Monthly Archives: September 2008

Things are happening elsewhere

Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, CM.LK.4570-R, Leake Collection, reverse

Reverse of a large bronze coin of Perinthus, Thrace, struck in the name of the Emperor Caracalla, 211X17 A. D., Leake Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, CM.LK.4570-R

I’m sorry to have left you so long with no update. There is an exhibition imminently starting at work that is meaning less slack time than usual (and also the digitization of shiny artworks, see above), and I’ve been busy at home too in various ways. I also don’t have much new content, though there are three posts written up I’ll let sneak out in the next few days if time permits. This is a pity, because Archaeologyknits, the editor of the latest Carnivalesque did me the great favour of linking two of my posts, so I thought I should ensure that any new visitors at least know this thing is still switched on.

I have not however been absent from the wider blogosphere, in fact I seem to be involved in arguments and conversations every which way at the moment, so if you’re really hungry for my peculiar style and patchwork knowledge, you can follow some of them up. Or, you could do it instead because they are interesting. Several of these seem to involve archaeology: the inimitable Gesta, one of the few of us who can do both that and texts, is back to teaching the answers that lie in the soil after some time spent away from the discipline, and has been freshly struck by how teaching differs between the two subjects, in her (and my experience) at least. So I’ve been weighing in there but it’s a subject which more could easily join. Then, Henrik Karl seems to have been suddenly very Internet-present lately (possibly because of his current liberty from the drudgery of toil—could you do this job, Henrik?), and has been lamenting the fact that Danish history is effectively deemed to start in 1100 by historians because they don’t talk to archaeologists and the archaeologists don’t read the history and so on. This is a wider problem, about which I’ve written before, but at his own blog he is dealing in bigger matters, some much more fundamental stuff about the way archaeologists interpret burial, and this conversation too is turning into a broader reflection on the discipline.

More insular, or as has been commented, peninsular, is a conversation between myself, the notorious Notorious Ph. D. (why haven’t I been reading that blog before?) and Clio’s Disciple over at the last-named’s place about why Spain is so often seen as an exception from the wider courses of medieval history, and how far this is justified. Many a true thing about history and historians is being said there, if you study Spain or if you study Cispyrenean Europe (look it up, I had to) you may find it of interest.

On the other hand, if you’re in either London or Cambridge this term, or could be, you needn’t confine yourself to virtual discussion. Squeaking into my INBOX with mere days to spare, the schedule for this term’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research is now published, and though overall the details are as holey as one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite sweaters, there are some very interesting looking things there. (The web version has as yet only the one date, so the full programme is hidden as a PDF at the end of this link.) This of course by now we expect, but completely unexpected is a parallel affair in Cambridge, the new Cambridge Late Antiquity Network Seminar, the brainchild of Dr Alice Rio. Alice is greatly to be fêted for this; I have myself messed with the idea of an interdisciplinary seminar in Cambridge in years past and found the faculties’s incredible inertia just unsurmountable, so she truly has done a difficult thing here, and furthermore got sponsorship and an incredible list of speakers together. The poster is concealed as a PDF under the small PNG version above. (Edit: the seminar web-page was apparently up even though I couldn’t find it, and is in fact here.) It should be noted, by the way, that this appears to be part of the Chris Wickham UK Tour; as well as appearing in both schedules, he’s also giving the 2008 Creighton Lecture at Kings College London on 17 November, and as his title is “The culture of the public: assembly politics and the ‘feudal revolution’” I think I rather have to be there.

So: ways to have academic fun in the absence of my blog, some of which I shall be doing myself until I get some virtual hands free: enjoy…

Vikings in the Atlantic: confusion and Christianity

A friend of mine who rejoices in that most ambiguous of titles, ‘independent scholar’, was telling me in a pub the other day that he was trifling with some research on the possibility of Irish settlement in Iceland before the Vikings got there, which still seems to be somewhat under-explored, such research as there is being a little on the, er, free-standing side of things. So I was interested and encouraging, and then came home, later on looked at blogs and discovered that all the archaeology in the world is suddenly coming to light on this very question! I exaggerate, but, have a look at this, which is about Greenland.

