I should have read this the moment I bought it, part V

The section of Davis & McCormick’s Long Morning of Medieval Europe that deals with religion is rather shorter than that dealing with the economy, which matches my interests I suppose. I only thought of this as incongruous when I read the two papers that are its main components, bracketed by another McCormick introduction and a short response by Thomas Head. Both of these papers are somewhat totalising and made me wonder, idly, which of economy (in the original sense of household welfare as much as the macro-scale one of trade and money) and religion was on the mind of the Platonically-average medieval man or woman more. This is somewhere our preconceptions don’t let us voyage, I think. Certainly mine won’t let my historian passport into the time-travel chamber. So anyway, enough with the laboured metaphor.

A later illumination showing Archbishop Gregory of Tours as suppliant before a king

A later illumination showing Archbishop Gregory of Tours as suppliant before a king

The first paper is about hagiographical texts, then being analysed on a massive database scale by Michel Trigalet as a doctoral project under the supervision of Guy Philippart who wrote this article ‘with’ Trigalet.1 (I hate this convention of the humanities, writings credits ‘with’ or ‘assisted by’. We all know what this means, right? It means that the junior party did the grunt-work but the main name has supplied the erudition and interpretation. In the sciences that would be co-authorship with no distinction except order of precedence in the list of authors. Why can’t we be big enough to allow that to struggling juniors?2) Some parts of the database, meanwhile, are online here (which is even the same URL as they give in the article) so you can examine it yourself if you like. I don’t know if it’s possible to do much serious work with the online version, because one wants to be able to set queries rather than just get lists of contents, but even as a list of the hagiography that exists (though as Head says in his response, they could have included even more by not sticking to the Bollandist definitions of sainthood; I suspect that decision was made for operational reasons such as Trigalet ever getting his doctorate, rather than by neglect as Head seems to believe…3) it’s quite something. I’ve added it to the increasingly-jumbled sidebar.

Two good points they make, one that is basically theoretical (in the sense of thought-rather-than-proven) and goes back to the question of the representation of survival that I was quoting about here only a short while ago. Here’s another good quote, applicable to their sample rather than mine:

The concept of “texts at high risk”, that is,texts which did not circulate widely, proves helpful. The fewer copies of a text once existed [sic], the higher the risk that the text would disappear. “Best sellers” had the highest survival rate. Many works in our databank are attested today by only one or even no surviving manuscript. Sometimes the whole set of texts dedicated to a particular saint (what hagiographers call the saint’s “dossier”) was at high risk. Most hagiographical works were intended for and circulated exclusively in local communities that were not pilgrimage shrines; pilgrimage fostered the “export” of texts. This means that text loss is not random: it affects first and foremost “local” works.4

And they go on to demonstrate that a great proportion of the saints’ lives that exist from North Italy are of saints whose shrines are along the pilgrim routes. (They also have a good anecdote from Prudentius showing how these tales could travel from shrines.) They also show that Italy gets writing this stuff first, in the fourth century, the Germanic-speaking lands last and Gaul and Spain both really only start generating hagiography (that survives) in between in the seventh century. And they show that whereas in Italy the majority of the hagiography is martyr narratives that don’t necessarily connect to any larger power structure, in Gaul the majority are definitely saintly and senatorial bishops, though I wonder how much of that is down to Gregory of Tours’s selection at work.5 So you can see that there is stuff that can be done with data collections this large no matter what Head’s reservations about the rôles played by living holy men in local piety and the fact that the database, as he had seen it at least (and the online version doesn’t allow me to check) there was no discrimination by gender, which seems like a pretty powerful analytical category missing.6

