Seminary XXVI: how to make enemies and mutilate people in twelfth-century Wales

What with various things and stuff, and also the peculiarly High nature of the programme this term, it’s been a while since I’ve attended the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar, but this week just gone it was Charles Insley, and although he works now on high medieval Wales, because he is one of the other people out there who knows that charters are not simple I tend to try and catch up with him when I can. So on 7 May I was there listening to him speak to the title, “Kings, Lords, Charters and the Political Culture of Twelfth-Century Wales”.

Cathedral of St David\'s, Wales

Charles was here mainly addressing an idea that he atrributed mainly to Robert Bartlett, that over the High Middle Ages a certain kind of European culture expands from centre to peripheries until medieval Europe is basically a cultural homogene. Charles was not so much disputing that this happened, but that it happened evenly, unwittingly or in a linear fashion. The examples he made most of were some extremely bloody feuds in the succession to the kingdoms of Powys and Deheubarth in the twelfth century, or some lesser kingdoms I don’t think I could adequately pronounce. There was a great deal of murder, bloodshed, castration and blinding, and complicated charts showing exactly who killed whom, from which the feud might just be reconstructed. Most of this story comes from an unusually verbose section of the rather complicated Brut y Tywysogyon (Chronicle of the Princes), and may therefore be unusual in itself (or possibly, I thought, it’s happening all the time but isn’t normally recorded…). Anyway, the point is that by the thirteenth century succession in Wales doesn’t look like that any more, it has `civilised’ and use is instead made of exile or negotiation. Now that used to be seen as Anglo-Norman influence, but firstly as Charles pointed out the Anglo-Normans can be pretty nasty to their rivals: the story that inevitably came up was the time that Henry I summons all his moneyers to court at Winchester, in 1124, and has most of them castrated and lose their right hand. And on the Welsh border nasty messes like this still happen quite a lot. The second odd thing is that these changes are happening off the border, that is it’s the areas not in direct contact with the English that seem to be cleaning up their act.

This led to a variety of interesting questions and it became one of those seminars that are fun to be at but would be horrible to give, albeit useful, where the audience start working out what it is that you meant to say. The conversation eventually settled on agency as the key concept, and one that Charles had, to be fair, started with, arguing that this cultural transformation was not one that was passively sucked up but actively adopted by people choosing from a kind of political menu of self-representation. Powys and Deheubarth and wherever were cleaning up their act so as to raise their political game to behave more like big kings elsewhere, not like all their neighbours. And this is, we seemed to conclude, how `Europe’ as Bartlett sees it spreads. Only not where you might expect, or when…

Charles was mainly using charters for this, working on the evidence of royal styles, titles and the claims they seemed to make, but as he admitted there are certainly other ways you could get at court culture in Wales in this period. In one of those happy coincidences of the Internet, I more or less logged on the next day to find the Naked Philologist, no less, linking to someone doing just that with the court poetry, and if the name Taliesin means anything to you, and especially if you think it does but you aren’t quite sure what, I do recommend having a look at that also.

(I’m not quite sure that that sentence runs as I’d like it. Something in it wants to be “I logged in next day to find a naked philologist!” But my work browser would, I’m pretty sure, block such things and I assure you that the relevant blogs are all perfectly safe for work and indeed educational in a clothed way.)

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One response to “Seminary XXVI: how to make enemies and mutilate people in twelfth-century Wales

  1. I came here looking for stuff to help me with my next historical novel. Found a few leads. Thanks.

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