There is a debate (isn’t there in all of my entries?) about Norse Greenland. In the first place, it has become deeply involved in arguments over climate change and the so-called medieval warm period, because it seems that the Vikings were able to get much more out of southern Greenland’s green land than can nowadays be got. There is also however a debate over what happened to the Norse settlement, and this debate has one way or another to take into account the Inuit tribes who were at this time apparently spreading from Northern into Southern Greenland. The timing of this spread is in dispute, the evidence is scanty, but it’s obviously crucial; were the Norse, who were certainly in occasional contact with the Inuit, actually driven out by them? or were they just unable to cope with a failing climate, uncognisant of an environment which turned out not to be as much like home ecologically as their farming methods had assumed, and/or unwilling to adopt Inuit techniques like seal-hunting from kayaks that ensured survival in these tough conditions for the Northern people?1

Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, nowadays

Cape Dorset, Baffin Island, nowadays

In this argument there has developed a good-guys bad-guys division between two Inuit or pre-Inuit cultures, the Dorset culture, who seem to have not made it very far into Greenland and to have disappeared from the record soon after 1000, and their apparent successors or supplanters the Thule Inuit, who did better, came south and formed the basis of the Inuit population that remains in Greenland to this day. When the Vikings first arrived, their contacts must have been with the Dorset people, and therefore in the far north, occasional, and presumably not very significant for the settlements in the south. If someone did drive the Norse out of Greenland, it would have to have been the Thule people. Debates about when exactly the Dorset culture faded from the record are still lively, but there’s no way it’s fourteenth-century late. So.

The new research I linked to above, however, goes in the other direction. At Kimmirut in Baffin Island a site has been dug which has produced woven yarn and tally-sticks, neither of which are paralleled from any other Dorset site and which therefore suggest contact with outsiders. The reporting archaeologist has some ideas about where some of this stuff is coming from, because:

Other artifacts from the area, such as a small wooden carving of a mask, missing its nose, also suggest face-to-face contacts with Europeans.

That’s because, although the mask is carved in a Dorset Inuit manner, it shows a long and possibly bearded face with straight and heavy eyebrows, wearing what may be Viking headgear.

Nonetheless, the problem lies in the dating, because the yarn apparently dates to some hundreds of years before the Viking settlements in Greenland were a going concern. (The article doesn’t say how they dated it, but even C14 doesn’t miss by whole centuries.) As the article says:

So, as Sutherland said, if you believe that spinning was not an indigenous technique that was used in Arctic North America, then you have to consider the possibility that as “remote as it may seem,” these finds may represent evidence of contact with Europeans prior to the Vikings’ arrival in Greenland.

They quite carefully refuse to pronounce on whether or not the yarn must be of European-style manufacture, but it’s interesting all the same. If Irish on Iceland, Irish on Greenland? And if on Greenland, Baffin? Brendan come home, all is forgiven…

Aerial view of the Brough of Deerness

Aerial view of the Brough of Deerness

Meanwhile, on another lump of rock where there certainly was Norse settlement, it’s turned out not to be quite what was expected. When the Vikings took over in Orkney, they are usually supposed to have been raw and pagan still, fresh from Norway or wherever, and generally taking no prisoners. A really good place to fortify yourself in such an endeavour is this Orcadian stack, Brough of Deerness, on which we have for some time known there was some settlement. That settlement includes a church, which again we knew had a precursor, but now the precursor has been dug, and it turned up a coin of King Edgar of England (959-75). That might pretty much make it contemporary with the Viking take-over, though of course Vikings didn’t always take their coins in for reminting when it was ordered and it’s possible that coin had been in circulation a good long time by the time it was deposited. All the same, it may suggest that one thing the new warlords did was set up a chapel, or at least, keep one going. As the excavating officer, Dr James Barrett of Cambridge, says: “It shows us that, even in the most Scandinavianised regions of Viking Age Britain, power was maintained by eventually accepting the local religion, in this case Christianity.” So remodel your Viking chieftain image accordingly…

(Hat tip for both of these to David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe, which also ran this article at the same time about the much-better-known Norse settlement at l’Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland and its visitor centre.)


