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  • Rebel Barons: Resisting Royal Power in Medieval Culture by By Luke Sunderland
  • Bill Burgwinkle
Rebel Barons: Resisting Royal Power in Medieval Culture. By Luke Sunderland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 320 pp.

In this book, Luke Sunderland re-examines the chanson de geste and finds in the genre a primer on medieval political and ethical theory that stands as a challenge to notions of modernity. Though putatively a study of the rebel baron epics, the book questions many of the commonplaces that have circulated in literary manuals. Antagonism is at the heart of it, fuelled by the rise of monarchies, the German emperors, the secular papacy, the city-state, and aristocratic claims to legal and judicial autonomy. Much of the analysis is driven by Sunderland’s careful consideration of the concept of sovereignty, beginning with conflicting medieval accounts, then turning to Agamben’s notion of sovereignty as teetering always between the legal and illegal (the poison and its antidote), and Jameson’s claim that genres develop in relation to particular social antagonisms. Those antagonisms in the twelfth century were expressed in questions regarding authority and the just exercise of power. The opposition to notions of sovereignty that one encounters in these texts can still shock readers, as opposed to the bias one finds in later political theory for stability and centralized authority. Sunderland argues that rebel baron narratives serve as symbolic resolutions to power struggles, but he concentrates not just on local regional struggles but also on the wider Western Christian canvas in which barons oppose kings and sovereigns freely and find the anarchy that results fully justified. Questioning the notion of ‘France’ itself, Sunderland is attentive to regional narrative (from Flanders, Lorraine, Burgundy, Occitania, and Lombardy) and sees reading without attention to these differences as tantamount to anachronism. Chapters are organized around discrete political and conflictual structures across time and space rather than on chronology. A first chapter on sovereignty traces medieval thought (John of Salisbury, Aquinas, Marsilius of Padua) and its tendency to privilege the ontological over the political. A second chapter on revolt argues that dissent and rebellion are not necessarily treason; and a third chapter examines resistance as justifiable in Aspremont, the various rewritings of Girart de Roussillon, and the Chanson de la croisade albigeoise. A Charlemagne chapter surveys the widely differing portraits of the emperor across the Middle Ages, and the final chapter argues that crusading efforts naturally saw the chanson de geste as a generic ally and rewrote epics as they saw fit. The chapter on the feud (Chapter 5) is one of the most telling. Here Sunderland opposes the concept to revenge and focuses on internecine warfare that pits Christian against Christian. Using network theory and working with the Loheren cycle and Raoul de Cambrai, he re-examines the concept of feud as a means of resolving conflict outside the parameters of modern systems of justice, using anthropology and theories of justice. It is this attention to the subtleties of the material at his disposal that most impresses and the willingness to see how ill-served the genre has been by an insistence on nationalizing paradigms. This is a masterful rehabilitation not only of a genre but also of political theory avant la lettre. [End Page 446]

Bill Burgwinkle
King’s College, Cambridge


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