Leeds 2010 Report IV and final

Time to wind this up. I really ought to get up to date with my conference blogging before attending my next one, after all. So, I woke in relatively good order on the Thursday of Leeds and, once caffeinated and breakfasted headed out to the final two sessions. Given my interests there was only one choice for the first one.

1505. Texts and Identities, XI: the Carolingian Empire in crisis?—Impacts of Political Crises on Regional and Local Levels as Reflected in Charter Material

You see? It’s basically my whole track-the-big-events-through-the-little-ones approach written into a session title. I have to do this, of course, because there are no big narratives from my area,1 but it’s not so often done in the areas where we have lots of chronicles and annals. And who better than this team to take it on, armed with the unparalleled St Gall archive?

    Supposedly the oldest charter in the St Gallen archive

    Supposedly the oldest charter in the St Gallen archive

  • Karl Heidecker, “Crisis or Business as Usual?: political crises as reflected in the charters of St Gall”, opened the theme up, by asking if we can see reflections of the numerous crises of the Carolingian Empire, which St Gall, in its borderline position between West and East Francia and some crucial Alpine passes, usually knew about in some detail, in increased transactions and donations as recorded in the abbey’s documents? Stressing that having the original documents actually gives you a whole set of new dating problems when you realise that the multiple dating systems usually don’t agree, Karl produced a histogram that showed royal donations peaking in 816-20, 840-50, the end of Louis the German’s reign and generally under Charles the Fat (who began, let’s not forget, as King of Alemannia, so St Gall was sort of local to him). The non-royal charters (I don’t like the term ‘private charter’, I don’t think it marks a useful difference here) meanwhile peak 816-820, 826-830, crash until 837, again [840 ]till 850, peak again in the 870s and then fall off under Charles the Fat. That looks pretty consistent, overall, and you could of course correlate this with general political events quite nicely, but trouble is that, at first at least, as charter preservation drops the presence in what survives of non-monastic scribes writing them rises, more or less in proportion. So the crisis is far from general: it’s just trends at the abbey that show up like this, and they could of course have many causes. Karl suggested that blips rather than trends might be what we should be looking at here, in which case the real trouble at St Gall seems to be in the 850s. But really, I think that this test shows that we need to ask different questions of this sample. And hardly had I thought this when…
  • … Bernhard Zeller stepped up to present, “Who is the Boss?: representations of royal authority in the private charters of St Gall – or, revisiting Fichtenau’s ‘politische Datierung'”. Here he looked at the political reigns by which St Gall’s charters were dated, an approach of obvious interest to me, and showed very similar results in terms of it being as much scribal choice as policy whom to date by.2 The 817 ordinatio imperii, for example, is not reflected in the charters, they continue to date by Louis the Pious, but when in 829 the infant Charles the Bald was made King of Alemannia, two scribes chose to use this fact in dating, although not consistently. Louis the German’s title and presence changes in these clauses depending on his status with regard to his father, often opposed. Heinrich Fichtenau had seen this scribal opinion as a division between ‘nationalists’ and ‘imperialists’ in the scriptorium, but Bernhard thought this too simplistic in the face of the considerable variation. He also suggested that, since we are still basically doing Fichtenau’s work here (and in my part of the world too, at least I am) with much better exposure to the data, he wouldn’t have minded being proved wrong too much…
  • Many of the papers I’d attended, as you may have noticed, had already had informal responses from Mark Merswiowsky, but in this case it was actually on the programme. He reminded us that for the period before 911, St Gall has ten times as many original documents preserved as the rest of Eastern Francia and Germany put together. With the copies that we do have from elsewhere, however, similar sorts of number-crunching as Karl had done can also be done, and this shows various things: Thegan was not kidding when he recorded that Louis the Pious tried to confirm all of Charlemagne’s charters at the beginning of his reign, there really are a lot of confirmations 814-816; grants are thickest in the 820s, Lothar is most generous during the Brüderkrieg, Louis the German makes many grants in West Francia during the 870s… But of course since, and Mark does keep making this point but people keep failing to get it, these documents are requested, not ordained, this doesn’t tell us about royal policy direct but about people’s response to the kings, which is something they can’t reliably affect.3
  • But it’s complicated. Morn Capper asked a seemingly innocent question about the mixed-up dating systems in the originals, asking whether there could be multiple occasions being recognised in the varying clauses. This made my ears prick up because one of the things I think I have shown, quietly, is that sometimes charters are drawn up over a period of some time.4 But Karl said he thought not, because [although some documents with dates at beginning and end might be dating both transaction and writing, ]the [final ]dating of the charter would usually be the last bit of the process; and Bernhard said he thought not, as the dates were usually coming from the dorsal notes that were the first thing recorded. You see the problem there? And these guys have been working together for years. Karl was also willing to offer an answer to another crucial question (this time from Wendy Davies), how much don’t we have? What proportion of the charter survival has been lost? Karl said that Peter Erhart has counted the number of references to documents in the documents, and figures that we have about one third of what is mentioned thus; that’s as good an idea as we can reach, but as Rosamond McKitterick pointed out, the variation from archive to archive is huge and St Gall, with its already-exceptional preservation, probably doesn’t tell us much about other places.

