Bertrand Forclaz. La famille Borghese et ses fiefs: l'autorité négociée dans l'État pontifical d'Ancien Régime. Rome: École française de Rome, 2006. viii + 418 pp. No price listed, ISBN 978-2-7283-0550-6.
Reviewed by Caroline Castiglione (Department of Italian Studies Brown University)
Published on H-Italy (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Gregory Hanlon (Dalhousie University)
Late Roman Feudalism
This learned and thoroughly researched book offers a multifaceted examination of noble jurisdiction in the early modern Roman countryside. Through original research and a well-organized presentation of his findings, Bertrand Forclaz makes a remarkable contribution to our understanding of noble administration of justice and of noble interventions in the governing of the communes in Latium, the rural region surrounding the capital of the Papal States. The study specifically focuses on the administration of the Borghese family, the greatest early modern landowners of Rome. Seigneurial jurisdiction is richly documented in the family’s vast archives, through which Forclaz examines key problems in rural politics, the policing of crime, the administration of justice, and the parameters of seigneurial authority, issues which we only now are beginning to understand for central and southern Italy in the early modern period. Amidst the flurry of recent interest in these topics, Forclaz’s contribution is certainly worthy of high praise and a wide readership both below and beyond the Alps.
In the face of the abundance of the Borghese archives, the author obviously had to make some judicious research choices. Since the Borghese family had as many as thirty-three fiefs, Forclaz wisely limited himself to four important ones: Norma; Montefortino (today called Artena); Palombara; Canemorto (today called Orvinio). These represent areas of Latium where the Borghese owned considerable territory, specifically southern Latium and the Sabina. The author also cites liberally from evidence beyond these four fiefs. The book is about the seventeenth century, specifically it is a synchronic study of the how aristocratic power functioned in the second half of the seventeenth century. Thus its eighteenth-century excursions are less persuasive, and while they suggest the profound political changes underway in eighteenth-century villages, they cannot explain them.
These minor limitations are much more than overcome by the depth of the analysis of the seventeenth-century materials, through which Forclaz sustains an argument that is intriguing and substantive. He thoroughly examines the negotiated forms of authority on the part of the Borghese family, specifically the dynamic between the family, its representatives in the fiefs, and its “vassals,” as they were called in the seventeenth century. His research is particularly critical for the rural history of central Italy, which, until the path-breaking work of Renata Ago in the early 1980s, had received little scrutiny and even less so from a political point of view.
A number of historians have attempted to chart the political trajectory of the Papal States, debating whether, as Paolo Prodi insisted, its politics were more successfully centralizing (and a model for other European states) or whether, as Mario Caravale asserted, the Papal States remained a patchwork of compromises between a variety of local polities and the representatives of papal power. Forclaz sides with those who underscore the strength of seigneurial power around Rome, noting that papal nepotism helped to reinforce aristocratic reach into the countryside. The great aristocratic families like the Borghese clung to their jurisidictional authority, especially in the administration of justice and the monitoring of the affairs of communal governments. Within this larger set of historiographical debates, as well as in the more focused issues related to rural society and justice, Forclaz offers a very wide reading in the secondary literature, especially the Italian-, French-, and German-language literature on these themes. He strives to present a balanced overview to the reader and it often bolsters his readings of the primary evidence. While one might quibble with his characterization of the contributions of microhistory, for instance, or find that two competing historiographical schools can only be brought together with difficulty, his attention to these matters is critical to the book’s revisionist orientation. Readers will find observations of interest in Forclaz’s synthesis of various fields.
How far could seigneiurial authority extend in the face of competition from the papal government and indifference (bordering on hostility) from the villagers? These problems are carefully considered throughout the monograph. The first half of the book analyzes the institutions and personnel of seigneurial power in the countryside, especially in the matter of seigneurial justice. The second part of the book considers how noble jurisdiction intersected at the village level with problems of local conflict, competing jurisdictions, and recalcitrant villagers. The book is thoughtfully organized and readers can easily navigate among the topics and grasp Forclaz’s interpretive conclusions for each category of inquiry.
Chapters 3 and 4 stand out as particularly original in light of other recent contributions to the field. Chapter 3 (on the rural governors) provides a detailed and nuanced overview of the background, obligations, and difficult career trajectories of these Borghese appointees who were charged with the administration of day-to-day justice in the fiefs. If, as Forclaz and other scholars including myself have claimed, power in the countryside was negotiated, the governors were at the center of those negotiations. A village wish-list of their necessary qualities suggests how hard a capable individual might be to find: “a governor needs wisdom, moral rectitude, nobility, privilege, poetry, and some schooling is also required” (p.129). As Forclaz carefully documents, the vast majority of the governors were doctors of civil and canon law from villages or small towns in the Papal States. About their poetic skills Forclaz evidently found little testimony, but their activities are well documented in his book. They had the thankless task of intervening in village controversies that spilled over into criminal behavior. As the governors frequently complained, villagers often melted away when they sought their cooperation. Hostility toward governors was common and their death at the hand of the locals was rare but not unknown.
