Seminary stew (V & VI)

As I mentioned a little while ago, the new season of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research has now begun, and because I’m teaching the same day I’m having no trouble making it to them for once. On the other hand, because of that teaching, I am having trouble finding time to write up anything about them… So here is a combined entry briefly discussing the first two, and more shall hopefully follow in a more timely fashion.

Detail of miniature from tenth-century MS of Martianus Capella’s De Nuptiis Philosophiae Mercuriique

On 3rd October we opened with abstruse Carolingiana, the paper being by Sinead O’Sullivan, who was attempting to tell us “Why Did The Carolingians Read Martianus Capella?” Now despite the best attempts of one erstwhile supervisor of mine to soak all their students in Carolingian high culture, I didn’t have a clear idea of who Martianus was—I wound up being a documentary historian instead, although said supervisor preceded me in that too so who knows where I’ll finish up—and I’m guessing that many readers won’t know Martianus either, so I’ll explain. He was, in fact, an early fifth-century African author who put together a 9-book work, of which the seven last are a one-by-one description of the Liberal Arts. The first two however are an elaborate allegory of a marriage of Philosophy and Mercury, which is incredibly recondite, loaded with hidden and double meanings and really really hard to read. Dr O’Sullivan argued that actually, in the rarefied scholarly atmosphere of the Carolingian court, that actually made reading it, and understanding it, more attractive because it meant you effectively belonged to a very select club of really clever people. She was arguing this from the glosses we have on the text in manuscripts from the Carolingian era, which are incredibly elaborate and often themselves loaded with extra and double meanings, sometimes concealed in Tironian notes.

Generally the discussion was accepting of the theory but some people wanted to hold out the point that if texts like this were being glossed, there was obviously some interest in learning from them and/or teaching them, and that implied a wider audience. This group suggested an alternative view of the text, which basically ran, ‘all human knowledge is here so obviously people are interested in the work of getting it out’.

I think there must be room for a compromise here. I think of Alcuin’s Disputatio Pippini, a long and elaborate dialogue in which he and Prince Pippin set each other high-falutin’ riddles, and it seems to me that although there definitely was a literary élitism in the Carolingian court, it was one to which the insiders were keen to recruit people, and that that kind of concern seems to explain the tension we got at the seminar. But it was still a fascinating glimpse of a really arcane world and text, if you let yourself sink into the murky waters rather than staying firmly on the ploughed sod.

Medieval monastic scribe at work

Then on the 10th October we had Hilary Powell, whose title was “Landscapes of Legend: folklore in Anglo-Latin hagiography”. She was addressing a debate about whether or not we have genuine folk traditions embedded in saints’ Lives written in Latin in England after the Norman conquest. Me, I’d be quite prepared to believe that we do in some cases but she wished to be more certain. She was quite rightly pointing out serious issues with the way that folklorists often consider that if a literary motif occurs in a story, whose origin cannot be placed in the Bible or Classical traditions, it must be ‘folk’, and use indexes of such things to trace folk idioms through the ages. There’s the potential for all kinds of circular reasoning here and many motives that crop up in several such genres. So far so good.

However, she wished not so much to move beyond such approaches but to refine them and combine them. Finding problems with almost all the ways in which ‘folk’ content has been detected by various scholars, she had me convinced that they were all pointless and that we had to go back to a basic analysis of text in context, but she seemed instead to think that if rather than using one of these methods only we used several at once the balance of probability to things they count as ‘folk’ being genuinely ‘folk’ was raised. I think it probably just multiplies the errors together, and further think that if a method is demonstrably flawed, checking it against something else doesn’t cure it. For this reason I found all her actual examples quite unconvincing, and Alan Thacker, Susan Reynolds and Jane Martindale all, quite rightly to my mind, moved away from the idea of a separation between monastic and ‘folk’ zones of culture and towards the idea that monks liked folk-tales as much as the next man and could easily get at them and write using them without having to pop down the village and sit round the fire of an evening. All the same, anything involving hagiography always comes with some impossible stories, and the knowledge Ms Powell has of her material is clearly very deep. She’s a good speaker and the fact that I didn’t believe a word of it may just prove, again, that I Is Skeptical Historian

(For those not necessarily listening in medieval, it’s kind of like whether Dylan post-electric has anything to do with actual folk. OK? Cool. No, I’m not saying where I stand.)