So as you can tell that got people talking and thinking, and while I realise that charters are not everyone’s idea of excitement, I will continue to work here to show that the individual ones are often interesting while the collection of these data is very often significant, for a wider range of people than the perspectives of a single historian indeed, and this session was a welcome chance to listen to other people who also see this.

Then, after coffee, it was a different kind of specialism, but I didn’t actually get coffee because I was picking up books instead, and was consequently slightly late for…

1612. Bishops before GPS: English bishops on the move, c. 700-c. 1300

    Stained-glass portrait of Bishop Wilfrid of York, at East Hoathly Parish Church

    Stained-glass portrait of Bishop Wilfrid of York, voted English bishop least likely to travel without retinue 669-678 inclusive (I jest)

  • Thomas Pickles, “Episcopal Logistics: clerical retinues, hospitality, and travel, c. 600-c. 800″ was trying to figure out how many people Anglo-Saxon bishops usually travelled with and how difficult this would be to arrange. The figures of course basically aren’t there, so he started with King Henry I, who usually trailed round 100+ attendants and 50-odd supporting hunters and so, plus 200+ barons with their own households of, say, 35 people each; Anglo-Saxon royals were probably only doing a third of this (I’m not sure where that assumption came from), meaning a royal household of 50-odd and by happy coincidence, for the reign of King Alfred we can name at most some 30-40 thegns at any one time…5 On the other hand the Yeavering theatre probably seated more like 300, so some occasions were obviously different. How were they all fed? Here he did what we should all do more, and asked someone who knows about such things: he took the food-rents specified in the Laws of Ine to a hotelier friend of his and asked how many people he could feed with that render. 250, was the answer, so supporting a royal court on a food render starts to seem realistic in that period at least. The question then becomes do you consume the food on the spot, meaning that the court’s movements are restricted by the availability of food and where they haven’t already eaten, or do you move it to the court, with consequent costs in feeding the men and horses needed to do so?6 Bishops of course have to visit all parts of their diocese, in theory, so in theory that question is decided for them, but even bishops sometimes have to be somewhere else or in one place for a while. And how do you go outside the kingdom? How far will the king support you? And so on. Thomas raised most of this sort of question and suggested answers for almost all while stressing that most were only guesses. I have a lot of notes on this paper, and I came in late, yet I don’t think he over-ran, so I congratulate him on packing so much in so accessibly, a trick I’d like to learn…
  • Julia Barrow, “Somewhere to Stop for the Night: way-stations on English episcopal itineraries, c. 700-c. .1300″ then asked exactly where these bishops went, when we can tell, and how that could have been provisioned. In particular, she noted, after a while most church councils are in London, so that high medieval bishops will often tend to have a string of small properties on the route from their see to the capital whose purpose is basically to give them a bed for the night when they have to do that journey. Where there was no property, arrangements are made with local shrines or monasteries; renting lodgings was the last resort, not least because being accessible could involve important people like bishops in unexpected hospitality that would raise such costs considerably. It is perhaps for this reason that the properties they owned en route were usually a little way off the road… As with Thomas’s hotel budgeting, there was here a faint perfume of anachronism as we looked at these questions through some very contemporary perspectives about what places are nice and feasible and for what, but I usually think that this is a danger worth risking in exchange for seeing our historical actors as human beings like ourselves facing similar annoying dilemmas. Apart from anything else, history’s much less interesting when you can’t project yourself into it like this.
  • Lastly, Philippa Hoskin presented “At Home or Abroad: English episcopal itineraries as a measure of 13th-century pastoral concern”, which largely focussed on one guy, Bishop Roger de Meulan of Coventry, who was soundly told off by letter by Archbishop Neville of York for failing to adequately tour his diocese and oversee the standard of clerical office in it. Dr Hoskin showed that Archbishop Neville had picked just the right, or wrong depending on which figure you empathised with more, time to criticise as Bishop Roger’s itinerary had shrunk dramatically for the previous year or so; Neville says he realises Roger’s ill, but other arrangements should have been made to stop this affecting things so dramatically. By plotting itineraries for Bishop Roger’s career, therefore, she was able to tell us something fairly direct about his available time and energy levels during what were quite advanced years; he tried to measure up under his metropolitan’s criticism, presumably once recovered, for a few years, but then had to admit he wasn’t up to it and did start relying more on his subordinates and staying in one place more and more. So a human story here, which left us mostly sharing Dr Hoskin’s feeling that Archbishop Neville was being rather unfair, a quality in which he seems to have specialised…
  • The questions also raised the issues of bishops’ family property, which obviously must have factored in and left those not out of the top-drawer rather less able to do their diocesan work easily, and Katy Cubitt reminded us that in contemporary terms a bishop who failed to do right service to his congregation, thus endangering their souls, could expect to be punished for their sins as well as his in the hereafter, all things that must have sat in the minds of these peoples as they did or didn’t get on horses, into litters or up on their feet to head out to their people.

