Cultural Borders vs Political Borders in Medieval France

The Shape of France Throughout the Middle Agesand the Disparity of Cultural and Political Borders

WRITTEN BY MICAH GORDON 

 The formation and solidification of the unified nation-state throughout the early Middle Ages marks an important change in the conception of both cultural and political borders, and the relationship between these two significantly separate notions. The integration of a diverse range of cultural communities under one centralized empire introduced a shift “from a political landscape in which territory was identified through society to one in which society was ordered through territory” —a sociological phenomenon with particularly glaring validity with respect to the construction of the modern French state.

The circumstances surrounding the inception of the greater European community, one could in fact argue, invariably lead to a strong disparity between cultural and political borders. The cultural and the political European entities indeed developed quite separately from one-another, at least until the advent of a sound national identity; a powerful unifying tool which assimilates politics into culture. Even in the late Middle Ages, however—throughout which centralized governing powers intensified in both power and sphere of influence, and, resultantly, national identity deepened—it remained that a King (and the notion of the monarchy itself) could logistically maintain little consequence to a subject in a distant territory. That is, owing to the difficulties of travel and communication, and the cultural realities of a given regional citizen, as well as to the constantly shifting political borders brought about by, among other things, war, “[a Monarch’s] control over the furthest reaches of their kingdom was, to a large degree, limited.” Local identity (that is, cultural borders), then, was allowed to develop independently from, and likely far more firmly than, national identity.Europe’s inception owes initially to the acculturation of various barbarian tribes into the Roman community, an episode that sparked the tribal settlement into the early stages of the cultural communities that composed Middle Age Europe . This “far-flung and profound redisposition of peoples…resulted in not only new, mixed peoples, but also, among the barbarians themselves, movements that involved ethnic regroupings,” out of which larger and more stable cultural communities began to take form.The Franks were one such community. Born out of this intermingling of Germanic barbarian tribes with the Romans, the Franks settled along the Rhine. The year 476 marked the end of the Roman Empire, after which Clovis became the first Frankish King (controlling an area composed of modern French and German territory). Under the reign of Charlemagne in the late 700s, the Frankish Empire defeated the Saxons to extend their territory even further. The area that the Frankish empire would eventually cover encompassed a large portion of Western Europe (including most of modern day France, Spain, and Germany). Charlemagne used the power of the Christian church, as well as the effect of war against the Muslim powers to culturally unify his empire under a large hierarchical pyramid. It is important to note, however, that the Frankish Empire was not strongly politically united; it was instead bound culturally, as a loose web of private property. That is, Charlemagne’s empire, though indeed possessing many of the basic elements of a medieval empire (i.e. education, religion, law), was divided into counties, each placed under the control of a count. Having lacked the concept of political unity—one which is at the heart of the disparity between cultural and political borders—and having already been partitioned into these various counties, the Empire was able to easily be divided amongst three of Charlemagne’s grandsons in the Treaty of Verdun in 843. The eldest grandson, Lothar, gained control over the Central Franks, with Louis gaining control of the East Franks (the beginnings of modern Germany), and Charles receiving the West Frankish Empire (the area which would become France).The Treaty of Verdun precisely illustrates perhaps the most important concept in understanding the disparity between cultural and political borders in France: that is, the utter inconsequentiality of the political on the cultural. One could assume that a Bavarian, for example, felt no less or more Bavarian (and, quite importantly, was in fact no less or more Bavarian) in 842 when he belonged under the same empire as Brittany or Burgundy than in 843 when the empires were split . In fact, “the frontier between France and [Germany] held little meaning,” as often vassals of German lords controlled lands belonging to the Kingdom of France, and French vassals controlled German lands. The borders at this time, in fact, were less strict lines and more broad “zones.” Between the populated areas of each empire laid vast uninhabited “no-mans lands.” The eventual disputes between empires over control of these lands began simply as a fight for resources such as timber and game. Only out of these disputes did “greater precision in demarcating the frontier” arise. The frivolities of the political world were so greatly isolated from the realities of a normal citizen that they in hindsight (and likely in the early medieval perspective as well) seem quite trivial. It would in fact be difficult to imagine that a peasant living during this time would even have the capacity to conceive of such a notion as political