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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2017

Medieval maritime polities–some considerations


ABSTRACT. The author proposes to examine the political cultures of maritime populations as fundamentally distinct from conditions in agrarian-pastoral Europe, too often considered as the ‘core’. Early and high medieval sea-borne polities, inherently acephalous and agonistic, persistently escaped the ‘framing/encadrement’ processes in the mainland. Only towards the end of the Middle Ages did sea power become supportive of territorial structures or developed into complementary polities.

RÉSUMÉ. L'auteur se propose d'examiner la culture politique des populations maritimes, différentes fondamentalement des conditions qui prévalent dans l'Europe rurale ; trop soiuvent considérée comme le modèle. Les politiques maritimes dans le haut Moyen Age, marquees par la guerre et l'absence d'autorité, échappent constamment au processus d'encadrement de l'intérieur des terres. Ce n'est qu'à la fin du Moyen Age que le pouvoir maritime devient le support de structures territoriales et se développe en politiques compléùentaires.

When King Canute [of England, Denmark and Norway, r. 1016–1035] was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, ‘You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.’

How well this image fits with our ideas about the Middle Ages! The king sits on his throne, firmly placed on the soil, shielding the agrarian inside from the aquatic outside and its nefarious threats of disruption. Open any textbook, look at any of the iconic book illuminations, read any chivalrous romance: we Moderns (or post-Moderns) know that medieval lordship is to do with fields, manors and castles, that medieval polities are based on fertile inland plains, centrally placed crossroads, agrarian and mineral resource extraction. L'Europe et la mer may be one of the favourite currents in our discipline – but it is, by and large, a marginal subject.

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