First published in French in 2012, Jacques Dalarun's Gouverner, c’est servir: Essai de démocratie médiévale has been translated into Italian (2015), Spanish (2018), Portuguese (2021), and now—a little more than a decade after its original appearance—into English by Sean Field, himself an eminent medievalist, who has produced an elegant and updated version for English-speaking readers. In lucid prose, Dalarun offers his readers a forensic yet poetic exploration of the theme of governance as service. Through a compelling application of Michel Foucault's arguments to the specifics of religious history, Dalarun unfolds a new perspective on the history of democracy as a form of constituted governance. The book has lost none of its importance or relevance in the decade since its initial publication in French. Indeed, its central preoccupations with power, leadership, and virtue are if nothing more relevant now, both to the scholarly moment and to the contemporary world.
Jacques Dalarun is the former director of the medieval department of the Ecole Frangaise de Rome and of the Institut de Recherche et d'Histoire des Textes (IRHT), and a member of the Institut de France (Academie des Inscription et Belles-Lettres), as well as a corresponding fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. He is also author or coauthor of over twenty books, and director, editor, or coauthor of over twenty more editions and collections of essays dealing with religious, monastic, and particularly Franciscan history of the high Middle Ages. The texts and ideas that form the center of the present book have occupied his thought for much of his career. Here, in To Govern Is to Serve, Dalarun addresses cutting-edge manuscript discoveries and situates them within the framework of decades of scholarship, theory, and questioning focused on religious governance and pastoral authority. The book's animating provocation is Dalarun's identification of the central paradox of Christianity: how it was that a religion of the margins became the dominant ideology and thus locus of power in the medieval West and what that meant for the conceptions of governance to take institutional forms.
The book's animating provocation is Dalarun's identification of the central paradox of Christianity: how it was that a religion of the margins became the dominant ideology and thus locus of power in the medieval West and what that meant for the conceptions of governance to take institutional forms.
To address this paradox, Dalarun offers an extended essay on governance as service. Here we meet an ideology of governance that has its roots in the religious sphere, in a specific notion of pastoral care and motherly consolation. What, he asks, does it mean—in practice, in communities, and in the political sphere—for a leader to be a servant to the servant? How is it that the medieval West came to offer up an example of governance built upon an inversion of power as a form of power?
There are many reasons to read this book, particularly at this moment. To delight in the sheer virtuosity of Dalarun's extended exposition of a single episode from the life of St. Clare as we see in part 1. Or to follow the careful historical analysis of governing and the dynamics of power within the monastic and mendicant reform movements of the High Middle Ages. And there is the innovative and provocative new reading of St. Francis's own articulations of governance as “mothering”—although not so much with its traditional association with nurturing as with a more powerful compulsion toward consolation. And in the end, there is Dalarun's use of history as a vehicle of political philosophy. Among the many reasons to read this book, however, we want to highlight three that make To Govern Is to Serve especially compelling for inclusion in this series dedicated to exploring and redefining Medieval Societies, Religions, and Cultures.
First, the present book is quite simply an exquisite demonstration of the practice of close reading as a technique, that is, a techne, a way of doing something, and a methodology, a commitment to a scholarly practice that opens a source or set of sources to deeper meaning and interpretation. Dalarun's close attention in part 1 to a single episode toward the end of Clare of Assisi's life is a deft demonstration of how to read medieval sources, how to interpret hagiography, and how an exploration of the smallest actions can invite myriad meanings. This practice of working over and working within a text was familiar to medieval people as the act of ruminatio, rumination, the four-fold digestion of word, sense, meaning, and parable or allegory. But Dalarun moves masterfully one step further to show what the intimacies of history afford us: a closeness to our subjects, to their actions, to their character and their context. In the case of Clare and Francis, this intimacy yields a greater understanding of the very special kind of authority created through inversion, by making the lesser great, by serving the servant. Some close readings lay bare the paradox.
Dalarun's close attention in part 1 to a single episode toward the end of Clare of Assisi's life is a deft demonstration of how to read medieval sources, how to interpret hagiography, and how an exploration of the smallest actions can invite myriad meanings.
Second, by turning, or indeed returning, to the nature of governance, Dalarun invites the reader into a much longer and broader intellectual dialogue on the history and philosophy of governmentality, one that take us explicitly to Foucault in the late 1970s. In reading To Govern Is to Serve one is witness to an ongoing conversation between Foucault the political philosopher and Dalarun the historian and scholar of medieval religious life and practice. Together they find common ground in articulating the place of religion in society and the role social dynamics play in shaping religion, meeting in a discussion of pastoral authority that identifies the pastor as leader and servant. In our present age when Foucault and his arguments have permeated the terms of analysis and have become so much a part of contemporary ways of reading and thinking as to be unrecognizable (as in unnoticed, itself a certain trait of ideology), Dalarun's explicit application of Foucault's ideas as method demonstrates what a revelation Foucault's thinking was for an earlier generation of historians. In this way, the book serves as a historiographical explanation and methodological guide to much of the previous half century of scholarship that addressed questions of power and governance; self and society; body and regulation; legitimacy and authority; ideology and its functions. In this exchange, Dalarun offers a powerful conclusion: “Medieval historians thus have much to contribute to the history of governmentality” This contribution is not in the realm of coercive power from the top down as is so often portrayed in popular culture and the media, but in the careful working out over generations of what it meant to keep peace, to trust and put faith in others, and to care for communities within communities. We still have much to learn from this medieval example, especially in reaffirming our own practices of democracy
Dalarun offers a powerful conclusion: “Medieval historians thus have much to contribute to the history of governmentality” This contribution is not in the realm of coercive power from the top down as is so often portrayed in popular culture and the media, but in the careful working out over generations of what it meant to keep peace, to trust and put faith in others, and to care for communities within communities.
Finally, Dalarun engages with governance as a core subject of the Middle Ages by linking its evolution within monastic circles to its forms and cadences in the political sphere as exemplified in cultures of lordship and obligation and in the development of the medieval state. This intervention, reinforced by his reading of both Foucault and monastic normative texts, is perhaps the boldest and most definitive for shaping our understanding of medieval political ideology. In this reading, Dalarun traces a genealogy of governance and locates its roots in the monastic impulse to embrace obedience and humility as the highest form of self-regulation and communal leadership.
Dalarun traces a genealogy of governance and locates its roots in the monastic impulse to embrace obedience and humility as the highest form of self-regulation and communal leadership.
To Govern Is to Serve must now be read alongside earlier studies of the medieval state and political theology such as the works of Joseph Strayer and Ernst Kantorowicz, to name but two prominent examples. Yet, whereas an earlier generation of scholars built their conclusions from legal codes, political treatises, texts of royal liturgies, and the steady accretion of bureaucratic documents in order to generate a picture of government both as it was idealized and put into practice, Dalarun offers another perspective altogether. Starting with those who esteemed renunciation, who attempted to codify through regula (monastic rules) and letters, and to adjudicate in consilia (careful counsel) and short clarifications, Dalarun extends to the reader an entirely new articulation of the origins of medieval governmental thinking and its evolution. He demonstrates that the religious, and in particular the monastic, context lends the history of governance an ideological vector that must be read alongside the political narrative.
This insight promises to change the scholarly landscape, to shift the terms of our teaching, and to reshape our questions yet again. With this book the conversation is made considerably richer and its readers will be left humbled by its revelations.