1. I actually got my picture of this from Jared Diamond’s Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive (London 2005), which is not exactly medieval history and definitely has a case to make. I should probably do some more reading round this if they’re going to keep finding stuff…

When is a fief not a fief? When it’s a fisc (Feudal Transformations IX)

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

Bishop Ermengol of Urgell mistrusting a lay magnate doing homage to him, from the Liber Feudorum Maior

If we’re looking at feudalism, and I’m afraid we still are, I think I’ve said by now that the meaning of that term that I find most plausible out of the several possible ones is that one that sticks to the etymology, and deals with the relations of lords and their followers who do service for a temporary grant of land under terms: feudo-vassalic relations, as some call it to disambiguate it from the other senses of ‘feudalism’.1 Because we’re working, ultimately, from the Latin feodum, or sometimes feudum, which becomes in English ‘fee’ and, via French, ‘fief’. And in the Oxford English Dictionary, firstly those two entries crosslink in the online version, but secondly the definition is:

fief

/feef/

noun 1 historical an estate of land held on condition of feudal service. 2 a person’s sphere of operation or control.

– DERIVATIVES fiefdom noun.

– ORIGIN Old French, variant of feu “fee”.

A bit circular, but clear enough. But is that what it means in the documents? Sometimes, alas, no; it’s not as simple as indexing uses of feodum and seeing how they rise or fall (even if you had the kind of sample or statistical significance measurement that would make such an exercise meaningful). Feodum doesn’t really crop up much before the ninth century, and when it does occur then it actually means ‘a supporting allotment of public land, or the revenues from it’, so for example, a fiscal castle will have an associated feodum which provides its upkeep.2 In this element it’s really quite like fiscum, which doesn’t quite mean the institution of the fisc, the landstock of the public power, as we read it now, but its individual portions. So that castle might just as well have a fisc, and some Catalan documents actually use the two words as equivalents, “fiscis sive feodis”.3

Certainly, use of the term feodum goes up and up in the eleventh century. And if you’re Dominique Barthélemy (which, after all I’ve said about him here, I kind of hope you’re not), you emphasise that the two words have been associated for a long long time and that you can’t be sure what’s meant when a fief turns up, and deny the whole transformation because you’ve spent years taking the model apart in detail in different places.4 On the other hand, if you’re Thomas Bisson, you perhaps generally prefer not to sacrifice the big picture by getting bogged down in that detail, and like to try and show that big things are genuinely changing, and that does at least make a better story.5 But if you do it by simply counting the use of the word feodum without ever considering its ambiguity or the sample size of the documents, you don’t necessarily carry me with you… 6

It’s not that his Spoleto article here isn’t interesting, or even valid. The contrast he draws between Flanders, where a public power remains in control of the new feudal arrangements of military service, and where they don’t therefore lead to a total collapse such as Catalonia suffers, between Provence where it does all go a bit wrong because there’s no overall power that can bring it back into order, even a feudal order, and between Occitania where there isn’t even too much trouble but where the feudo-vassalic structure nonetheless becomes the overriding social structure, is interesting, and deserves more investigation, though by someone else as it goes too late for me. But without some deeper investigation of how the words is used in these very different areas, I don’t necessarily think we’re comparing like with like, and we certainly can’t really quantify these supposed fiefs.


1. You can find this usage defended in Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42.

2. So, for example, in Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas: Escuela de Estudios Medievales, Textos XVIII, Publicaciones de la Sección de Barcelona no. 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 159.

3. Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 no. 4 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195-208 at pp. 203-204, including a 1003 document from Sant Pere de Besalú which confers revenues, “ex censali publico, quod vulgum feum nominat… “; Dominique Barthélemy, “Autor d’un récit de pactes (« Conventum Hugonis »): La seigneurie châtelaine et le féodalisme, en France au XIe siècle” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 447-489 with discussion 491-495, at p. 458 where he cites Marc Bloch, “Questions féodales” in Annales d’Histoire Économique et Sociale Vol. 10 (Paris 1938) at p. 174 & idem, “Histoire d’un mot” in Annales d’Histoire Sociale Vol. 1 (Paris 1939), pp. 187-190.

