Ineluctable praise for Wendy Davies

Professor Wendy Davies, late of University College London

Professor Wendy Davies, late of University College London

It is by now no secret that I am a big fan of the work of Wendy Davies. I read her Small Worlds very early on in the work for my thesis, and internalised it so thoroughly that by my viva, where she was the internal marker, I was struck with shame for how little I’d actually cited it. By then, that was just how I thought about what you could do with charter evidence… and the fact that my book title is a riff on one of hers wasn’t even something I noticed until after I’d finished the thesis where I first used it.1 Her stuff has sunk very deep with me. And since she was also my employer for a short while and has since been a celebrity member of my Leeds sessions as well as just generally helpful and encouraging, it was perhaps inevitable that I would wind up praising her recent new book, on northern Spain in the tenth century after all, here. Now I’ve had the excuse to bring it to the top of the to-read pile (after OUP finally actually sent me the copy I bought last July), because some response to it is required for the revisions to a paper with a tight deadline. You can imagine how difficult I found it to do that particular reshuffle…

Cover of my copy of Wendy Davies's <u>Acts of Giving</u>

Cover of my copy of Wendy Davies's Acts of Giving

So, er, hey, you know what, Wendy’s new book’s really great. I mean, obviously unless she actually started work on Catalonia (which she keeps threatening to do) it could hardly be more relevant to my field, since she considers how the charters that make up so much of the evidence from her area of study here were made as well as why, and by whom, and remains awake to the human stories involved in each case. Anyone who has seen us at the same seminar will be tediously aware that it tends rapidly to turn to Wendy and I swapping “hey I have a case like that!” or indeed “that’s weird, I’ve got nothing like this!” stories about some Leonese or Catalan villager whose only place in the record is some desperate transaction he made to save his soul or his livelihood. It doesn’t matter to other people as much but we both want the little stories as well as the big ones. Wendy however is arguably better at making the little ones count towards the big one than I am (so far). So, I could obviously blog the whole thing as I’m just going to love it all, but instead I will spare you and just give a small chunk so you can see where I get this approach from. Chapter 2 starts as follows:

Round about 956 the monk Odoino ran off with a woman called Onega, someone his mother had brought to their family monastery of Santa Comba on the gentle banks of the River Limia in southern Galicia. This was but one colourful episode in Odoino’s more than usually colourful story, at least the way he told it himself. Not long after he was back at Santa Comba, only to be thrown out when Onega accused him of plotting against Count Rodrigo in the stormy days of the late 950s. The monastery was thereupon handed over to a woman called Guntroda, in response to her request, but a change of heart by the count—on his deathbed—allowed Odoino to recover it again. At that point Odoino’s relative, Elvira, abbess of the nearby San Martín of Grau, appeared on the scene and took over Santa Comba by force (per vim), although by 982 Odoino was insisting that he had transferred ownership of Santa Comba to the much larger Galician monastery of Celanova, together with liturgical vessels and vestments, appurtenant lands, a nearby farm and another church.

She goes on to observe: “This very complicated story hangs on the ups and downs of family interest”, and that’s roughly where the rest of the chapter concentrates, with some looking also at just who priests were and what they did that she has since expanded, but what an intro story!2 Complicated it may be but she sets it out clearly, and though Odoino is clearly the real star, waiting only for his Almodóvar to make him famous to anyone prepared to watch Spanish arthouse cinema, it is the author who found him in the archive and put him back centre stage for a page or two who connects his story to a wider one of family monasteries, donation as a stratagem in one’s experience of life, conflicting claims and obligations and, a recurring theme, big monasteries buying up smaller ones and forever changing landscapes and societies. That last, I know something about myself. That’s what I’m doing with this, but if by now you still doubted that either charters or the furthest corner of Christian medieval Europe had something to tell you, I think this book could change your mind.


1. I refer here to Wendy Davies, Small Worlds: the village community in early medieval Brittany (London 1984) and eadem, Patterns of Power in Early Wales: O’Donnell Lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1983 (Oxford 1990).

2. Eadem, Acts of Giving: individual, community and church in tenth-century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), quotes from p. 36. The case in question is described in José Miguel Andrade (ed.), O Tombo de Celanova (Santiago de Compostela 1995), 2 vols, doc. no. 265.

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21 responses to “Ineluctable praise for Wendy Davies

  1. How come it is (how’s that for a pre-caffeine construction?) that my charters never seems to have so much of this fun stuff? Is it because I’m only reading pre-911? I must check. And work on the bloody things. Grouchy German publisher is grouchy.

