Leeds report 3: Wednesday 9th

Being slightly more together on the third day of Leeds, and almost avoiding buying any books, I had resolved to branch out at least slightly, if only because of having spent so much of last year in Texts and Identities (which wasn’t terribly lively this year). So first thing Wednesday morning found me in ‘Inside the VIP Suite: The Roles of a Ruler’s Favourite‘, three papers from quite different regions about those who secure the attention of the powerful to the exclusion of others. Hans Peter Pökel was enlightening about the rôles of eunuchs in the cAbbasid Caliphate, including the interesting sidelight that although usually regarded as less manly and effective than a full male, as ghazis (frontier troops) against the Byzantines they were considered unusually vicious and effective, this being because Byzantium was usually where they’d had their tackle removed. Stefan Bießenecker had a range of German examples, and John Dillon was mostly narrative about two relatively successful Neapolitan ministers who didn’t quite fit the definition, because of not excluding others from power so much. All in all it wasn’t terribly earth-shattering but did at least mean that I hadn’t spent the whole conference being strictly early medieval.

A folio of a c. 800 copy of the Chronicle attributed to Fredegar in a Dutch public collection

A folio of a c. 800 copy of the Chronicle attributed to Fredegar in a Dutch public collection

After that, though, I reverted to type and hid in Texts and Identities for what was apparently the sixth of a series of sessions on the mysterious chronicler or chroniclers we call Fredegar. In this Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz were extremely soft-spoken, to the extent that I having arrived late and being stuck on a window-ledge near the back, couldn’t really hear them. This was a pity as what I caught was quite interesting, as it should be given the speakers’ calibres, but really I couldn’t tell you what if anything I learnt. My notes however save me and suggest that Walter was trying to get at the way in which ‘Fredegar’ represents ethnicity and identity, in terms of gentes rather than regna which can contain several gentes but whose king always belongs to one gens not all of them, such as, well, the Franks, this being Fredegar; and that Dr Reimitz picked up that theme and showed how ‘Fredegar’ was building the Franks into the Roman tradition of Universal History much as Bede is supposed to for the Anglo-Saxons.1 Ian Wood‘s paper was much more audible and therefore interesting but didn’t really stick to its title, apparently having undergone some revision since an earlier presentation at a conference in Tübingen that was apparently being reprised in these sessions. He was talking about the earlier books of the Chronicle, which have a less clearly pro-Frankish agenda and make their points with anecdotes and fabulae whose sense is keenly contemporary and thus very difficult to reconstruct. After that much of this it was getting easy to see how the Friends of Fredegar had managed to put together so many sessions…

Graph demonstrating recent global temparature rise, from the New Scientist

Graph demontrating recent global temparature rise, from the New Scientist

I branched back out over lunch however, which involved a certain amount of dashing back and forth between campuses, but all the same I just made it into the lunchtime lecture which was on “Climate Change and the Historic Environment”. I’ve been known to blame the whole alleged feudal transformation on climate change in the past, and I felt I could use some actual data given how much polemic there is on the web about the ‘medieval warm period’. Actually, most of what Sebastian Payne (of English Heritage) was saying was well prehistoric. He talked about how we get ancient climate information at all, and then concentrated on disproving various media myths, firstly that it is currently usually hot for the Earth, secondly that storms and climatic disturbance are becoming more frequent, and there were some others I forget. Actually, he told us, things have been abnormally cold for the Earth for most of the last four thousand years, though individual years are all over the place within that broad limit, and actually we’ve been unusually quiet for huge storms and events this last thirty years. Also, as far as the medieval warm period was concerned, his graphs with that kind of definition did pretty much all agree that 700 onwards gets warmer, levels at about 900 and holds more or less till 1200 then tails off again and is quite bad by 1600. But most of his graphs were much longer-scale, pre-human, which did lead to the obvious point: if we’ve become a dominant species with a huge global infrastructure in this 4-millennium cold spell, any slight change in that could still be extremely worrying. We really don’t want a dinosaur-compatible climate! To this his rather dour answer was that we haven’t built sustainably in this kind of perspective, and that quite a lot won’t make it through any rough times of climate that are coming on; and his paper was ostensibly about preserving the historic environment in these times of change, but he spent most of it proving that we are very short-sighted as a species and that history might have a few things to tell us about what works and what doesn’t. Interesting, anyway.

(Late) medieval depiction of Mohammed preaching

(Late) medieval depiction of Mohammed preaching

A run back across the road took me into the seventh Fredegar session, this one focusing on other people than the Franks as shown up in Fredegar’s Chronicle. Stefan Esders showed how Fredegar used the lives of King Dagobert of the Franks and the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius as mirrors of each other, a good beginning spoilt by pride and subsequent punishment; Andreas Fischer showed how he also balanced Byzantines and Persians against each other as equally legitimate empires and forecast their conversion. Both these presenters were sure that Fredegar had some Eastern source, possibly even Syrian, and Fischer wondered if he might even read Hebrew; this seemed to me much weirder than they thought. (Ian Wood had earlier on said, ‘we always say he, it could be she for all we know’. Perhaps it’s a seventh-century historical Héloïse telling us all these stories…) And lastly Ann Christys, for whom I’d actually turned up, showed how he (or she) uses the Arabs in Spain and Provence not only to cast Charles Martel as a holy warrior, but also to align the Duke of Aquitaine whom Charles Martel cast out as a treacherous ally of heretics. In this scheme, the defeat of the Arabs Charles managed is actually not what Fredegar is interested in in this story; they just give him a good way to badmouth Duke Eudo. So that was all fun, or at least I thought so. Amazingly rich text; if only we had all of it, hey?