4 Classically, Dominique Barthélemy, “La mutation féodale a-t-elle eu lieu? (Note critique)” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 767-777; in English, idem “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. J. Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (1996), pp. 196-205; idem, “The Year 1000 Without Abrupt or Radical Transformation”, eds & transl. Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein, rev. Barthélemy, in Little & Rosenwein (eds), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 134-147; and, most relevantly, Barthélemy, “Autour d’un récit de pactes”.

5 Bisson, “Feudal Revolution”; idem, Tormented Voices: power, crisis, and humanity in rural Catalonia, 1140-1200 (Cambridge MA 1998).

6. Bisson, “Lordship and Tenurial Dependence in Flanders, Provence and Occitania (1050-1200)” in Feudalesimo, I pp. 389-439 with discussion pp. 441-446, including a lengthy critique from Barthélemy which however goes for him on a subjective basis about how serious disorder was, allowing Bisson to simply restate his own view, rather than this point where he’s actually weak.

To be unscientific for a moment

All this stuff about the starting up of the Large Hadron Collider has had me thinking. I’m not the only one, obviously, but I wonder how many other people have thought this. The consensus seems to be that (a) it hasn’t destroyed the world yet, and (b) if it’s going to do so, it will do so in about three and a bit years. So, 2012. At which point, it will suddenly become clear which of us are really historians or not. Because the people who have their feet on the ground and minds in the present will be panicking, but those who spend their time mostly in the past will go into that great dark night still wondering: how on earth did the Maya know… ?

Aerial view of the Large Hadron Collider, Cern, Switzerland

Aerial view of the Large Hadron Collider, Cern, Switzerland

Feudal Transformations VIII: two ways of confusing the issue

Back to the Spoleto volume once more! Bracketing the clutch of papers I just mentioned are two by Hans-Werner Goetz and Patricia Skinner.1 Goetz is putting the case of East Francia under the Carolingians, and Skinner is dealing with Southern Italy before and under the Normans. Neither of these two plays the conventional game that the papers discussed before were playing, but the ways in which they differ from it are themselves so huge that it’s really striking.

The castle and monastery of Quedlinburg, founded by Otto I's sister St Matilda, from Wikimedia Commons

(By the way, since I drafted this and found that image in my stash, Gabriele at the Lost Fort has posted a series of far better ones and some introduction to Quedlinburg’s importance and history, so once you’ve read this, go and have a look. Hoi! I said once you… Oh well, anyway.)

Because of Karl-Ferdinand Werner and a Spanish scholar called Carlos de Ayala Martínez, Goetz’s article is not the longest paper I have ever had to read. All the same, sixty pages of very theoretical German historiography, my first German for a while, took me a long time to get through. He must have expanded what he said at the conference a very great deal, as he presumably had no longer to speak than anyone else and all their contributions, even François Menant’s which is seriously mostly footnotes, come in at between thirty and forty pages.2 So, what does it do? Goetz is tangling with the fact that really not a lot has been written about East Francia before the Ottonians.3 In looking into the gap, he takes a historiographical stereotype of the feudal transformation in Germany, which as he points out (and others, most notably Tim Reuter, whom many of us miss, have also pointed out in English) is a rather different, more state-guided and controlled affair than in parts West, which acquires a legalistic form which underpins a number of the stereotypes that Reynolds took to task in Fiefs and Vassals.4 (He doesn’t cite Reynolds or Brown, but then he is sort of on their side.) This leads him into much musing on what people have said about whether East Francia, whose shape was rarely the same for twenty years together, whose capital shifted, and which, his developing argument reveals, was changing the way its government operated over the period, was any kind of state, as well the larger metadebate about whether the state as defined by Weber, with its claimed monopoly of legitimate force, can ever be seen in the Middle Ages and if not, what terms or definitions can be used instead. This is, incidentally, another field where Professor Reynolds has been busy, but anyway, you can see where Goetz’s wordcount is coming from.5

