As his latest book is published – an exploration of how and why certain locations were chosen for opposition to power – Ryan Lavelle recalls how dramatically varying forms of protest and rebellion, in different locations around the world, continually broke out throughout its development.
‘We are often told that works of history have as much to reveal about historians’ own times as about the past.’ OK, maybe this was written while under the influence of a little too much undergraduate historiography teaching and there’s a little pomposity in there but my prefatory notes in Places of Contested Power provide some sort of reflection of the last decade in which – on and off – this book has moved from an inkling of ideas to something that is as tangible as a monograph.
Soon after I began to jot out the plans of chapters (later much modified, as it turned out), protests in Tunisia developed into the government-shaking and soon government-toppling events of the Arab Spring. As a distant observer I realised that there was something in notions of the power of place, of where those deprived of power make that point known. As I stretched my field of view, however imperfectly, from my usual Anglo-centric perspective to consider parallels and comparisons with early medieval France in the shape of cross-Channel (trans-Manche) societies, the impact of twenty-first-century unrest and violence became apparent in 2016, when the popular vote to leave the European Union was played out in Britain, with particular vehemence in England and Wales. The impact of protest and subsequent war in the Middle East, with resultant refugee crises had found its way to the Home Counties, and my European-centred universe was turned upside down.
When I had submitted the final manuscript for the book to Boydell last year, I had expected its publication to be an occasion to prompt my own thoughts on Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, perhaps protesting that there is still room for trans-Manche scholarship, but ground has a tendency to shift in new unexpected ways. Those of us who thought that 2020 would be marked by the momentousness of Britain’s departure from the EU have been put into place by what are proving to be the bigger issues of world-wide pandemic and, more relevant to the topic of my own book, world-wide protests against racial injustice, triggered by the killing of George Floyd on 25 May. Now, at the point when my book is due to be published, the power of contested place becomes apparent to me in yet another way… one that I hadn’t expected but in which – as a privileged white man writing about the early and central middle ages as he enters his own early and central middle ages – I really should have. I can’t pretend that Places of Contested Power is about radical social change. Indeed discussion in the book focuses on the oppositional acts of elite aristocrats and rebel royals rather than rebellion from below, by those who produced the surplus wealth which maintained the social elites’ positions. But while the lack of evidence of popular revolt is a problem (there is very little evidence for this prior to the eleventh century), I’m struck by the ways in which power, when concentrated in the hands of a few, led to those who were denied a share in power using the language of legitimacy in order to contest not the legitimacy of power itself but in order to ensure that their voices were heard and to heighten their own position. Sometimes they were successful. Sometimes not. But the process of looking at the places which were chosen in these contests helps bring us closer to the real motivations and fears of those otherwise dismissed by those who attempt to control official narratives, in terms of ‘madness’ and illegitimacy.
This guest post was written by Ryan Lavelle, Professor of Early Medieval History in the Department of History at the University of Winchester.