate centres more over those who pay into vs. those who collect from welfare. As with all times, these ideas deal as much in how we think society should be as in its empirical reality.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the prevailing vision on social hierarchy was largely tripartite. These three ‘orders’ or ‘estates’ went by various names and were adapted to serve the conflicts of the moment, but the basic features of this social ideology were remarkably stable. At its simplest, society was composed of those who pray (oratores), those who fight (bellatores), and those who work (laboratores).
In an ideal world, each estate would defend and strengthen each other according to their purpose, guided by an overarching Christian framework. As we might expect in reality, however, these estates preserved deep social inequalities between the highest prestige members–churchmen–and the vast majority of people who held no property and were to some extent unfree. (This vision was dramatically upset by the effects of the plague, see Plague Wages: Europe after 1348).
A view of this type can be seen in in Abbot Suger’s Life of King Louis the Fat, which chronicles Louis’ (r. 1108-1137) attempts to strengthen the French throne at a time of division within the aristocracy. Throughout the text, Suger praises Louis for “…defending churches, protecting the poor and needy, and working for the peace and defence of the realm…”, or, in short, ensuring the smooth operation of the status quo between estates (Chapter XV). As befits his own position in the Church, Suger prioritises its interests and emphasises the fact that even the king’s authority is conferred on him by God.
The sheer number of Louis’ campaigns, however, underscores the disjunction between the ideal of a stable social hierarchy, and the often turbulent realities of power.
Several centuries later, the theme of order was taken up by another remarkable mediaeval author, Christine de Pizan. As her name suggests, Christine was a woman, born in 1364 in Italy although she spent her adult life within the royal court of France. Famous as a writer of ballads at a time when women rarely participated in literary life, Christine also contributed to the vast and popular genre of mirrors for princes, advice literature on proper rulership, with her treatise The Book of the Body Politic.
In her work, the division is made not between oratores, bellatores, and laboratores, but between the prince, his knights, and the people. All three have their role to play in the “conservation of the whole community,” which Christine visualises as a vast, cooperative body politic. The prince and court are the belly, supported by the work of the limbs. Their mutual interdependence ensures that a healthy state, like a body, arises from harmony. Without one estate–however humble–though, the body politic will become “deformed”, wither, and die.
In these respects, we can see Christine advocating a traditional perspective in mediaeval thought. Through her other works, however, she introduced a radical, and rather different idea of ‘body politics.’ Treatises such as The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues brought a fourth dimension–the role of women–into the discussion about the structure of society. She argues that womanly virtues, such as reason, rectitude, and justice, have a moderating influence in social life. In her declaration that “the man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher; neither the loftiness nor the lowliness of a person lies in the body according to the sex, but in the perfection of conduct and virtues,” (I.9, p.24) we can see how Christine’s rendering of values in rulership is extended into a blueprint not only for gender equality, but also social harmony.
Christine’s efforts to promote a respect for women as equal participants in life and politics were unique, and even radical, in the late Middle Ages. Yet her ability to craft a voice and find an audience were dependent upon the intellectual framework of previous centuries, which she adopted and built on. Thus, although social and political theory in mediaeval Europe was largely an exercise in conservatism, promoting a status quo that favoured the elite, we should recognise that the underlying reality was far more disorderly than a man like Abbot Suger would wish to acknowledge.
Quotes from The Life of King Louis the Fat (trans. Jean Dunbabin) and The Book of the Body Politic (ed. K. Langdon Fordham,) are drawn from classroom editions.
Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (1982).