By the end he has drawn out several long strands of the feudal state as it is conceived of for the later period, Ottonians or Salians, and stressed in each case that antecedents of some of its characteristics can be found in the Carolingian predecessor quasi-state. The message is that it really isn’t as simple as the scholarship has made it, because these elements which later form part of the ‘feudal imaginary’ as we imagine it often occurred there in contexts which are not, or not yet, feudal. I would have to go back into the text for examples, but that’s his basic attack; our definition of ‘feudal’ needs an awful lot of looking at before it will deal with this extensive but partial prefiguring. He is basically digging a big and obvious ditch in front of anyone who wants to argue that the Ottonians and Salians built their states on a new style of political relations that could be called feudal, rather than on a selective and evolving inheritance from the Carolingians and their idea of rule, but he does so very carefully, politely and with incredible breadth of citation.

But, apart from Reynolds and Brown, do you know what’s basically missing from the citation? Primary sources. This is an almost entirely historiographical paper. Of course if he’d had to prove every point from the sources rather than by regula magistri (or really, given whom he’s citing, regula collegarum) the paper would have been even longer, but it is also a stylistic choice tat places him in a tradition. He is basically doing a nuanced and subtle form of the old Verfassungsgeschichte, plotting the formation of the state. He is willing to consider jumps, skips, and “the possibility of a discontinuous evolution” but it’s basically ‘what makes this polity work and how does that change’? As such it’s a very odd, to this non-German anyway, mix of new thinking and old learning, and to get through the sixty pages only to find that the conclusion was, more or less, “seriously, guys, it’s all really complicated!” was something of an anticlimax.

The cathedral of San Cataldo in Palermo, from Wikimedia Commons

The cathedral of San Cataldo in Palermo, from Wikimedia Commons

Compared to this, and to the four thick papers already discussed that lie between Goetz’s and hers, Skinner’s paper is a real breath of fresh air. It does deal with the historiography, including both Brown and Reynolds, and does due deference to the conference theme by giving some account of the way in which Sicily and Southern Italy have been made to take a part in this big meta-narrative of feudalisation. It does this in a very few pages, though, sorting it clearly into themes, and then goes about much the same feat as Goetz, showing that the real picture was far far messier than that, but she does it Jarrett-style (I suppose, rather, I do it Skinner style, but I have read very little of her work; I’m familiar with quite a lot by people she came up with such as Jinty Nelson who would probably approach it the same way, though), by adducing example after example from bulging charter archives and showing that some places in Italy fit better than others, that the Normans didn’t necessarily bring a clean slate of feudal rule but kept whatever worked in their takeover areas, and that again, it’s all much more complicated. But where Goetz appears to be arguing for a new and better version of the main theory that will somehow take account of all that variation, Skinner is saying that there’s just too much of it, and that a better approach would be to throw out this silly expectation we seem to have that places can be made to fit and that there is a path they should have been on, and instead study what was actually going on in each area and see how many units of what size this makes, and thus we can make something a bit more meaningful of the way that the Normans manage to build a kingdom that runs more or less as a unit out of this variety and what that means in its political and social context. I like this approach a lot better, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

The kind of stuff she throws up as evidence for the variety all seems very like home to me though. She has the same kind of frontier all-to-play-for conditions in her material as I do in mine, and the same sense of Islam-only-just-over-there motivating the warrior class too maybe. I already found Sicily really interesting for its mixture of cultures, in just the sort of edge situation that first interested me in Catalonia, and I think this paper has indicated to me that when I have models I want to test somewhere else, which is my ultimate aim for now, Southern Italy is probably where I should start by testing them. And you know, Sicily looks nice to visit :-) It’s nice to have some long-term aims…

A tombstone of a Norman noblewoman in Palermo, lettered in all of Latin, Greek and Arabic, from Wikimedia Commons

A tombstone of a Norman noblewoman in Palermo, lettered in all of Latin, Greek and Arabic, from Wikimedia Commons


1. Hans-Werner Goetz, “Staatlichkeit, Herrschaftsordnung und Lehnswesen im Ostfräkischen Reich als Forschungsprobleme” in Il Feudalismo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 47 (Spoleto 2000), I pp. 85-143 with discussion pp. 145-147, & Patricia Skinner, “When was Southern Italy « feudal »?”, ibid. pp. 309-340 with discussion pp. 341-345.