So, having thus been hearing about people crossing Yorkshire, it was time to do so myself. Apart from a faint worry that the Silver Machine’s rear wheel would buckle under sheer weight of books, the journey back was more or less trouble-free, and happily by the time I’d run out of will to read I found a Cambridge friend of mine waiting at Stevenage, with whom to gossip as we rode back to our alma mater. So the conference trip remained sociable to the last and I was fairly cheerful as I got home, unpacked ate and and then got stuff out to pack again for the next conference trip the next day, before setting about sleeping the sleep of someone who isn’t seeing enough of his bed just currently.


1. Honest: see Thomas N. Bisson, “Unheroed Pasts: history and commemoration in South Frankland before the Albigensian Crusade” in Speculum Vol. 65 (Cambridge 1990), pp. 281-308, for musings on why this might be and a list of what little there is.

2. For the same technique applied to the Catalan sample circa 987, when political allegiance is obviously a bit of a question, see Jean Dufour, “Obédience respective des carolingiens et des capétiens (fin Xe siècle-début XIe siècle)” in Xavier Barral i Altet, Dominique Iogna-Prat, Anscarí M. Mundó, Jospe María Salrach & Michel Zimmermann (edd.), Catalunya i França Meridional a l’Entorn de l’Any Mil / La Catalogne et la France méridionale autour de l’an mil. Colloque International D. N. R. S./Generalitat de Catalunya « Hugues Capet 987-1987. La France de l’An Mil », Barcelona 2 – 5 juliol 1987, Col·lecció «Actes de Congresos» núm. 2 (Barcelona 1991), pp. 21-24, though he does pick and choose his charters somewhat and the real situation was often more confusing even than he chooses to show.

3. A point made by him some time ago, and largely ignored it seems perhaps because it’s awkward, in M. Mersiowky, “Towards a Reappraisal of Carolingian Sovereign Charters” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 15-25.

4. Best at J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming), pp. 37-38.

5. Here citing David Pratt, The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 67 (Cambridge 2007).

6. Here citing Albin Gautier, “Hospitality in pre-Viking Anglo-Saxon England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 17 (Oxford 2009), pp. 23-44.

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One response to “Leeds 2010 Report IV and final

  1. (Some alterations made to the reporting of Karl Heidecker’s paper after he kindly e-mailed me corrections.)

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