The Civilizing Process
Elias's masterpiece is a book that defies simple summary without gross distortion: it is a brilliant, nuanced and detailed work of historical sociological analysis, 500 pages in length and covering 1,000 years of history, even if it is primarily focused on about three or four centuries, and primarily concerned with French history. Nonetheless, it is an argument that may be sketched out in the broadest brushstrokes, indeed, it must be so delineated so that the reader may see my addition of the sacramental mechanism to the conception of the civilizing process and its relation to the whole.
Volume One of the Civilizing Process charts the development of courtly manners in the Renaissance. Elias largely follows Johan Huizinga's (1924) portrayal of the medieval habitus, judging it as characterized by what
in comparison to later times might be called its simplicity, its naivete. There are, in all societies where the emotions are expressed more violently and directly, fewer psychological nuances and complexities in the general stock of ideas. There are friend and foe, desire and aversion, good and bad people. (2004: 55)
Table manners, the exercise of bodily functions, sexual restraint and the exercise of violent passions are not isolated aspects, but form a 'definite social structure' that is 'a total way of life' (59) that is quite radically different from our own more civilized dispositions. The pictures of these dispositions, largely painted by clerics, and for that reason
the value judgments they contain are therefore often those of the weaker group threatened by the warrior class. Nevertheless the picture they transmit is quite genuine. 'He spends his life', we read of a knight, 'in plundering, destroying churches, falling upon pilgrims, oppressing widows and orphans. He takes particular pleasure in mutilating the innocent. In a single monastery, that of the black monks of Sarlat, there are 150 men and women whose hands he has cut off or whose eyes he has put out. And his wife is just as cruel. She helps him with his executions. It even gives her pleasure to torture the poor women. She had their breasts hacked off or their nails torn off so that they were incapable of work'. (2004: 163)
This story of medieval violence, often quoted because it sums up Elias' picture of medieval violence, is, as Elias notes, contained in a work of propaganda, though it is not the account shaped by Nietzschean ressentiment. Rather, it tells of the evils of an opponent of the good Catholic Lord Simon de Montfort. It appears in Pierre des Vaux-de-Cerny's History of the Albigensian Crusade where, even in a catalogue of horrors of those opposed to the Lord's Peace, it stands out as an example of truly exceptional pagan wickedness (see van Krieken 1989).
Elias' account of the civilization of manners takes off with his consideration of Erasmus' De civilitate morum puerilium (1530) the first, and, in terms of literary merit, undoubtedly the greatest, of humanist manners books. In Volume One, Elias charts the trajectory of increasingly civilized dispositions through what is advised, and how it is advised, in these manners books of the succeeding several centuries. Elias uses these manners books to great effect, showing the increasingly sensitive dispositions of the European (mostly French) elite, their inclination to hide bodily functions, to restrain the emotions, to maintain distance from the bodies of others, and to show superiority by avoiding causing offence to others rather than by a show of force.
In Volume Two, Elias begins to explain the trajectory he charts so effectively in the first volume. The explanation for the course of civilization is not derived from a single cause, but rather it involves the relationship among elements in a web of social relationships (prefiguring his later concept of 'figurations'). Two of the most important elements in the narrative, however, are the process of state formation, and social differentiation and their relation to what he identifies as the 'monopoly mechanism' and the 'royal mechanism'.
The process of state formation leads to an increasing monopoly of force, such that nobles have ever greater reason to train and keep a reign on their passions, and to express their superiority over others by means acceptable at court: the ethos and aesthetics of courtesy, which becomes a 'second nature'. Equally important in this story, and bound up with the courtization of the nobility, is the increasing differentiation of society: an increasingly complex and specialized division of labour and function results in long chains of interdependency and mutual dependence which encourage and facilitate the restraint of the passions. This latter factor was facilitated by the growth of (urban) trading networks and the money economy. The civilizing process implies a particular trajectory towards ever greater constraint, but it is by no means linear, and it can entail multiple contradictions and cross-currents.
If the courts are important in Elias' account, it is not because what happens at court 'causes' the civilization of the rest of society. Rather, he argues, that court society is the place where the civilizing process crystallizes (2004: 99). Nonetheless, the courts are the place where we first find what Elias refers to as the psychologization of experience, where people learn to observe and make sense of their own behaviour and that of others, watching for clues to its hidden meaning. The jockeying for position becomes subtle and strategic, rather than simply a test of strength, and it does so first of all at court.
Elias identifies two mechanisms that are particularly important contributions to state formation and that combine with increasing economic and social differentiation to drive the civilizing process: the monopoly mechanism and the royal mechanism. His conception of the monopoly mechanism seems to draw on observations about competition between modern capitalist firms: each unit finds itself in a competitive situation with other units, and will either get bigger, or else risks getting swallowed up by others that have gotten bigger, to the theoretical end-point of a monopoly. From early Capetian France (late tenth century), the warrior elites and their retinues are engaged with one another in the absence of a strong central power; indeed, the Dukes of l'lle de France, who became the Capetian dynasty, were at this point, less powerful than many of their competitors. They were, in fact, chosen from the nobility of Western Francia to replace the Carolingian dynasty precisely because, in their private capacity, they did not have the wealth and power to threaten a monopoly on the other noble families.
Given the increasing differentiation of society and the mutual interdependence mediated by an increasingly monetized economy, we find an increasing ambivalence of interests among competing warrior elites. A situation where power is distributed relatively evenly among powerful actors tends to privilege the central power. This is what Elias referred to as the royal mechanism: although the medieval nobles were collectively far more powerful than the king, their power relative to each other tended to encourage them to tie each others' hands, a kind of Hobbesian compromise to prevent a war of all nobles against all nobles. The authority of the central power is advantaged, but it is in large measure derived power, rather than being the outcome of monopoly competition.
Where Elias discusses the role of the church in the early Capetian period (2000: 328-9), he treats the church elites simply as contributors to the royal mechanism, aiding the centralizing power of the king in order to prevent the violence and exploitation of other (secular) elites against them. While the church did indeed show considerable nostalgia for the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, where churches and monasteries were less vulnerable to predators (and the castellans did not yet exist as a class), this is far too simple. Church elites were not just another segment of the secular elite inclined to support the prerogative of royal power because it was consonant with their interests. Even if their innovations were later clearly appropriated for the centralization of power, they ought not be reduced to a contribution to the royal mechanism from the start. A closer examination of the pax Dei movement suggests the need to consider the power of the church as a relatively autonomous institution (Bax 1987), and to conceptualize its distinctive form of power as sacramental power.