2. François Menant, “La féodalité italienne entre XIe et XIIe siècles”, ibid. pp. 347-383 with discussion pp. 385-387.

3. Though you could start with the coverage in Timothy Reuter, Germany in the Early Middle Ages 800-1050 (London 1991) and you’d have as good a grounding as there is in English I think.

4. Idem, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195.

5. Susan Reynolds, “The idea of the nation as a political community” in Len Scales & Oliver Zimmer (eds), Power and the nation in European history (Cambridge 2005), pp. 54-66.

Museum digitisation spam vs. undersea visualisation software

I get spam about lists of museum professionals; now, I start to get spam about digitisation in museums. This one was actually relevant enough for me to follow the link and be faintly interested in the report they are trying to sell me:

The study presents data from more than 100 library and museum digitization programs from academic, public and special libraries in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK and other countries.

Until I read the summary and found that it’s basically quantifying averages. It’s of no use to me to know how many people other places have involved in digitisation, though it is faintly interesting how many places are attempting it with no extra funding/with outside help. All the same. It might interest my non-line-manager, but I’m already shunting a load of EU stuff from Vienna about how our website should look onto him.

Undersea mapping submersible in use by the University of Hull

Undersea mapping submersible in use by the University of Hull

Why don’t I get spam about this instead? This is a desktop application for exploring sunken wrecks that have been digitised that’s been developed at the University of Hull.

Dr Paul Chapman, a computer scientist at the University of Hull, said that it was aimed at creating a permanent record of the wrecks. “Because of activities like trawling, these archaeological sites get destroyed,” he said. “What we have been focusing on with the Venus project is how to generate a permanent database or record of these sites.”

Underwater archaeological sites have also been damaged by divers taking souvenirs. “Our job has been to develop a virtual reality diving simulator that allows the user to dive down and experience the site first hand,” Chapman added.

One advantage of the simulator is that researchers can add in elements that are no longer there, for example even if the wooden frame of the ship is partially or completely destroyed it can be superimposed on the remains of the cargo that are still there.

“We can also animate the disintegration of the wreck over time,” said Chapman.

Perhaps no spam is needed; sounds like this should sell itself…

Bedos-Rezak on The Field, and on sources (third and last)

In the last few paragraphs of her paper in van Engen’s Past and Future of Medieval Studies, Brigitte Bedos-Rezak turns to the actual point of the conference at which it was being presented: how was medieval studies doing and how would it cope with coming challenges? Her response is the briefest part of her paper, but as many of the other speakers in whose work I’m less interested got their own posts, it’s worth giving the perspective of someone whose ideas have been so fruitful for me already.

Her attempt to make her article relevant does smack a little of special pleading: it’s hard for me to escape the suspicion that she saw she had a captive audience of non-diplomatists and took the chance to deliver her soapbox piece and then justified it once she’d for once been able to get through the whole rant. I mean, I would have done that in her place. Maybe I’m just projecting. Anyway, her chosen justification is that in what almost all the speakers thought would be hard times a-comin’ for medieval studies, which given that this was 17 years ago now seems to have been pessimistic, source-critical disciplines would be the evolutionarily toughest, because they had the most to teach non-medievalists. She also stresses, though not in so many words, that this skill enables us to catch an easy ride on the po-mo gravy train, and here I could have a lot more sympathy. She is obviously closer to it than I am, and sees it as being able to participate in wider trends of scholarship; I’ll leave my stock rant already said.

