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The Thought that Counts


wiedemannThis post has kindly been written for us by Benedict G. E. Wiedemann MA (UCL), Thornley Fellow, IHR.

‘A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer’

Seneca the Younger

When is a gift not a gift? Simple. When either the giver, receiver – or even an observer – says it isn’t. They might not say so at the time of course. Imagine I gave you my old sofa. I want to get rid of it and you very kindly take it off my hands, many thanks for that, glad to see the back of it. But then – perhaps six months, perhaps a year later – I want it back. My new sofa hasn’t worked out (it gives me nasty back pains) or maybe I’m moving and my big new sofa won’t fit. So I get in touch: ‘I’m afraid I’m going to need that sofa I lent you back’. Circumstances have changed – I want the sofa again – and so how I choose to define our earlier transaction has changed too. Less facetiously, the idea of ‘contested constructions’ – points at which two parties have conflicting interpretations of what has passed between them – is vitally important to Medieval political history.

When objects pass between two people, or two groups, how we define those objects can determine the relationship between those groups. If we say that someone paid tribute then there’s a clear indication of political subservience. Rent? Well that’s an indication that the recipient has some sort of power over the payer’s land or home. Gifts? Well there’s a bit more equality there. We all know that gifts can be a way to show hierarchy (in, for example, the relative costs of gifts) but not in the same way as tribute. What we and others call these transactions – and not everyone will call them the same thing – will influence how we speak of and consider the relationship between these persons and groups.

But what about other transactions? What about tax. Can tax also be a gift? Most of us would say no: it’s not as if we have any say in whether we pay tax or not. But that wasn’t always the case. In the Middle Ages, the language of gifts was often used when describing how permission to levy a tax was granted by the people to the king. When Henry III of England needed a tax to defend the county of Poitou in 1218. His letter ordering the sheriffs to collect it explained that ‘all the magnates and faithful men of our kingdom have conceded – by their grace – a gift to be made to us’. This ‘gift’ had previously been agreed between the royal administration and a council held at Worcester. We can reasonably assume that this tax – as many taxes are – was the result of hard negotiation. It seems probable that many of the people who had to pay it – and didn’t want to – would not call it a gift but an exaction, or even theft. But it was presented as a freely-given gift from the people to the king.

Defining transactions as ‘gifts’ can therefore confer legitimacy on forced exactions. It can also flatten out any suggestion that an exchange was dishonourable. Even fantasy creatures can show such manipulative skills: at the end of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins gives the Elvenking a necklace of pearls in return for the king’s food which the Hobbit had eaten earlier in the book. By giving the king a gift, Bilbo repays the king for the food. But turning back a few pages we read that Bilbo had stolen the food. Considering his fellows had – at the time – been prisoners of the Elvenking, the Hobbit had surely had no intention of giving recompense for the food originally. Circumstances had changed: the Hobbits, elves, dwarfs and so on were now united and so it behoved Bilbo to present his theft as one act in a reciprocal exchange.

Such contested constructions aren’t limited to giving and receiving either. Ceremonies and rituals are fertile ground for spectators and participants to read different meanings. Philippe Buc has emphasised how the same Medieval ritual could be presented either as cementing the power of a ruler or showing his unfitness to rule, depending on whether the chronicler describing the ritual thought he was a suitable king or not. That isn’t a solely literary observation either. When King Alexander III of Scotland performed homage to Henry III of England in 1278, the English chancery implied that the homage was for all Scotland – suggesting Scotland was subservient to England – while the Scots said that it was merely for the lands which Alexander held in England, and hence showed nothing about Scotland’s status vis-à-vis England. How the ritual was interpreted affected the political relationship of these two polities, and both sides had different interpretations.

What separates this from the bread-and-butter ‘he said, she said’ of historical analysis (or criminal detection) is the agreement on the actual event: both sides took it as read that King Alexander III had performed homage, but the circumstances – the terms – of the event were debated. Equally what is interesting about contests of interpretation is less who is ‘right’, but why different people want to put forward different constructions.

But – obviously – not all interpretations are equally plausible. Indeed, in order for a particular interpretation of an event to gain traction it has to be reasonable to those hearing it. In 1139 King Roger II of Sicily needed Pope Innocent II to confirm his royal title. It had earlier been confirmed by Innocent’s rival pope, Anacletus II, but Anacletus’ party had been defeated so Roger needed the winning pope’s approval. Considering Roger’s support for his enemies, Innocent was not disposed to look kindly on him. In fact they went to war. This was a poor choice on Innocent’s part. The pope was captured and Roger forced Innocent to recognize Roger’s title. The chroniclers did not all record the following events in the same way.

Falcone of Benevento explained that Innocent did confirm Roger’s kingship, after ‘the king […] sent envoys to Pope Innocent […] begging him more humbly than one would have thought possible to grant him the hand of peace and concord’. Then Roger ‘and his sons the duke and prince came into the pope’s presence, flung themselves at his feet and begged for mercy, and bowed to his authority’. The author of Pope Innocent’s biography – who was a cardinal – simply skated over the whole event, however. No mention was made of the events of 1139 at all. Presumably the biographer did not see any way to make Innocent’s humiliation – being captured by Roger and forced to accede to his demands – less. Even if he had done what Falcone had done, and emphasised how humble Roger was, it still wouldn’t alter the fact that Roger had beaten Innocent and captured him. The biographer could not simply deny this had happened, or put forward a radically different interpretation with no basis in fact, because no reader would take it seriously. So he chose to remain silent.

Historical accounts of ceremonies, transactions and rituals reflect the concerns and aims of the author. Sometimes this might be the same as what the original participants thought, but often it isn’t. By looking at conflicting interpretations of rituals and gifts, it is possible not only to observe common features, but to see differences. These differences are – quite simply – what mattered to the people who wrote, and constructed, and observed these events and exchanges. Their conflicting interpretations tell us what was important.

Further Reading:

  • Buc, ‘Ritual and interpretation: the early medieval case’, Early Medieval Europe 9 (2000), pp. 183-210.
  • Algazi, ‘Introduction: doing things with gifts’, in G. Algazi, V. Groebner, B. Jussen, eds., Negotiating the Gift: Pre-Modern Figurations of Exchange (Göttingen, 2003), pp. 9-27.
  • Weiler, ‘Knighting, homage and the meaning of ritual: The kings of England and their neighbours in the thirteenth century’, Viator 37 (2006), pp. 275-99.


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