  2. I think it’s honestly because you work so far east. Charters are different there, and so often only notices anyway. But what I think you’re mainly seeing is the effect of an area where Latin has never really been a spoken language and most people don’t naturally construct narrative in it. Sorry! On the upside: coffee…

  3. It’s these small stories that are *crucial* for folks like me who work in text manipulation. I know what the texts and commentaries and sermons are saying about Christian thought, legislation, and behavior–but I gotta have stories like this on the ground that give me a frame of reference within which to work…

  4. OOH! Or maybe not. I have just thought of something. I’m teaching pretty much all post 15th C this semester (and a lot of it is the modern World survey), so Said is lingering at the fringes of my mind.

    When you said ‘far east’, it occurred to me that I can’t think of any particularly attractive way in which Francia Orientalis is ever characterized in the west, either by our sources OR by ourselves. That is, it’s either a barbarous east, still holding onto the idea of ‘not Romanized/Christian/civilized enough’, or it’s just dull and German. Even the Ottonian Renaissance — it’s not about cool things happening in the German east, it’s about how the Byzantines affect the Ottonians (i.e., more along the lines of Orientalism, maybe).

    I’ve probably just said something really obvious to everybody else, but I think that this general idea has permeated the way we look at ‘east of the Rhine’. Sources dry and dull, made even duller by staid Germans who reduced everything to onomastics, prosopography, and place-names, with occasional turgid forays into arid discussions of Verwaltung and Verfassung.

    • Well, I don’t know about that ADM! I realise that this is to an extent drinking of an even older Sturm und Drang sort of historiography with worrying overtones, but the East is the frontier, so it’s where the crazy stuff happens. The kind of crazy I’m getting is where people have well-established systems and are playing them, but in your area the systems are still being set up as we get the sources opening up. There must be stories there even if we have to wait till Thietmar to hear the good ones first-hand…

  5. Yeah, well, I bet you wouldn’t say that if you were mired in Stengel!

    Seriously, though — there’s all the crazy stuff with Radulf, and then some weird glimpses of Heden et al., and all of Boniface’s mission, which is just … I swear, Ian Richardson would have made an excellent Boniface, with Colin Jeavons as Sturmi? (hey, we could continue the trend and cast Michael Kitchen as Lull …)

    But then, really, except for the turbulent monks, there’s not so much of the derring-do. All of the really cool things in the Annales Fuldensis are just not complete enough, and they’re all royal…

    And yes, I know I’m overgeneralizing. But then, I’m re-reading Schmid and Stengel. Makes me long for Mitterauer, it does. Or even Schlesinger.

  6. Rather Stengel than Droncke! And certainly rather Mitterauer than Schmid, be it never so important. In fact rather Althoff than Schmid. Borgolte? Müller-Mertens! And this has now gone too far…

  7. the East is the frontier, so it’s where the crazy stuff happens

    This may be indicative of old-fashioned historiography to you, but it’s still current for anthropologists. Michael Taussig and Gloria Anzaldua both give good arguments for locating the site of cultural production at frontiers and indeed ‘borderlands’ – places where ‘one world rubs up against another and bleeds’ in Anzaldua’s memorable phrase, contact with the Other being one of the primary means by which a nation/group comes to define itself. So the crazy stuff happening on the frontier makes the ‘normal’ stuff happening away from the borders possible/normal. I’m sure I’ve wittered on at you about this before…

    I can’t think of any particularly attractive way in which Francia Orientalis is ever characterized in the west, either by our sources OR by ourselves. That is, it’s either a barbarous east, still holding onto the idea of ‘not Romanized/Christian/civilized enough’, or it’s just dull and German

    The combination of dull AND barbarous at the same time is quite striking, I must say. It makes me wonder what the negative space is highlighting. Does the kind of emptiness/uninterestingness in the description tell you much about what the describers thought of as worthy of attention, or indicative of civilisation?

  8. H-K Schultze! Prinz! Staab! Gockel! Brunner! And as always, K-F Werner!

    Althoff is always better than lots of people, at least. And Borgolte is useful, if not always correct :-)

  9. Eric Goldberg (slightly dubiously in my view) has Louis the German and the East Franks as he-men versus effete Charles the Bald and the West Franks. And any region that can produce Zwentopulk and Notker the Stammerer is hardly dull.

    But I think that for lurid sex scandals West Francia is probably a better bet, having Hincmar to report them, plus Catalan counts with particularly dubious marriage practices. (Though Hrabanus’ letters have one or two eye-openers on what people needed to do penance for).

  10. See, Steve! That’s what I’m talking about! Magistra, I’m also of the dubious crowd on that. I think it’s an interesting narrative, and the he-men of Louis the German vs the effete West Frankish men helps to strengthen his case, but I’m not entirely sure there’s enough evidence to back it up — just the tradition of barbarous East writ Really Large.