boundaries, as, observably, it is an entirely invented concept.Along with the emerging imperial boundaries exists another important facet to the cultural-political disparity of the Middle Ages: the feudal system of government. Feudalism relies both on the importance of land as the main political unit, as well as the relationship between dependence and domination. In a feudal system, each man answers to a higher man, and each segment of land belongs to yet a larger land. This pyramidal system, which arose out of necessity brought about by the difficulties of travel and communication, and perhaps the sheer impracticality of a monarch, allowed that each man only need answer to the man directly above him, and only need identify with the land with which he is directly associated. This not only meant that a peasant in a specific town had no direct concern for the empire to which his town belonged, but also that a specific town could change empires quite easily.[Boundaries during the development of Western Europe] were determined to some extent, no doubt, on the basis of lands held, directly or indirectly, of the crown who was concerned in the extent and area of the territory, in part patrimonial and in part feudal. Secondly, the land comprised within a commune or city was well known. The bishop knew what were the parishes of his diocese. When we turn to many of the treaties, we see that instead of running the boundary line by metes and bounds, from one landmark to another, the provision frequently stated that communes A, B, C, and D were to be a part, let us say, of State X; whereas communes H, I, J, K, and L were to be a part of State Y. Nothing was better known than the exact limits of each of the communes.The idea of the “state” or “empire,” then, importantly arises out of the idea of the commune, not the other way around. Feudalism exploited an existing practice of land-centered community and added layers onto it, reinforcing a structure of power that, despite (or perhaps more accurately because of) being rooted in these communities, was able to implant little national identity into them. Each commune could act as its own separate entity, infrequently concerning itself with what occurred above it.In fact, the majority of these communities—though the lords of which did indeed pay dues to the king—remained quite politically independent from the actual domain of the French monarchy, which limited itself to the areas around Paris and Bourgogne, in central France. These lords could at times in fact exercise more political influence than the king himself. One such example occurred in 1066, as William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (who answered to the French king) defeated a Saxon regent at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to become the king of England. Now the king of England—in fact a much more powerful man than the king of France—also answered to the French monarchy.These complications between territories and empires, deepened by the intermingling of various royal bloodlines as well as the structural arrangement of the feudal system, only strengthened the political-cultural division. Such discrepancies allow that an essentially English territory such as Normandy belong under the realm of the French monarch.One other such example is the dukedom of Aquitaine. Aquitaine was a region of much political mobility, having been under loose Frankish control before and during the Carolingian Empire. After the treaty of Verdun, Aquitaine became an autonomous community, which would eventually be rejoined under French Control with the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Louis VII, then Prince of France, with the one catch that Aquitaine would not officially be under French control until their son became the king. Having never produced any offspring, this day never came. In fact, Eleanor’s marriage to Louis was eventually annulled, after which she married the successor to the English crown, Henry II in 1152. Aquitaine thus remained a part of the English crown until its recapture in 1453.Despite shifting variously between French and English possession, neither French nor English were the principal language in Aquitaine. Instead, owing to the independence of cultural development in the various dukedoms cited earlier, Aquitaine spoke Occitan—“[a] vehicle for the influential poetry of the medieval troubadours.” The language, much like Catalan and Basque, developed as a Romance language with great similarities to both French and Spanish (as can be expected by the geography of the regions to which these languages are native). Occitan is just one example of the various languages and dialects spoken throughout the French territory. Quite unlike the political borders of the impending imperial forces to begin their evolution in the twelfth century, these dialects—as a microcosm of the numerous cultural communities—blended gradually between countries. That is, as is only logical, communities under French control would incorporate more Spanish culture the closer they were to Spain (as were the cases with Aquitaine and Catalonia )—and likewise, French communities would become more culturally similar to the communities of Germany the closer in proximity they were to those communities (Lorraine and Alsace are two examples), and England the same (Bretagne, Normandy).It was not until Louis VI, around the year 1120, that the Frankish empire began its evolution towards the single united monarchical entity that “sought to create a cultural unity within their territorial unit