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Book review: Marios Costambeys. Power and Patronage in Early Medieval Italy: Local Society, Italian Politics and the Abbey of Farfa, c.700-900 by Marios Costambeys

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Commissioned review written from my point of view as an historian of medieval Italy.
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  Power and Patronage in Early Medieval Italy. Local Society, ItalianPolitics and the Abbey of Farfa, c. 700-900, Marios Costambeys(Cambridge, 2007) 388pp.Review by Tehmina Goskar, Swansea University. The Abbey of Farfa, nestled in the Sabine hills, and little known onthe tourist trail, has survived to this day with its community of Benedictine monks because it has constantly diversified its activitiesand reasons for existing. Today, the abbey is online, you can take avirtual tour of its beautiful interiors—what was once the product of patronage and the intimate relationship between lay and monasticrealms is now a museum [1]. You can book yourself in for a retreatand enjoy “un’esperienza monastica”. “La nuova Farfa” is now asocial enterprise running socially-minded projects aimed at localyoung people. This adaptation to social and cultural change has notalways been a dynamic that has come from within. In 2005, TV chef  Jamie Oliver arrived at Farfa hoping to find inspiration in theyabbey’s long-famed medieval herb garden, and expected the monksto still be eating like kings. However the garden was nearly deadand the community was just about surviving on frozen vegetablesand other processed food. The chef reminded them of their greatmedieval culinary heritage and got to work with them, particularlyDon Alfonso, to replant the garden and regain some of its formerglory—the visible glee on Don Alfonso’s face when it all started tobloom again was testament to the still continuing importance of religious and lay people working together to retain the profoundsense of place a major religious centre can give a locality.And so to Farfa in the early Middle Ages, a time during which cyclesof exchange and negotiation established the abbey as a Europeanpolitical powerhouse and a considerable influence on the changesexperienced in the region. Marios Costambeys begins his detailedstudy of two hundred years of the abbey’s early medieval history byplacing Farfa within its wider ecclesiastical world. The issues Farfahad to face from the eighth to tenth centuries are crystallised in anexcerpt from a charter of the Carolingian emperor, Lothar I from 840(p. 1). As on previous occasions, the emperor confirms themonastery’s rights over certain territory in the Sabina as well asbeyond, in Rome’s buffer zone--regularly the cause of contentionbetween the popes and other Italian rulers throughout the MiddleAges. This scenario frames the author’s opening gambit whichsuggests that, although appeals for support to the highest secularpowers (not just the Frankish emperors) were a feature of Farfa’sstrategy for self-determination, this relied on a fundamentalunderstanding of reciprocity: secular leaders needed the abbey’ssupport as much as the abbey needed theirs. This is the leitmotif of the book and is tackled from many different angles in the  subsequent chapters. It is a story of careful and sometimes delicatemanoeuvring and negotiation, courting patronage for the practicaland spiritual support that it could offer in return. The author’s arrangement of the book is traditional and is based onthemes familiar to early medieval historians, including authority andrulership, legal and political structures, kinship, power negotiation,foundations of ecclesiastical wealth, and so on. As such, it willappeal largely to historians of early medieval Europe, particularly tothose interested in northern Italy. However, other scholars of thisregion might also benefit from the context it provides. Scholarsunfamiliar with Farfa and its region may struggle with the lack of background description of the place and its landscape and there areno pictorial illustrations in the book to help in this regard [2].Chapter one provides a lengthy introduction (pp. 1-61) and presentsthe book’s principal ideas. Most of the chapter is comprised of avery detailed description of its archival sources, including ananalysis of the production of these documents, illustrated withcharts and tables. The introduction ends with a taster of what is tocome by setting out how the author perceives monastic patronagein a European context, including an orientation of its geo-historicalsituation between three major secular power cultures: the Franks,the Lombards and the Papacy (not quite the Good, the Bad and theUgly…), a theme that returns in the last two chapters of the book.Chapter two (pp. 62-89) focuses on establishing the nature of poweremanating from the Lombard duchy of Spoleto, the abbey’s nearestsecular peers. The increase in patronage in ecclesiastical,agricultural and other property received from the Lombard dukesduring the eighth century is analysed in detail and bolsters theauthor’s contention that the distribution of landed power was muchmore complex than other narratives have suggested. The abbeyplayed an important role as a broker in disputes between laypowers. One assertion that some scholars may question, however, isthat early medieval society was one where “communications werepoor, administrative structures weak and political groupingsfragmented” and that all these factors underpinned a sense of insecurity when it came to the control of property (p. 94). Suchcomments ought to be made relative to how the protagonistsexperienced those communications and administration in anyparticular instance—something which the book does actually makeclear in the examples it provides.Chapter three (pp. 90-132) takes the book on a more oblique courseand addresses big themes that will be more familiar to earlymedieval historians than to others. Entitled “Authority, Rulershipand the Abbey,” the chapter is concerned with shaping definitions. Itis very often an impossible task to delineate precisely what peoplemeant when they used particular terms in charters and this chapter  raises many of the problems that historians come up against whenfiguring out the roles and statuses of such people described as actor, and what was meant precisely by  potestas (defined by theauthor as the “power to act and to control”, p. 95) . What the authorsucceeds in doing is to use the practical examples of the charters todemonstrate process . By doing so, the reader gets a pretty clearidea that, in spite of the ambiguities and partial survival, the papertrail left by the abbey and its peers provides us with a compellinginsight into the vagaries of the situations they found themselves.Chapter four (pp. 133-163) focuses on the Farfa communitiesthemselves and how individual