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10 responses to “Seminary stew (V & VI)

  1. The point is, it’s not enough to belong to ‘a very select club of really clever people’. You need other people outside the group to appreciate your cleverness for the full smugness effect. If you teach a wider circle of people at least the basics, they will realise how much more knowledgeable you are than them; some of them will also go on to join the elite, thus reproducing the group and maintaining its continued significance. (I know this reduces the whole of academia to a power play…)

    I think what is unusual about the Carolingian period is that there are fewer institutional barriers than usual about who is allowed/supposed to learn this esoteric stuff. There are no institutions to prevent it being learned by women/lower orders (as with universities, public schools etc). There are fewer (though increasing) language barriers than when Latin becomes a purely artificial language (and the inclusion of a Saxon in Alcuin’s dialogues shows that particular races aren’t in theory excluded from learning) and there isn’t yet the ideological construct that everyone but clerics are ‘illiterate’. (I once checked and Alcuin hardly uses the term ‘illiteratus’).

  2. Well, Welsh-Latin hagiography and yes, I think some Anglo-Latin hagiography has considerable overlap with folklore. The best place to look is for the overlap of Arthurian motifs in hagiography – everything from William of Malmesbury’s history of Glastonbury (ok not actually hagiography but with hagiography episodes) to a whole collection of Welsh hagiography, particularly the Life of Cadoc. Then of course there are the bits of St. Oswald’s raven that appear in both Reginald of Durham’s Life of Oswald and Germanic hagiography. Considering the raven originally belonged to Woden, I think we can be safe looking to folklore for its origins. The work of Elissa Henken on Welsh hagiography is a must starting place…

  3. Man, I miss those seminars. I had the pleasure of going to them for a few years (2001-3) while I was in grad school and living in London. Lots of very smart people talking about medieval things. Sigh…

  4. I’m certainly trying to make the most of them while I can!

    As to the hagiography, I don’t know very much about Arthurian literature at all, but it seems to me that either we’re looking at Old Welsh stuff, in which case surely the stories are at least partly a bardic, and therefore élite concern, or else they’re deliberate productions like Chrétien de Troyes’s for a market. That is to say that we have to consider, as with the monks in question in the paper, an educated authorial class who are capable of invention and appropriation themselves. I think what I mean is, surely Arthurian need not necessarily equal folkloric?

  5. Hmm.. While Welsh bards had important patrons, there are also poems out there where the bard warns the king to keep him on his good side…Sort of — I made you, I can break you, buddy. The scorn of bards was to be feared. In a society where many brothers and cousins were equally eligible for the throne, birthright was only part of what kept a king on the throne.

    True that monks were just as capable of writing Arthurian stories as the bards, but many of the Arthurian stories in Welsh hagiography explain a placename. Whether the explanation for the placename began with a bard, monk or a local farmer, it was likely to have gotten around.

  6. I think the question hanging in that is, how old is folklore? The people coming up with the stories that explain the place-names must at some point originate. We know from the differing texts of the Triads how Arthur’s name spreads into other people’s stories; so between the seventh and ninth centuries we might expect, in the same way, revised stories about place-names that associate them with the new héro du jour. There’s nothing stopping such a ‘folk’ formation being freshly coined at the point that someone records it. At that point, if it’s innovated anyway, what’s the difference between a ‘folk’ story element and one conceived in a monastery in a moment of brilliance? Nothing that I can see except the training of the innovator, which could easily be the same at base…

  7. All stories start with someone, including folklore stories. A folk story is one that is widely held to be true or the standard explanation, whether it starts out on parchment or not. Bede is the source for lots of English folklore that became elaborated over the centuries. The marriage of Oswald to the princess of Wessex is the ultimate source for the “Raven and Ring” romances and folklore. Oswald’s raven is a very wide spread folklore motif, particularly on the continent.

  8. But if that’s the definition we use, something only becomes folk after decades or more of use, surely. You can’t have original folklore by that standard. Also, defining folklore as whatever’s left once you’ve pared away the Classical and Biblical stuff becomes even more nonsensical, because that can also be ‘folked’ into common parlance. And yet that’s exactly the approach that Stith Thompson used and that Ms Powell started by trying to move beyond.

  9. I should have said something that is embellished by local retelling, no matter where the story started. As with Oswald’s marriage, there is a core that started written and then became greatly embellished until its hard to recognize the core anymore. I don’t see why classical and biblical stuff can’t be incorporated into folklore.

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