Chapter 4 analyzes how village justice functioned, noting both its civil and its criminal aspects. Although a new papal family, the Borghese enjoyed for the most part the same jurisdictional rights as had their medieval predecessors from whom they had purchased their territories. This included the death penalty, although it was rarely applied. The Borghese aims in administering justice were grand and “buona giustizia” necessitated the protection of the weak. It was difficult for the Borghese to deliver on these promises when a “crime” impinged on what the Borghese regarded as their seigneurial privileges. Forclaz ably demonstrates in this chapter how much seigneurial justice was about conflict resolution, whether that involved enforcing the clauses of contracts; settling violence over disputes involving honor, women, or livestock; and preventing the recourse to vendetta as a resolution to the stresses and strains of rural life. While the villagers complained frequently about the governors, they also voluntarily sought the intervention of seigneurial tribunals as a way of resolving differences and reclaiming honor. The supplications to the prince for justice underscored the sometimes crucial role the seigneurial lord might play in remaking the lives of the condemned. In Forclaz’s analysis, women were key to this latter process, going all the way to Rome if necessary to intervene on behalf of their condemned relatives.
In the second half of the book Forclaz tackles the thorny problem of competing jurisdictions and competing institutions. The Borghese had quite a tangle of controversies over borders, clerical immunities, and recalcitrant villagers who sometimes clung to their communal leaders more than to the lord’s authority. That these matters could take a while to resolve is an understatement--one border dispute lasted 160 years. Local killers (including a few priests) exploited competing tribunals (such as the governor of Rome). Notorious bandits such as the elusive “Doctor Pizzolo” escaped prosecution by the Borghese and fled to the protection of the ambassador of France, in Rome. With competing ecclesiastical authorities and disgruntled neighboring lords the Borghese employed a number of strategies. Forclaz concludes that since aristocrats leaned on their aristocratic neighbors for various forms of cooperation, it was scarcely worth it for the Borghese to alienate their peers. Negotiation was a better tool.
When Forclaz brings the analysis closer to the level of the villagers, he insists that certain frameworks remain rather constant. One of these features is the client network of the Borghese, centered on their governors and clerics they appointed to benefices controlled by the noble family. Forclaz is able to show systematically the way power connected patron to client between city and country. Hitherto many of us had only our favorite anecdotes, but Forclaz brings the evidence together persuasively and puts it into sharp relief in chapter 6.
This Borghese network supposedly competed with local powerful families who dominated the communal government’s offices and attempted to wrest control of village affairs from Borghese clients (i.e., the governors and their followers). Forclaz offers a series of short case studies in chapter 7 that suggest the prevalence of these two factions as the defining feature of the village world. These very detailed cases have to be interpreted with care, especially to prove this claim, since as the author emphasizes, so much is missing from the evidence that many of his readings must remain within the realm of conjecture. Sometimes the villagers simply failed to arrange themselves in the factional patterns identified by the author, breaking bonds of loyalty and genealogy to speak and act in a manner opposed to the group to which they supposedly belonged. As Edward Muir observed of the Veneto, it can be difficult to ascertain factional membership until a scholar has a list of the dead. Even then the heirs of the murderers and the heirs of the murdered do not always follow the patterns of their predecessors. Evidence for the continuity of village factions can be difficult to recover over long periods of time. Border disputes and disputes with lords often have far greater longevity. It is possible that the cases reveal the preeminence of factions as the organizing social, political, and cultural framework of the village world--which would certainly make life difficult for those who were evidently related to both sides or who sometimes switched sides. But it might also be that in the village there were real differences of opinion about how long one could tolerate a sexually predatory priest or whether one was able to agree to an export of grain in a time of dearth. It would be wonderful if notes from the communal assemblies had survived, so that the ideas of the villagers might be glimpsed in sources beyond those of the Borghese family.
Village life has all the complexity and nuance of urban life and its study requires a variety of approaches, as Forclaz ably demonstrates. While factions for the moment rule the historiography of the Italian countryside, there are limits to their explanatory power, as Forclaz himself admits. By his own reckoning, the politics of the villagers had profoundly changed by the eighteenth century, more in conflict with the lord, less violent and more orientated toward the war of words. Thus the supposed long-term presence of the factions and their role (if any) in this shift still requires explanation. The clearer and less disputable aspects of this study are the Borghese’s clear defense of their seigneurial authority even if they had to negotiate it; their paternalistic interventions in the lives of their villagers through their beleaguered governor-appointees; their insistence on the relevance of their ties to the lowly and the rural from their wealthy and urban vantage point. About the rest, as Forclaz observes, much exciting research remains to be done.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-italy.
Caroline Castiglione. Review of Forclaz, Bertrand, La famille Borghese et ses fiefs: l'autorité négociée dans l'État pontifical d'Ancien Régime.
H-Italy, H-Net Reviews.
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