This week I’ve been discussing the early medieval ‘state’ with my students, and chewing over the various complexities of the topic. Was early medieval rulership too personalised to count as a proper state? Was it too undifferentiated from religious authority? Was it too broken up by alternative and rival jurisdictions?
Here’s a charter (pdf) issued by King Lothar II in 856 which illustrates the issues at stake. In it, King Lothar II grants a kind of personal fiscal and legal immunity to a man named Winebert and his family. Winebert had given over all his property to the monastery of St Arnulf of Metz, but he remained a secure tenant on his lands, in exchange for paying the monks a modest three pennies worth of wax each year. In return, he now benefited from the ‘immunity’ of the monastery of St Arnulf.
So, in this charter Lothar confirmed that neither Winebert nor his family could now be summoned to military service, or pay the stofa (a mysterious, and presumably irregular, tax). No public agent or royal missus could make public demands of Winebert, his family, or their heirs, at all. Winebert had privatised himself and his family, so to speak.
The charter gives us a precious indication of the sorts of claims that kings such as Lothar II could make of their free subjects. But for previous generations of historians, this kind of action weakened the ‘state’; through this document, King Lothar was surrendering his authority and diminishing his revenues.
But Barbara Rosenwein has taught us to be more subtle about immunity charters such as this. These grants had their costs, but they also brought kings benefits. After all, the monastery of St Arnulf was a family mausoleum for the young king, where his grandfather was buried. Helping this monastery boosted royal prestige and credibility at a time when Lothar needed both. Foregoing whatever Winebert might have given the king’s agents was a price worth paying for that.
As the UK government announces a new generation of spatial zones subject to special taxation and regulation arrangements, known as freeports, this point might become easier to grasp. Freeports are supposed to generate economic capital, not the spiritual capital created by Carolingian immunities, but both are and were intended to feed directly into politics. Now that we see how the modern UK government is deliberately surrendering powers – in part in order to raise tangible revenue, but perhaps in part to demonstrate sovereignty through the very act of renunciation – might the power games of Carolingian kings around immunities no longer seem so strange?