The last session on Wednesday was the first one where I really regretted not being able to be in several places at once. Where I actually went was a really cool session about burial archaeology called ‘Tombs and Identities’, but to do that I had to pass up another digital session and one with at least one good paper about wills in. Also, I realised later, I’d missed perhaps the only paper that will ever be presented at the IMC about Catalan archaeological chronology in my period, and I must contact the presenter and apologise for not having spotted her and asking her for a copy of the paper. Catalan ceramics are not very helpful but they’re about all the dating evidence there is and having a short guide to them in English would be very useful to me. Poor observation Jarrett…

The signet ring found in the Grave of Childeric

The signet ring found in the Grave of Childeric

That said, the Tombs and Identities session was really good; I just should have been somewhere else. Highlight was certainly Philipp von Rummel, who was arguing that attempts to see Childeric’s grave as a German adopting Roman culture was old-fashioned, because Childeric probably thought he was a Roman, but the definition of ‘Roman’ had changed a lot in the previous hundred years. He was a Roman military officer, holding a Roman position of rule, and he’d probably been born in the Empire. He looks like a (contemporary) Roman in his portrait (and von Rummel had some interesting lower-class Roman parallels for the famous Merovingian long hair here) and there’s no reason to suppose he thought of himself as a barbarian at all, so it tells us more if we stop using those categories like Victorians. But the other papers, which talked about royal and high-status burial in Italy, were also interesting though I did wind up questioning the significance of the second one’s graphs. Why is it me, with no statistical training, no particular mathematical ability and a love for showy representation, why is it me who has to ask the questions about bad maths? Why aren’t these being caught by anyone else? And why don’t people realise that if their graph only shows percentages, we want to know what the total sample was, and that if their graph peaks in the seventh century, and so does the density of their sample, then we want a Kolmogorov-Smirnoff test or similar to see whether that’s actually surprising? Who’s doing this bloody maths, me or you, huh? Okay, it’s me. But it really shouldn’t be because I know nothing about this stuff. It’s very annoying. If it has numbers in that had to be calculated, historians will swallow it uncritically. Anyway, I’ve said this before, let’s move on.

By now I was tiring, and though my original plan had been to make it to a round table about databases and prosopography that I thought would be useful, actually I sat down at the desk in my room to kill a few minutes looking at books before I set out, and woke up about an hour later just about to miss the last plausible bus to make it, and executively decided to go into Headingley and get food instead. Later, as I recall, there was drinking, and then I made an attempt to get an early night which the well-meaning concern of a friend who had carried on drinking entirely scuppered. And then there came Thursday, but that would be another post, after I’ve told you about something stupid I did at Tuesday’s lunch…

1. The so-called Chronicle of Fredegar owes its name to a name attached to a late manuscript, and there’s no real indication that that annotator knew anything we don’t about the author, or rather since it is several quite different books, probably authors; nonetheless, as we have no other name and this name isn’t much used elsewhere, it has stuck. For this reason, when Roger Collins gave an an excellent paper about the text at the IHR some time ago, he told us very solemnly that he would “pronounce ‘Fredegar’ as ‘Fredegar’, with inverted commas that are silent, like the P in Psmith”. Only about half of the audience got this allusion, and snickered quietly, to which Roger then followed up, with similar deadpan solemnity, “A joke which fell completely flat when I told it in Vienna, for some reason” at which point the audience collapsed en bloc. If you get a chance to hear Roger Collins present a paper, do go, it’s worth it.

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2 responses to “Leeds report 3: Wednesday 9th

  1. Without knowing anything about Fredegar it’s a bit hard to know what we ought to be surprised about regarding him/her, but I’ve seen suggestions recently that Hrabanus Maurus may have been more clued up on Hebrew than previously thought (sorry, I can’t remember references). I think if there are Jews around in Francia at the time, it would be possible for someone interested to get information from Hebrew texts via them.

  2. I accept all that, but it does suppose firstly that there are Jews in Francia (which there are a century later, at least, but still), that they have an otherwise unknown Hebrew historical text of some kind that deals in very recent history which is not necessarily about the Jews (I think is my biggest problem with the theory, it’s the old ‘lost source’ argument) and that Christians of the time were interest in using it and talking to Jews so as to do so. It’s almost easier to believe in a Syriac text of which `Fredegar’ had an early, perhaps Greek, version…

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