A stairway to heaven? The court of the Liège prince-bishops


As well as researching and writing, a large part of academic work is presenting your findings.  Christophe’s work is featured in the recently published conference proceeding, La Paix de Fexhe (1316) et les révoltes dans la Principauté de Liège et dans les Pays-Bas méridionaux.  Here, he presents a  post which looks at life in the courts of the prince-bishops of Liège. drawing on some of the themes of his paper. 

 

In the early fourteenth century, the principality of Liège experienced numerous dramatic events. Sudden deaths of its prince-bishops, violent political uprisings, and familial wars occurred too frequently to let the country be at peace. Amongst all of this, the Peace of Fexhe (18 June 1316), signed in a small village located some kilometres away from the capital, was considered by nineteenth-century scholars—and some modern journalists, history enthusiasts, and politicians—as the time where the prince’s monocratic power was put to an end and replaced by democracy. Which, as everyone knows, was already present—and perhaps allegedly born, (sorry about that, Athens)—in the late Middle Ages…

The reality is obviously far more complex. This text was probably, before anything else, a truce between exhausted parties. In fact, between 1315 and 1317 a dramatic famine swept across almost all Europe that left people barely able to do anything other than strive to find food, or to make decent business. Nonetheless, the truce gives us the opportunity of uncovering the political tensions of the day, as numerous political problems appear in the text. It is also a chance to meet the people who mattered in Liège political life, and the ones who tried—and sometimes succeeded—in joining them.

Urban aristocrats tended to aggregate themselves to nobility, thus copying some of their habits: listening to or reading romances, wearing coats of arms, walking with a sword at their side…

A 16thC engraving of the cathedral of Saint Lambert

A 16thC engraving of the cathedral of Saint Lambert

As a principality, Liège housed a court, organized around its prince-bishop. A subject of the emperor, but at this period increasingly close to the king of France, the prince-bishop had to deal with the canons of his cathedral, (Saint-Lambert), who challenged his authority as ruler of the land; with the nobility; with the urban aristocracy; and with professional guilds. He organized his court around two cores. The first one gathered his relatives—brothers, nephews, and cousins—and local allies whom he entrusted with military, judicial, administrative, or diplomatic duties. The second one was composed of the canons of Saint-Lambert, who also acted as his officers. Mostly coming from the upper part of society, they were raised amongst knights or high-profile merchants, and so brought with them an education, that relatively matched, but of course on a lower level, the one enjoyed by their princes.

War and prowess were essential in this culture, which saw princes fighting on horseback or on foot amongst their people, even using the officially-forbidden-by-the-pope crossbow to shoot some of them down! The bishop Adolphe de La Marck, who signed the Peace of Fexhe, was even compared to Hector by a contemporary chronicler! Urban aristocrats tended to aggregate themselves to nobility, thus copying some of their habits: listening to or reading romances, wearing coats of arms, walking with a sword at their side… Nonetheless, we strangely do not find evidence of jousts or tournaments held in the principality. This does not mean that the local nobility despised these activities. After all, they took part in the ones organized nearby.  Maybe the ecclesiastic identity of prince-bishops prevented them from organizing such events… But it did not prevent them from shaping an original court culture, mixing aristocratic and ecclesiastical values, which was more or less imitated by everyone who aspired to an official position. Because to join the people that mattered, the best way was still to act like them before becoming one of them…

 

As part of his work on the Peace of Fexhe, Christophe even wrote the text for a comic produced by the cultural department of the province of Liège!  More information on ‘La Sang de la Paix’ can be found here

 

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