by…encouraging the use of the French language…[The] replacement of the concrete (the Franks) by the abstract (France) marked a dramatic shift in the nature of the monarchy and heralded the development of a national consciousness, because the monarchy sought to get agreement on the very existence of an entity over which it ruled.” This shift, though one that in fact would not be fully realized until after the revolution in 1789, is fundamental to the relationship between cultural and political borders in medieval France as it is the first time that the political border will endeavor to be enforced as a cultural border as well; under one united France. This political France encompassed a much larger area than the Frankish cultural frontier.The new geographic entity ran from Flanders in the north to the county of Barcelona in the south, and from the Atlantic to the river line of the Schelde, Meuse, Saône, and Rhône in the east. France, as meant in the term King of France, thus included many areas then not French, by ethnicity or language. France, from its birth, therefore, had to be both inclusionist—it could not define itself by culture, language or ethnicity—and exclusionist—it did define itself as Christian.It was therefore religion that acted as the first culturally unifying element during the inception of France (this was also importantly the time of the second Crusades).The feudal pyramid structure was maintained in this new French entity to more easily uphold the enforcement of law and organization and to continue the evolution towards unification. Despite these efforts, however, the pyramidal structure is still inherently non-authoritarian in nature; it still fails to fully culturally unite the communities that it politically binds. This meant that the areas that now answered to the French monarch were composed of an extremely diverse range of cultures and languages (and within each languages, dialects), thus creating a dual identity for its citizens—one based on the local cultural tradition and the other on the fact that the community now belonged to the larger cultural entity of “France,” of which the former was likely stronger.In the decades to follow, “the medieval French state made major strides toward an identification of the central state…[as the French King] made himself the guarantor of settlements reached by contending vassals before his intervention…[and] the government actively prosecuted those who violated royal ordinances…” The strengthening of the centrality and power of the French crown would invariably strengthen the French cultural identity in the regions over which the monarchy ruled, though, as had been the case throughout the middle ages, “practical limitations to central state action, of course, severely curtailed prerogative rights.”The Hundred Years War, which lasted from 1337 to 1453, did much to further strengthen national identity as well as “institutional growth.” Though conflict between France and England had been longstanding, the catalyst of the war between these two nations arose once more out of the shortcomings of the feudal system, as well as complications of the royal European bloodlines. Edward III, king of England, was also a French duke under Philip VI. Believing himself to be the true heir to the French throne, and in fact topping off a line of English kings with quite a deal more power than their French counterparts, Edward refused to recognize Phillip’s sovereignty over the English-run dukedoms in France. At the finish of the first years of war, by the Treaty of Bretagne, England had gained control of four large regions of France, including Bretagne and Aquitaine. Peace was reached in 1453, with England maintaining influence of much of the former French possession.The late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw a great transformation in the shape of French royal power. In 1491 Charles VIII married Anne of Bretagne to regain the region under the crown of France, committing the country to roughly the shape it holds today. Also around this time, strides towards cultural unification would begin to take place.Like many other territorial entities of that period, France in 1400 or 1500 was an amalgam of nation, state, empire, and family property. These elements did not disappear overnight. In France, the imperial element took two paths; internally, it meant a hegemonic imposition of French, specifically Parisian culture on the entire geographic area ruled by the King of France. The state allied with the Catholic church and with elites to establish this cultural hegemony over the mass of the population. In a political sense, French administrative integration led to territorial integration, allowing the imperial aspect of French government to become less pronounced.This new cultural hegemony would instill a strong sense of nationalism into French society at large, which “gave Frances I [1515-1547] a remarkable opportunity to transform fundamentally the nature of the French state. Like other rulers of his time, he could rely on printing to enhance efforts at cultural integration. He could rely on his massive financial resources, dwarfing those of even the greatest lords in his kingdom, to pay for an equally impressive military apparatus.”With the advent of lighter weaponry and a strong army, Frances I made it his first task to win Milan in the name of France, and succeeded. Also during his reign, Frances I established written law in French (not the until then typical Latin), which would help solidify French as the national language; now all those who