The semester is winding down. When I finish grading finals this week, it's over and I can concentrate on the dissertation. I have decided to paste the introduction of my dissertation prospectus below, withour footnotes, in case anyone wants to see what I will be doing for the next couple of years.
The Use of Religious Language in the Construction of Royal Power: León-Castile, 1037-1157
One of the major pillars of growing monarchical power in eleventh- and twelfth-century Western Europe was religion. The king’s relationship with the institutional powers of the church both inside and outside his realm (i.e., the bishops, abbeys, religious orders and the papacy) was occasionally contentious, but it often served to cement the king’s authority, an authority which was never unquestionably secure against the nobility and other claimants to the throne. In addition to this negotiated political and institutional support upon which the king could rely, there was also a less tangible but perhaps more potent factor that he could summon to his aid: the sacral nature of kingship itself. The king, as king, was holy. Kings came and went, and this sacrality was never a guarantee that a king’s authority, or even necessarily his person, would be respected. Still, that sacrality could provide at times the king’s strongest source of support for his claims of prerogative (as it was for the eleventh-century French Capetian kings, for example). Sacral power is intangible, but important, and underpinnings of royal power cannot be grasped unless we can find some way to show how it functioned, who fashioned it, and what possibilities it provided monarchs who were trying to cement their authority.
The eleventh- and early twelfth-century was a period of great expansion and definition of royal power. In France, Capetian monarchs were beginning to assert themselves against the superior power of their nominal vassals, the counts and dukes that surrounded their reduced area of influence in the Isle-de-France region around Paris. England and Sicily saw the advent of powerful and centralized Norman monarchies. Meanwhile, in the north-western regions of what is now Spain, Christian rulers took advantage of infighting among the Muslim leaders of the mini-states that had replaced the once-hegemonic Caliphate of Cordoba at the beginning of the eleventh century. Rulers of the Christian kingdom of León-Castile, having enriched themselves with tributes from Muslim rulers, went on the offensive, and expanded their territory twofold by 1150. At the same time, the division of royal patrimonies among surviving princes, intrigue, and warfare among the Christians themselves created a shifting political situation: León, Castile, Portugal, Navarre, Aragon, and Galicia were all independent kingdoms at one time or another over this century and a half. Institutions were rudimentary and authority was uncertain; at the same time León-Castile enjoyed the reigns of some very accomplished monarchs. This makes the study of the Leonese monarchs of this period very useful for understanding the cementing of monarchical authority that was taking place throughout Europe. The political and institutional elements of Leonese kingship have been the target of excellent scholarship, but their use of religious language and their sacrality is still terra incognita, and study of those subjects will shed light on the religious nature of kingship beyond the borders of León-Castile.
The sacral nature of kingship takes many forms and is expressed or indicated in a variety of ways. Charlemagne’s advisors referred to him as a new David, providing an intellectual model of an Old Testament kingship that was divinely ordained. Other forms of giving religious force to rulership were liturgical and performative, and perhaps the most striking was the anointing of kings during a coronation ceremony. The Capetian kings of France practiced this with great effect and were anointed with a sacred oil kept at Rheims and which according to legend had been brought down from heaven by angels on the occasion of the crowning of Clovis, the fifth-century founder of the Merovingian dynasty. This conveyed great symbolic force, reserving for the king a act that was at least quasi-sacramental and possibly fully sacramental, for at this time the nature and number of the sacraments was not yet definitely set by the Church, and some theologians included the anointing of a king in their lists of sacraments. Anointing also directly connected the body of the king with the sacred, in a public ceremony performed in a liturgical setting.
Although we know the Visigothic kings who ruled Spain before the Muslim invasion of 711 were anointed, the evidence about the kings of León-Castile is inconclusive. Even if the kings were not anointed, an examination of the sources we have leaves no doubt about the connection of Leonese kings with religion in one capacity or another. A study of these texts may reveal different and hitherto uninvestigated modes of sacrality that explain how religious kingship functioned both in León and in the rest of Western Europe.
The most direct surviving sources for the Leonese kings are royal charters written for them, usually in connection with a donation to a religious institution. These charters often feature elaborate religious language, invoking the Trinity, dedicating the donation to the patron saints of the institution, or discussing the religious duties and aims of the monarch. They are signed not only by the king, but by important bishops, abbots, and magnates of the realm. This suggests a public occasion featuring the reading and signing of the document in which the person of the king would become associated with the religious ideas expressed.
The fact that the charters were written in Latin need not mean that they would be unintelligible to those present who were not clerics. The distinct separation between “learned Latin” and “vulgar Romance” in this period has been questioned and there is no reason to suppose that those present would not understand language they had already heard on various other occasions. Also, and perhaps more importantly for the evaluation of the effect this language had on the listeners, the charters were filled with the same biblical quotations and references that their hearers knew from the liturgy, and the liturgy – the Mass and other sacred celebrations – was the major point of contact of the medieval believer with the Bible and other religious texts. Elaborated over centuries, it allowed for a complex act of worship that was codified and set to reflect the passage of the year, marking major feasts as high points and also commemorating the great wealth of saints to which the medieval church paid homage. Studious monks who spent a great deal of time copying or reading books of scripture, exegesis, and theology spent even more time in the opus Dei – the “work of God,” that is, the liturgy of hours that convoked monks for prayer seven times a day. Since religious texts—especially the Bible—were experienced primarily in the liturgy, that means they were experienced primarily orally and communally.
If it is given that both charters and biblical language were not experienced by those around the king only—or even primarily—as texts, but rather as oral, public, and liturgical acts, we can then investigate how the religious language that was used effectively conveyed sacrality to the monarch. The charters, when read in public, might have created a liturgical event that associated the king with prayer. Studying their language from this perspective, we can begin to see exactly how this process worked, and what associations were created for the monarch – what aspects of religion were chosen to be in some way transferred to the king. This way a more precise idea of how religious kingship functioned in this period may emerge. This model of sacrality need not be a construction made purely by the monarch, or purely as part of a conscious and well-thought-out program. Documents not prepared by the king’s notaries themselves and even forgeries give us an idea of what religious associations were credible in this context for this period. They show what possibilities of religious power existed for the king to tap into and what possibilities made sense for the other power players in the king’s realm.Examined together with religious language from other sources, such as chronicles, and examples of patronage of religious art, these charters allow us to see how a particular image of sacrality that was transferred to the king as religious power became a source of political power. More subtle than constructed ideology (referring to Charlemagne as David) or unequivocal ceremony (anointing), this use of language might reveal the more intangible aspects of medieval religious kingship. By studying a dynamic monarchy in one of the most rapidly changes areas of eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe, we have a unique chance to understand the powerful nexus between religious and political power—a nexus as vital today as ever.