Thomas N. Bisson


On his book The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government

Cover Interview of May 15, 2009

A close-up

In Chapter VI, on pages 484-499, I open the discussion of “politicised power” with a new reading of the notorious assassination of Thomas Becket on 29 December 1170.  Here, one appalling scene of crisis projects the whole problem of this book: lordship, its unpolitical failure, the habitual violence of knights.

What the sources say is that King Henry II and his proud archbishop Thomas were both great lord-princes.  Both had vassals sworn to fidelity, both had great patrimonies, both were proud and intransigent.  And when the lord-king wanted his former chancellor, now archbishop of Canterbury, to recognize the king’s jurisdictional rights over the English church, they fell into conflict that became heated and personal. Becket was forced into prolonged exile, then returned to England in hopes that a reconciliation was near, only to be murdered in his cathedral by a few knights who probably thought that the lord-king wished, after all, to destroy the disloyal prelate.

“If ever a medieval conflict cried out for a ‘political solution,’ it was this one.”  But my argument here is that this was a “crisis of lordship.”  It was not a political crisis, nor was it resolved as such—this was a struggle to the death between proud lord-princes who stood on principles, not policies.  Neither cultivated allies so as to debate their claims; both insisted on their rights as non-negotiable.  Thomas Becket’s principled “liberty of the church” could not be compromised, nor did the king seek to make his interest in a regulated church a worthy collective cause until it was too late.  Both adversaries “were born and bred in cultures of lordship and nobility that prevailed widely and deeply in the twelfth century.”

But the “politicising” of power was already in progress by the 1170s.  This section of the book continues with a discussion of “government” and “politics” as foreign to twelfth-century circumstances, and concludes with two case studies of crisis: that of Catalonia (1173 - 1205), which is here expounded for the first time, and that of Magna Carta in England (1212 - 1216), which is world-famous, but is placed here in a wholly new context.  It is in these crises in two of Europe’s most progressive societies that political action first becomes visible.  These are profoundly ironical mini-histories.  In Catalonia the barons and castellans defended their bad lordship over peasants against king and church, their cause as historic as it was retrograde.  In England a bad-lord king (John) aroused a baronial opposition that imposed Magna Carta on him, only to have a (great) pope (Innocent III) side with John and his lordship.  In this case, however, the good cause proved historic.