cultural affinities influenced thebusiness of the abbey. This chapter begins to make more sense of the political background that was sketched out in the previouschapters and for the first time we meet the protagonists at thecentre of the narrative. The author acknowledges the fundamentalimportance of understanding the community make-up by saying,“here we can redress an imbalance in the historiography, for while ithas been noted that some Farfa monks hailed from beyond theSabina, the extent and importance of the abbey’s recruitment withinthe Sabina has rarely been appreciated” (p. 133). The chapterexplores how, from the shady view we get, individuals fostered acorporate identity and most importantly, how the local lay elitefostered intimate links with the abbey, particularly through oblation.Here are fascinating stories of how small-p politics informed thebigger society of the abbey, and for me, these examples provide themost tangible understanding of how early medieval ecclesiasticalinstitutions were able to function at the most fundamental level.Chapter five (pp. 164-224), on Sabine lands and landownership, isthe densest of all the chapters in the book, but probably also itsmost important. It demonstrates patronage in action and colours thepicture of how the abbey used social and political reciprocity tobroker its own power strategies, and how a balance of control in theabbey’s environs was maintained with the changing face of layelites. The author very eloquently summarises the major issuesassociated with determining the character of a local society andintroduces readers to the problems associated with analyses of early medieval social hierarchies which we know instinctively to befluid and changeable, but a feature that is not often detectable inour sources. I would have welcomed more discussion of the author’sown standpoint on this issue. The second half of chapter five provides readers with an opportunityto pause and reflect on the detail of land-based relationshipspresented thus far. Here, the author explicitly tackles how we are tounderstand the full spectrum of land structures described in thesources, and how they were managed, from patterns of landholding,the organisation of labour and ultimately, the mechanics of howwealth was generated for landowners such as the abbey and its lay  peers. Two very brief sections on family property and the role of marriage and women in the region (pp. 215-224) expand thedimensions of this chapter somewhat, but some readers, particularlysocial and gender historians, might be left wanting more.Chapter six on the elite families of the Sabina is very short incomparison to others in the book and extends the interestingdiscussion of kinship and family identities presented at the end of the previous chapter (pp. 225-249). It is of particular interest fordemonstrating the permeability of lay and ecclesiastical realms andhow this comes through in the documentary evidence. While firstimpressions might suggest that old families faded from view in theabbey archives, the author demonstrates beautifully that this wasnot the case, and it was the way in which their exchanges with theabbey were documented that changed (p. 245).From the detail and personalities of the previous chapters, chaptersseven and eight take us back to the bigger picture, the first focusingon the Lombard period, the second on the Carolingians (pp. 250-352). Both chapters re-outline several important strands that havealready been woven into the book, such as the nature of therelationship between Lombard rulers, the papacy and the abbey inthe eighth century and what happened after the crucial event of theCarolingian conquest of the northern Lombard kingdom in 774. These chapters gave the author scope to interrogate sourcesoutside the main body of the Farfa charters hitherto deployed, suchas the Codex Carolinus and papal  pacta.  These chapters reaffirm theauthor’s contention that the abbey was an essential institution andnetwork which provided rulers with a way to connect with localities,but perhaps more importantly, allowed these local elites toparticipate in higher government, particularly after the advent of Carolingian rule. This unique role enabled the abbey to preserve itsown independence, something that was to change radically at theturn of the tenth century, as the author reminds us in his lastsentence. To conclude this review, I want to return to my opening commentsabout Farfa Abbey today. Farfa Abbey has adapted to changingcultural and social circumstances over the longue durée . It willoccupy a comfortable position in the Anglophone literature on earlymedieval Europe, following in the tradition of many of the othertitles in the Cambridge series _Studies in Medieval Life and Thought  _  , which has also carried several other regional studies onmedieval Italy such as Patricia Skinner’s work on Gaeta [3] and mostrecently, Caroline Goodson’s study of ninth-century Rome [4].However, perhaps because the author follows in the style of muchrecent historical writing on early medieval Europe, tightly arguedand immersed in the deep of detail of the charter evidence, I felt itheld back on conveying an overall sense of Farfa’s uniqueness andcharacter and why, therefore, other historians of Italy should pay  attention to its more distant past. Although it has been referencedin some notes and the bibliography, some more engagement withthe interesting archaeological and architectural heritage of theabbey might have added shape to the arguments and narrativespresented here [5].Notes[1] _Abbazia di Farfa. Comunità benedettina_ (http://www.abbaziadifarfa.it/2009, accessed: 20 August 2010).[2] Some images of the landscape around Farfa can be seen here:http://www.flickr.com/photos/colpo_docchio/sets/72157609671357531/with/3049590165/(accessed 10 October 2010).[3] Patricia Skinner, _ Family Power in Southern Italy: The Duchy of Gaeta and its Neighbours, 850-1139_ (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1995).[4] Caroline J. Goodson, _ The Rome of Pope Paschal I: Papal Power,Urban Renovation, Church Rebuilding and Relic Translation, 817-824_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).[5] The classic archaeological and architectural study is: CharlesMcClendon, _ The Imperial Abbey of Farfa Architectural Currents of the Early Middle Ages_, (Yale: Yale University Press, 1987), updatedby more recent work under the aegis of the Farfa Survey by theBritish School at Rome, for example, John Moreland, “The Farfasurvey: a second interim report,” _Archeologia Medievale_ 14(1987): 409-18; and for the most up to date summary of the CasaleSan Donato site with references to interim publications, see: JohnMoreland, _The Farfa Survey_ (http://www.shef.ac.uk/archaeology/research/farfa/farfa.html,accessed: 14 September 2010).
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