    I don’t at all think the region was dull — just that we don’t have a lot to show us it wasn’t and the historiography does little to show that it wasn’t. I mean, my charters show that interesting things were happening, I think, but they don’t tell us why, for example, Otacar only has daughters and nieces, and what’s up with the family dynamics. If you look really closely, there’s the possibility of a wicked stepmother story, but you’d have to do a lot of wishful thinking and clever manipulation to come up with evidence for it. *sigh* I want some of those fun disputes, dammit!

  11. Wendy Davies will be giving the Reuter Lecture at Southampton on 8 June 2009 – title as yet unknown!

  12. She’s in Cambridge in May, too… Retirement has not slowed her down.

  13. ADM,

    If it’s castration you’re after (as it were), then there’s the Council of Metz 893 c 10 (Mansi 18A col. 80), when a woman called Ava castrates her own priest because he complains when she leaves her husband. And doesn’t Warren Brown have Bavarian charters involving gifts as compensation for homicide/maiming?

  14. Gordon Bennett, I completely missed this wave of comments in the faint horror of seeing Alex Woolf’s name in the list and not knowing how he’d take my reportage… Let me try and respond.

    Firstly T’anta Wawa, yes, indeed, I mean you know I do this stuff; it’s not the frontier itself as site of interesting stuff that’s old-fashioned, it’s regarding the history of Germany as the expansion of that particular frontier, that’s all. I have run up against the idea that people only start to define themselves when there’s a perceived Other threatening to become them a lot, I figure we must have appropriated it from you guys some time in the eighties. There’s certainly some good medieval cases where that seems to be what’s going on, which is one of the reasons I’m so intrigued by my Arabs in León where it for some reason doesn’t.

    ADM: Prinz? Really? I mean, important, but, er, not enlivening. Of course Werner, and yes Staab because so much care in turning over stones. Gockel and Scultze I admit I don’t know, so it’s back to my frontier to put names like Bonnassie, Salrach and Martí in front of me for safety :-) As for the fun cases, there are as Magistra says some decent ones from Passau, I think; I don’t remember any from Freising that weren’t fairly boring land disputes settled by oath. I’d say look in Hübner but one of the things Lay Archives showed is that for Germany it’s worryingly patchy. I wonder if it isn’t mostly just Fulda’s heavy organisation. Anywhere with that number of cartularies must have made some pretty careful decisions about sorting so the sample we’d get would be weird to start with. You want somewhere that’s kept almost everything, but in Germany or at least the East that basically means St Gallen. Regensburg also seems to keep a few disputes, I don’t remember them alas.

    Hartmann’s take on Louis the German is a bit less martial but then Hartmann notices councils more than anything else. He does make Louis the German nearly as pious as his father though. But, Charles the Bald effete? I’d have thought not, nor his men either, unless effete includes ‘dangerously likely to fly off the handle and attack you for a slight’. Byzantine-like, over-cultured, book-loving, yes, but also sententious, angry and brutalistic. It’s surely just the difference in the sources, and Hincmar, always Hincmar, giving us his own peculiar magnifying glass view of things. And, as Jinty says, “they weren’t nice people, you know”.

    Magistra, no-one thinks the Catalan counts’ practices are scandalous, that’s one of the points. It’s weird, especially given that their law of resort is one of the tougher codes about consanguinity. As for the Mansi cite, lively stuff (and thanks also for the English case, Prof. Muhlberger!). I don’t pay enough attention to council records. Though I try and keep my definition of charters as broad as possible, councils don’t come in easy transaction-sized chunks and I don’t really relish taking them on. So it’s with some self-interest that I say that I’m not sure they really count as charters. Are they normative, or are they resolutions? Is there a consensus since Wormald?

  15. Oh, fine, you people! Remind me about Bavaria. Duh. I am very much stuck in Fulda at the moment, and will be for the foreseeable future …

    It’s not like I haven’t read Warren’s stuff, either.

    argh. Or even, “GORdon BENnett!”

  16. Fulda’s important though, and one of the things you’re doing is making it easier for people to realise that and use it. However, yes, I don’t remember much ‘fun’ appearing as I skimmed Stengel…

  17. Othography is pedanty
    But Dronke never had a c
    And boy the man would be dismayed
    If that small c were thought his grade
    If scholars are your bread and butter
    The names above are what you utter
    If Ludlow cheese is what you craze
    We all rejoice at Wendy Dave
    s should you deserve pure Regiano
    There’s only one Momigliano.

  18. Ecce magister! Hic valet responsum!

    I think I know this style’s owner,
    Though concealed in virtual toner!
    Therefore let me only pray
    They will excuse my slight delay
    Answering their kindly mail:
    My INBOX is a sorry tale.
    But still I have to ponder fate:
    No cheese is made near my estate.
    If alas, I make it here,
    Q. will have to sing my beer.

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