Byantine icon showing offering at an altar, date unknown

Byantine icon showing offering at an altar, date unknown

Less innovative is the other paper, in which Arnold Angenendt attempts to redirect study of medieval donations in a liturgical direction.7 His idea that what is involved is a gift exchange as per Marcel Mauss, in which, as well as the practical function of maintenance of a priest to say the prayers that one wants said, the gift of money or property (he has lots of (early) examples of gifts of money for prayers, which is very interesting) is something for which the priest has to make the sacrifice of your prayers or penance contrasts nicely to Barbara Rosenwein‘s argument that it’s a big attempt to repay Christ for his original sacrifice. I also think there’s some power in his drawing the origins of the practice back to penance, though I wonder if we really think that penance originates with the Irish. (I haven’t read all I should have on this.) However, it would work better if he had referenced either Mauss or Rosenwein. Head correctly points this out, and accuses both papers of lacking awareness of English-language work. This is OK with Philippart’s because his data is new, but with Angenendt’s basically interpretative work it really is a problem that English-language work has reached several of his points and moved beyond them now: as Head says, the anthropologist of resort on this practice is not now Mauss but Weiner, and we’re looking at the practice of giving to a church less as gift exchange and more as negotiation of a special relationship with its access to the sacred.8 I myself also wonder whether we don’t just complicate this too much. What the charters say is that the donors are afraid of Hell, and that they “have heard the warnings of the Holy Fathers that alms may save the soul from death”.9 I don’t see why we can’t take that literally, even if there is then a developed practice by which you sometimes remind people, or indeed the saint (and his or her representatives) that you or some ancestor have given, either by regiving or by contesting and conceding the goods as per Rosenwein. So Angenendt’s paper is a bit of pity but with Head’s critique and references to shore it up still useful.

This was supposed to be a short post. I ought to know better by now.


1. Guy Philippart with Michel Trigalet, “Latin Hagiography before the Ninth Century: A Synoptic View” in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 111-129.

2. Mind, I may just be bitter because I recently learnt that two papers on which I was expecting to be named as co-author have been junked by the other author, who now wants to write something else. And furthermore I can’t do anything with the work I did for them, which was extensive and well beyond what I was paid for, because it clashes with their own publication and I need their goodwill. If that sounds OK to you, do ignore my rant.

3. Thomas Head, “The Early Medieval Transformation of Piety”, ibid. pp. 155-160 at p. 157.

4. Philippart with Trigalet, “Latin Hagiography”, p. 114.

5. Ibid., pp. 122-123, 121, 117 & 118-119 respectively.

6. Head, “Early Medieval Transformation”, pp. 157-158.

7. A. Angenendt, “Donationes pro anima: Gift and Countergift in the Early Medieval Liturgy” in Davis & McCormick, Long Morning, 131-154.

8. Head, “Early Medieval Transformations”, pp. 158-160, referring to: Marcel Mauss, The Gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, transl. Wilfrid D. Halls (New York City 1990); Barbara Rosenwein, To Be The Neighbor of Saint Peter: the social meaning of Cluny’s property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989); & Annette Weiner, Inalienable Possessions: the paradox of keeping-while-giving (Berkeley 1992).

9. E. g. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 643: “Magnum nobis et satis licitum esse videtur domum Dei edificare et de nostris rebus honorare atque concedere, audientes precepta sanctorum patrum quia elemosina a morte liberat anima…”

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3 responses to “I should have read this the moment I bought it, part V

  1. The hagiography database sounds like it could provide the raw fodder for some pretty interesting modeling of large scale trends. The connection between hagiography and power structures (or not) in Italy and Gaul is revealing. But given that connection, it makes the (apparent) lack of gender as a variable even more of a gap.

    On your footnote #2 – I’m sorry, that just sucks. Even when you’ve been fully compensated for creative/research work, it is still gutting when it never gets to see the light of day.

    • It’s quite annoying how little of this database that they apparently had in 2004 is available online to consult in 2009. It’s like the ARTEM database, which has all the original charters from French archives from I think 625 to 1150 in it, images, text and commentary, and which is only consultable on the University of Nancy’s network. It isn’t even digitally published. How does that help etc. Mind you I have a couple of really useful books based on it, but, y’know.

      As to the latter, well, it is as it must be and I have hopes that I shall be able to negotiate a release for some of it once the relevant project finally gets anything into print. They have basically trimmed all possible sail to try and get something out and will now brook no changes in case it slows them down some more, which I can understand but would have understood better if I’d been kept in on the process.

  2. Pingback: Treasures of Heaven as seen from earth « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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