The comparative history of medieval England and Germany was one of Timothy Reuter’s abiding interests. This concern reflects the fact that, despite sharing basic forms of political organization (both were monarchical societies, presided over by elites which defined themselves through their military or spiritual functions), as well as common beliefs about the nature and limitations of royal and noble power, how such abstract norms were turned into political reality could hardly have been more different. While the Norman and Angevin kings elaborated on the administrative apparatus of their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, the emperors relied on an informal network of alliances, with questions of honour and status, for instance, assuming a more significant role. England thus witnessed the emergence of the bureaucratic kingship of the Exchequer, of the Pipe, Fine, Liberate, Charter, Close, Patent, and Curia Regis Rolls, of an administrative machinery rivalled only by that of the Norman kingdom of Sicily, the Italian communes, or the late medieval crown of Aragon. In Germany, by contrast, emperors had to rely increasingly on symbolic manifestations of power, just as their ability to influence and rule their princely subjects declined in real terms. Things were, however, rarely as simple as modern academic paradigms would like them to be, and Reuter pointed,for instance, to the importance of rituals, gestures, and ceremonies, traditionally associated with French and German politics, for the events of Henry II’s reign.
In fact, as he suggested in one of his last published articles, such commonly accepted juxtapositions often reveal themselves to be little more than a convenient shorthand for more complex phenomena and processes, once they are viewed from a comparative perspective. This chapter will take up Timothy Reuter’s suggestion and will look in more detail at one particular aspect of medieval political culture: the monarch’s role as source and guarantor of justice. It will do so with reference to two individuals —Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1152–90) and King Henry II (1154–89) — and by using a certain type of source: historical narratives, that is, chronicles, annals, and saints’ lives.
Upholding peace and justice was a ruler’s foremost duty, but it was also in the administration and implementation of justice that the widely divergent mechanisms and tools at Frederick’s and Henry’s disposal can most easily be studied. One question we need to consider is, therefore, to what extent differences ingovernmental structure were reflected in representations of governmental practice. Medieval historians did, after all, offer an idealized image of the past. They sought to place events and actions in relation to a set of values and expectations they shared with those who commissioned or who read (or listened to) their writings, or who had produced similar texts themselves. By exploring what they deemed worth reporting about the exercise of royal justice, we will be able to see the extentto which the very different frameworks of royal administration, within which they wrote, influenced their understanding of what justice was and how it was to bedone. It is worth emphasizing that this essay is not concerned with the reality of royal or imperial justice, but with its image.
In fact, much of what follows will disregard aspects which we know to have formed part of the exercise of Henry’s and Frederick’s juridical functions. It is, however, in these omissions and misrepresentations that we will find echoes of what it was that those who recorded the doings of king and emperor believed king and emperor should do or have done. By focussing on the concept of royal justice, rather than its practice, we will be able to gain a better understanding of the wider cultural framework within which rulers acted, and of the norms according to which they were judged. In doing so, we will also be able to fill a curious gap in our understanding of imperial and royal lordship. In the case of Frederick, recent studies of the representation and self-representation of the Emperor sidestep the ruler’s juridical function.
Similarly, while excellent work has been done on the legal system that developed during Henry II’s reign, relatively little has been said about the expectations of his subjects or the King’s personal role in administering justice. By approaching these questions from a comparative angle, we will also be able to gain a clearer understanding of what was distinctive about the Angevin and the Staufen experience of royal government, and what they had in common. The following will thus not, to borrow Nicholas Vincent’s phrase, seek to turn the Angevins into Ottonians with Pipe Rolls. We will, however, argue that the distinctions outlined above will need to be revised. What follows can be little more than a first step towards a more wide-ranging investigation and will have to limit itself to three overlapping themes.
First, what did English and German observers mean by royal justice? Second, how did they expect justice to be done? What were the mechanisms and procedures they deemed appropriate? This will, finally, lead to a series of more wide-ranging questions about the nature of the evidence, and about the possible implications ourfindings might have beyond their immediate chronological and geographical focus.