Brain like an undocumented sponge

More reflections from sanding down the rust patches. Do you ever find, when you come back to re-read something for some purpose or other, that when you read that thing years ago it sank so deep that you basically internalised it and what it taught you is now how you think? The effect of this for me is a disconcerting dejà vu, of suddenly being made to remember that I didn’t figure that out by myself but had to learn, however basic it now seems. Some of these I know. There is, for example, a note in the prelims of the book (how long it seems since I heard anything about that… ) to the effect that I know that I should have cited Wendy Davies’s Small Worlds and Matthew Innes’s State and Society on almost every page, because the one basically built my methodology and the latter my interpretations, but it’s not only impractical to footnote every second thing with “cf. Davies, Small Worlds, passim“, it’s actually very hard to realise when you’re using that particular piece of structure, so well-trodden has it become.1

Cover of Burns (ed.), Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought

Cover of Burns (ed.), Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought

So a few days ago I was trying to get a grip on the history of the papacy between the Carolingians and the Gregorian Reforms. Being limited to what I had on the shelves at home, because it was the weekend and I was child-minding, I thought the best choice was probably J. H. Burns (ed.), The Cambridge History of Political Thought c. 350-c. 1450 (Cambridge 1988), in which I remembered there being a good article by Jinty Nelson and a piece by Ian Robinson, who has become the spokesman in English for this sort of thing almost by sheer quantity of output.2 And the piece by Jinty is another of those, “Oh! I didn’t realise I’d absorbed this” ones for me, lots of nuancing about Carolingian use of the Church and the ministry of kings that I must, presumably, have read here when I first looked at this as an undergraduate, but which I by now just knew. So all praise to Jinty on that score for this is one mark of a truly effective piece of scholarly writing, I reckon.

Pope Gregory VII deposes King Henry IV of the Germans

Pope Gregory VII deposes King Henry IV of the Germans

The Robinson piece is more problematic for me. It seems to me that it is teleological, not in the logical sense but just in that every subsection (it is masterfully divided) leads to Rome. Several sections my notes almost repeat themselves with a phrase like, “mostly used of bishops (and once of Charlemagne by Alcuin) but of course most of all later by reform papacy”. Which is fine, except that once the reform papacy enters each section there’s no going back. I would like some opposition: Henry IV had no problem raising churchmen who argued against the papal claims using Scripture and political thought, but they’re not accounted for here. And places where I know these answers, the Carolingian arguments, are only sketchily discussed. Jinty has of course already covered some of them but neither of them deal with the divorce of Lothar II, which must be considered in any account of papal-imperial relations surely, if only to emphasise that something did change about how seriously the papacy was taken over the period 750-1150. Also, once you start looking it’s amazing how many of his references are, “Cf….”; it’s as if no-one out there agrees with him so he has to cite his opposition (rather than, too often, the source) and I don’t find it encouraging that he is basically our teaching text. Thank heavens for Ute-Renate Blumenthal, but she can’t save them all by herself.3

The coronation of Emperor Otto III, 999, from a Gospel book made for him

The coronation of Emperor Otto III, 999, from a Gospel book made for him

However, it’s not just Robinson. (Though one of the problems with this theme is that in English, since Cowdrey, it has pretty much been just Robinson. Or am I missing someone obvious?) It sometimes seems that Western medievalists only study the papacy when it’s interfering with or being interfered with by other interests. When the papacy isn’t doing much outside Rome no-one cares, even when, as I’ve remarked, Rome is busy raising its own secular ruler in defiance of an emperor or so on. And there’s so much work on Rome that this is bizarre, but still this strange gap in the tenth century where the entire history of the papacy as far as the textbooks are concerned is basically `what the Ottonians did on their holidays’, even though the papacy is actually becoming more and more of an international focus without even doing very much. If anyone knows what I should be looking at to remedy this, in English or otherwise, I’d be grateful for suggestions.4


1. Referring to W. Davies, Small Worlds: the village community in early medieval Brittany (London 1988) and M. J. Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000).

2. Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and empire” in J. H. Burns (ed.), The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, c. 350-c. 1450 (Cambridge 1988), pp. 211-251, and Ian S. Robinson, “Church and papacy”, ibid. pp. 252-305.

3. Referring to U.-R. Blumenthal, The Investiture Controversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century , transl. eadem (Philadelphia 1988, repr. 1995).

4. Searching for images has already led me to David A. Warner, “Ideals and action in the reign of Otto III” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 25 (Amsterdam 1999), pp. 1-19, and an entire Spoleto conference, Il Secolo di ferro: mito e realtà del secolo X, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 38 (Spoleto 1991), so I suppose I may have an answer to this already. More still good though!

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10 responses to “Brain like an undocumented sponge

  1. It’s noticeable that Ian Robinson talks about reform non-stop but never pauses to think about what terms people in the 11th century used. But then, he isn’t the only one in that boat.

    • I’m suddenly conscious how little of this stuff I’ve actually confronted in the Latin… On the other hand, his Authority and Resistance does seem to be written with the thinking of that critique close at hand. That was, er, thirty years ago now of course.

  2. highlyeccentric

    It sometimes seems that Western medievalists only study the papacy when it’s interfering with or being interfered with by other interests. When the papacy isn’t doing much outside Rome no-one cares

    Oh, HUH. I had never noticed that bias, but you’re right, it was both slathered over all the books I read in early undergrad, and into all the course structures and essay questions and so on.

  3. Coincidence – I just requested the Burns book from the library (for background on conflicting ideas of kingship and princely power in the later Middle Ages).

  4. Sorry I’m late to the party, but Maureen Miller has a great article in a recent History Compass that problematizes how we’ve been talking about the papacy. See here.

    • Oh bloody hell, Cambridge doesn’t subscribe to History Compass, isn’t that just marvellous? I’ll look forward to reading that in London, it looks like just what I need, although alas for last week’s lecture. Thankyou, though, not least because the abstract appears to match what I told the students pretty closely :-)

  5. Pingback: More bullets of the new job, and, Jonathan Jarrett is going to Hell « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. Pingback: Propaganda coinage from the Investiture Controversy? « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  7. Pingback: What makes a priest write a charter? | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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