Seminary IV (Susan Reynolds)

This will be the last of these posts for a while, as the last of the papers I really can’t miss in the IHR‘s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar series this term has now occurred. No bad thing for my employers and for me also, as each of these visits this term has led to a small-scale personal disaster once I’ve stepped away from the academics (lesson for us all there), but I did make it to this one, Susan Reynolds talking on “Modern problems with medieval communities”. I won’t do it justice if I summarise, but it’s late and I don’t want to type up my notes just yet, so.

Cover of Susan Reynolds’s Kingdoms and Communities in the Medieval West

Professor Reynolds was basically arguing on two tracks. The first was that modern theories about communities which derive them from associations of individuals, theories with social contracts and so on in that she was arguing go back to Grotius in the sixteenth century, are fundamentally at variance with how the people of the Middle Ages saw their society. To them, she argues, the community was the natural state, not the `state of nature’ that modern theorists subsequently posited. Teleology has led to stressing of `communal’ or parliamentarian developments that took a long time to become associated and did not in fact develop in sequence one from the other. To medieval man and woman, society was fundamentally one of unequals, and therefore requiring a ruler, and this was, at least since (because of?) the Fall, `just how things were’. Evidence of people considering alternatives is pretty much non-existent—even the Communes deal with monarchs—and outside ecclesiastical circles, actually so. This was the other string of the argument: that to most people of the time, such theories were in any case irrelevant. People acted as communities long before they had any legal recognition as such, largely because the idea of legal personality that underlies the idea that they might need legal recognition so to act was not to be found before the twelfth century and then almost negligible in influence. A village was collectively responsible for its taxes without necessarily being a legal body; a body of frontier settlers (Professor Reynolds and I had a good talk about these, our common interest, later) raising a church don’t get permission to do so or a parish set, that comes with consecration. Communities have solidarity and can act together without needing to be told they can—this is self-evident, you may think, but Professor Reynolds believes that legal historians have managed to forget it. Mainly she was arguing through all this that the community, not the individual, was the basic unit of social action, and to understand the period we have to think in that way too.

There were obviously quarrels with this, mostly from Jinty Nelson on the grounds that priests at least saw their job as one of dealing with individuals and their souls, but someone (all right, me, I admit it) suggested that in this respect the City of God might be theorised differently from the worldly City, and hey, I thought it resolved the difficulty even if no-one else picked up on it :-)

There are obviously problems with any theory this grand once you dig down and find examples, and talking to Professor Reynolds helped me tease some of these knots out, but I thought there was certainly a helpful point of view in all this. Various things went wrong later on in the evening that have left me as yet uncaught up on sleep, however, and so that is the best analysis I can muster for the moment. Things will likely go quiet here for a short while now while I work on my Leeds paper but I’ll try and keep checking by meanwhile.

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6 responses to “Seminary IV (Susan Reynolds)

  1. Nice point about medieval people being in the community ‘a priori’. The shaping of individual has been a major ghost in renaissance scholarship since, well, since Jacob Burckhardt, and I’m not quite convinced of the ‘total lack of personal identity’ thing either.

    At least the reframing of the person in the Civitas Dei leaves room for some vickar agency (fancy a paper title?)

  2. The whole birth of the individual thing annoys me, as it’s definitely one of those fields where only years after 1000 count as real. You only have to read Einhard’s letters to see that people worked within whatever group was most advantageous at the time or without one if that was better. Kingroups, lords and followers, ethnic affiliations—I’m convinced it’s all at least 50% convenience. And you can’t tell a historical narrative with no agency in it, from any period.

    I think that there’s no place for me to get a paper out of this stuff, as my knowledge just isn’t broad enough, but if Professor Reynolds gets it into print I shall be quietly pleased if that idea comes with it.

    Still behind on sleep here, though, so this may not be my most tightly-argued comment…

  3. Actually, that paper title was meant as joke.

    I certainly don’t hope that you’ll ever write a paper and call it anything that silly! :-)
    Imagine giving a paper called Vickar Agency in a serious tone and not ending up giggling incontrollably? I couldn’t!

    I think we should both get some more sleep.

  4. I wasn’t taking the title seriously, don’t worry! But I’m sure there have been and will be sillier ones you know. A quick scout of this year’s Leeds IMC programme offers several possibilities but I think my favourite so far is “‘Eating the Pudding’: Male Sexuality and Illicit Fatherhood in a Merchant Family of Calais and London”. Little is so obscure as medieval in-jokes!

  5. Gislebertus aside, I have a hard time believing that the individual was discovered. I might make an argument for the reconceptualization of individuality, though.

  6. I think that’s the idea, roughly. There’s Guibert as you say, suddenly in the eleventh and twelfth century there’s people like him and Hildegard of Bingen (I think—not really my star area) writing about themselves, as if that was an interesting thing. And Abélard of course, though it’s pretty clear he found nothing as interesting as himself in some ways :-) And that does seem to be something new, at least on that scale.

    But I look at something like Einhard‘s letters, which are a fabulous source generally, and you know it’s clear from that that he knows he is not just someone but an important someone, that his position and experience make him a source of useful advice, or connections or whatever. And I don’t, on the other hand, believe that Guibert saw himself as entirely disconnected from those sorts of networks—look at his writing about the Crusade for example, so where exactly is the line between seeing yourself as interesting because you’re a person per se and because you’re the person you are? Because it seems to me that the latter case can only be defined with reference to the outside world.

    So I look at Abélard’s Historia Calamitatum and it’s basically a screed that uses the theme “ha, you think you’ve got troubles, try being me” to talk about himself at great length. And that’s just how Einhard writes about losing his wife to some bereaved friend of his in the Letters. I can’t help thinking that Einhard was just too busy to write something like the Historia, at which rate maybe the change we’re seeing is that monastic reform is slowly, over those centuries, separating the educated élite who might write something like this from the administration that used to swallow their time.

    But actually I guess it’s more likely that it’s just preservation, which is after all my favourite explanation. What I mean is: people copy Guibert’s autobiography, it is read and circulated, which is why we have it. The odds of that surely increase as literacy generally increases. I’m not for a moment saying that the Carolingian élite weren’t widely lettered—I have a teaching pedigree I can’t entirely escape after all—but there are more readers in the twelfth century than there were in the ninth, I don’t think anyone would disagree. In fact there’s also more prosperity and therefore presumably more leisure; I think the market is just better. Now that may also entail changes in “mentalités” I guess, but I don’t think it’s mind first, you know?

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