Her main point is that because our sources are so scanty and difficult, we make our evidence explain itself much harder, and are much tougher on it, than modernists or social scientists who can deal in bulk data, and that they can learn from our basic critical thinking. She first speaks of “the ongoing, and felicitous, rapprochement with anthropologists” as evidence of this possibility, and that bit’s worth giving in her words:

The anthropology of living societies has inspired many medievalists to turn a renewed attention to law, demography, kinship, urbanization, rituals, taboos, elite, marginals, emblems, and totems (heraldry). Medievalists can in turn contribute specific insights into the principles that govern their relations to sources. Medieval historians have been accused of looking, not at the past, but at documents. Anthropologists have come to recognise that “doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript—foreign, full of ellipses, incoherences, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries.” That which they call their data are their own constructions of other people’s constructions. Understanding what is said by the occurrence and preservation of documents and artifacts and through their agency, the identification of structures of signification therein, the assessment of these structures’, and of the modalities of their documentation’s, social ground and import are all of primary concern for medievalists.

And she goes on to argue as I say that all our work is critical and that we have clutches of even more critical sub-disciplines like palæography and diplomatic that teach and use skills that all the humanities are going to find they need.

I like this idea that we’re the hard-core of the humanities, though my favoured anthropologist interlocutrix tells me that the work she cites as evidence of anthropologists having this realisation was dating even then and then in the meantime critical thinking had entered the discipline by other routes too. The quote in Bedos-Rezak’s quote above in fact comes from Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, and Geertz is the medievalist’s favourite anthropologist partly because he tells stories and partly because, as we see here, he reads and uses medieval history. But he’s also pretty important in his field and was more so then and it’s a good one to have on your side. A reminder, however, that when we branch into other fields we do need someone on the inside as a guide. And perhaps Bedos-Rezak’s real purpose was to make her audience realise that they needed such help with charters, who knows? Anyway, it’s an argument we can all and many of us have used in a more general sense than that in which she deploys it, but here well-argued if difficultly-phrased, and I think she did just about succeed in making what she’d been saying relevant to the conference…

Another bit that stuck with me is shortly thereafter where she deals with the problem of sources being constructed, which was after all the cornerstone of her earlier argument. Now she has to make it possible for medieval studies to contribute to understanding despite this. This section I like because she takes the critical theorists’ arms up against them to an extent, and a fabulous phrase occurs in her defence:

… attention to sources is not simply a technique and a method. It is at the very center of historical interpretation, since any source is primarily about itself, a form that outlines the contour of an absence, a sign that projects in the present since no other plane of duration gathers the historian and her source into the same instant, a text concerned with appearances noted in the present but occurring in the past, and an event carried by a material arranged in a pattern that still makes sense today. Acceptance and analysis of the source’s self-reflective nature enables medievalists to grasp the specific process of meaning production implied by the discursive and existential mode of that source and permits the retrieval both of the ideological and evidential status of the text, and of the ideological and social standards from the past. Our recognition of past events is conditioned by the ideologies and assumptions of the scribes from the past, but it is still debatable whether what we retrieve is the medieval axis of reference and intelligibility. In fact the medieval conceptual and textualized categories (God, land, salvation, proof, authenticity) that we use as representations of that society, as explanation that make it intelligible to us, were in effect the very questions they had to explain through axiomatic truths. For the medievalist, all documents should be seen as at once true and false (a construct)…

I do find that bolded phrase (my emphasis) particularly effective, even enhanced by its difficult wording, at reminding us that what we’re attempting is not simple. But so many of its complications are bundled up in that paragraph, synthesized by her from many places of course but packed up very densely. It’s at once both a defence against the problem of situated knowledge in our sources, to wit that we can use the sources as evidence for thought-worlds and mentalities and thus partly reconstruct the society that created those and in which they could exist, and a pointer to a further problem, that what we think we understand about medieval society are not necessarily things that medieval writers themselves understood clearly enough to explain them to us even along this oblique plane of vision. This is more theory that I like, though I might wish for it to have been more clearly expressed. I find the visual image she uses to express this bundle brilliant, however; we’re squinting along a plane at something that doesn’t exist any more, but we’re that clever we can still get something good out of it that no-one else can reach… Our techniques turn a peep-hole into a sight.


B. Bedos-Rezak, “Diplomatic Sources and Medieval Documentary Practices. An Essay in Interpretative Methodology” in J. van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 313-343, quotes from p. 332 & 333-334; for the Geertz cite, see Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York City 1973), p. 10.