obeyed French law should speak French. This is an incredibly important development in the solidification of a French national identity, as a unifying language would inevitably lead to a more unified culture; one with higher ease of communication and written custom (perhaps the most important aspect of cultural unification over a broad geographic area). “With the accession of Frances I, France became much more of a monarchical state focused on a single ruler.”Though the strong monarchy did in fact instill a proud sense of French nationalism into the hearts of the French people (the legitimacy of the monarchy had seldom, if ever, been questioned throughout the entire history of its reign, despite the subsistence of the strong cultural diversity cited throughout this essay), and by the sixteenth century its power and centralization were nearing their pinnacle, it still remains that a disparity between the cultural and political domains will persist provided that there is a monarch. It was thus not until the French Revolution in the eighteenth century that a deep sense of cultural unity (that is, an intense French nationalism) truly took form.Only at the hand of the Revolution did France finally see the abolition of the dregs of the feudal system. With La Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, adopted by the National Assembly in 1789, the dependencies of peasants on a lord was eliminated, submitting all men to the same extent of the law and establishing the right of any man to own land. These advancements, along with the implementation of a tax system from which no man is exempt, the right to vote, and freedom of speech and religion, were certainly not arrived at over night. In fact, it can be argued that they had been in the making since the conception of the Frankish empire, developing out of the cultural diversity inherent in the evolution of Europe, as well as the disparity between this diversity and the more rigid borders of the French imperial forces.Even during the first stages of revolution the absolute abolition of the French monarchy was never conceived of—it was so strongly routed in the life of a French citizen. With the advent of the notion of “Nation” (as opposed to “Country”), the population was validated as the principal element of France—an opinion that, despite its fruition during the late middle ages, was scarcely cemented until the General Estate changed its name to the National Assembly. This shift from the power of France over the French People, to the power of the French People as in fact assigning the legitimacy of France, would begin to severely diminish the disparity between cultural and political borders. Now French and France were becoming one. This fact was heightened by the swift pace at which information could now be spread. The Revolution in fact relied on the roads and waterways developed for ease of trade, and the new mobility that the common man was granted as a result. This mobility, along with the growing use of the printing press allowed for an ease of communication unparalleled in the middle ages—one that would in fact illegitimize the Monarchy and its feudalistic structure.Though even today the influence of the cultural diversity brought about by the conception and evolution of France asserts a relatively strong presence, it was only under the feudal Monarchy that the disparity between cultural and political borders was able to reach often-grave intensity. Upon the abolition of the monarchy (which not at all by coincidence correlated with a newborn ease of communication, a strengthened sense of nationalism, and the new concept of the rights of man introduced by the philosophers of the time), the idea of a national identity that was intermingled with local identity was ignited, and this disparity quelled. It can thus be concluded that a degree of cultural/political disparity is an inevitability in a geographical climate that sees the various tribal redistributions, imperial splits, communal allocation and monarchical feuds that marred the development of the European community throughout the entirety of the Middle Ages. Though it would scarcely be argued that individual cultural identity is a negative enterprise, true National identity cannot flourish in a political climate that lacks the involvement of its citizens. Only when the importance of land as the main political unit is abandoned can cultural endeavors rise to the forefront of the political world, thus lessening (perhaps, in fact, eliminating) the disparity between cultural borders and political ones.BIBLIOGRAPHY“Catalonia.” Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. 2000. James Clark and Co.. 15 Dec 2006″Charlemagne (747-814).” Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. 2000. James Clark and Co.. 15 Dec 2006Collins, James B.. “State Building in Early-Modern Europe: The Case of France.” Modern Asian Studies 31(1997): 603-633.”Eleanor of Aquitaine.” Wikipedia. 17 Dec 2006. 20 Dec 2006 .Jones, Rhys. “Mann and Men in a Medieval State: The Geographies of Power in the Middle Ages.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24(1999): 65-78.Le Goff, Jacques. Birth of Europe. Malden, MA: blackwell publishing, 2005. p14-28″Occitan.” Wikipedia. 17 Dec 2006. 20 Dec 2006 .Pounds, Norman J. G.. “The Origin of the Idea of Natural Frontiers in France.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 41(1951): 146-157.Reeves, Jesse S. “International Boundaries.” The American Journal of International Law 38(1944): 533-545.

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