Scales of Governance: Local Agency and Political Authority in Eurasia, 1000-1500

Worcester College, Oxford – 12th and 13th January 2024

by Annabel Hancock, Bee Jones, James Cogbill, and Susannah Bain

This workshop grew out of a discussion group the four of us started in Michaelmas term 2022 on ‘Governability across the Medieval Globe’. By ‘governability’ we meant why and how certain people and societies were more or less easily governed, although we had several big discussions about the usefulness of the term. Our conversations kept coming back to the utility of thinking from localities when trying to conceptualise how governance functioned in the central and later Middle Ages, and to how both medieval governance and our analysis of it had to operate across large differences in scale – from local officials and forms to (often unsubstantiated) claims of regional or even universal hegemony.

These questions relate to a great deal of cutting-edge work in medieval history, particularly in terms of new ‘global’ approaches and how we read sources to get at political culture. As a result, we decided to organise a workshop to bring together scholars pushing our understanding forward to assess where we are as a field and where we are going.

We were very fortunate to be offered funding from the Past & Present Society, the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, and the Oxford Medieval Studies Network. This funding allowed us to bring a fantastic set of speakers and respondents to Oxford, including a mix of established, early-career, and doctoral scholars. We wanted to centre discussion and use our eight papers and four responses to stimulate broader conversations on governance in this period. The papers were pre-circulated and speakers summarised their thoughts on the day, which afforded us more time for discussion. Our contributions covered Iberia, France, Germany, China, Egypt, Byzantium, Italy, and north Africa from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, which provided some range in our coverage even though we could not possibly do justice to the entirety of Eurasia across five centuries.

The workshop went absolutely brilliantly: we were delighted with the papers and responses, and we thought that the discussion was stimulating, wide-ranging, and very fruitful. Although not without important questions and possible issues, ‘scales of governance’ emerged as a useful conceptual lens to cut across ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ models of political organisation, drawing attention to sets of local and bureaucratic knowledges and highlighting the critical importance of varied social relationships to governance, both within a given locality and as an imposition upon it by rulers and/or bureaucracies. Governance was also closely related to the socialisation of elite men into certain kinds of authoritative masculinity, and to gendered social relationships between individuals and families. These dynamics are more difficult to access in most of the sources available to us for this period, but they enrich our understanding of how people and communities were actually governed.

Many of the papers highlighted the roles of different kinds of intermediaries situated between their communities and regional rulers. These figures, mediating and translating between knowledges at different scales, in many cases actually did most of the governing in a given locality. In some cases, local players seem to have been torn between evading oversight and control by rulers or larger political units on the one hand, and maintaining and strengthening their own power and position in their community on the other, including in some cases by steepening local hierarchies in their own favour. Recognising this led us to a discussion of how important it is to consider how formal or informal governance in a particular locality was, and hence the importance of processes of ‘formalisation’ of power through bureaucracies, regulations, and the imposition of officials.

Through the papers and discussions, we gained glimpses of medieval people of all social strata operating across different scales to get things done, such as Arabic-speakers leveraging their expertise in privileged documentary practices in twelfth-century Toledo or non-noble property-owners in thirteenth-century Carcassonne appropriating the language and frameworks of royal justice and official historical memory. Medieval people were in many cases capable of appropriating the language of their rulers and the procedures of governing institutions, and were not afraid to buy into the claims of rulers where it suited their own purposes, even while avoiding control from above in other ways.

We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the funders of the workshop, as well as to all the speakers, respondents, and other participants.

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