Back in my bad books: l’affaire Zimmermann encore une fois

(The current flood of blogging here may just have led you to miss a couple of earlier posts, most obviously the notice of the Leeds IMC 2013 bloggers’ meet-up. That’s here, should you want it. Now read on!) I feel like I’m going many rounds in this struggle, and by now so do you I expect, but the conflict I have over this book is an ongoing issue. The last chapter of the first volume of Michel Zimmermann’s Écrire et lire en Catalogne deals with books, with who owned them, how many there were in the libraries we can talk about, what they were and what that tells us about what was going on, intellectually, in these places.1 It is really well done: he goes careful with the evidence, indicates when he’s guessing at the probable contents of a lost manuscript, is genuinely informative about what odd terms for certain works probably mean, all with a sound foundation in the local and international scholarship (at least as far as I’m any judge, I’m reading this book to learn not to check it, after all) and his conclusions are interesting and balanced. The short version would be, Catalonia was not quite the leading European zone of international culture its partisans have sometimes made it in the tenth to twelfth centuries; its leading centres were certainly somewhere in the top ranks, but the study of theology seems to have been oddly rare, the liberal arts were really only to be found in a couple of monasteries and most of what you can see in the libraries and references to books is a mostly-Carolingian liturgical enterprise with a continuing Gothic tinge to the way books of Scripture were read and commented on, which finally went out of the door when the Cistercians and the Victorines brought in new thinking. By that time, the cathedrals had taken over from the monasteries as the main centres of education again.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

Lessons for the illiterate from Catalan Bibles, 1: fighting looks cool

He also observes something that I feel stupid for never having really taken up from my reading beforehand. Firstly, it was a rare person indeed in the tenth century almost anywhere who had had the opportunity to read the whole Bible. Most churches would be equipped with the Psalms, the Gospels if they were lucky, and more likely than not not all of either of those but a volume of two of greatest hits in the form of a lectionary, Flores psalmorum or eventually Breviary.2 Even the big centres might not have the whole thing. But if they did, and this is the thing that had never occurred to me before, they likely had it mostly in the form of commentaries by scholars, much in the way that these days that we, if we have our own copy of one of our sources, most likely have a critical edition (or a Penguin translation, but that technology was yet to come).3 I had observed quite how popular these commentaries are, but not stopped to think that, duh, that was probably because a commentary will also contain most or all of the actual text. So, after mentally hitting myself in the brain a few times, I now feel better about my understanding of tenth-century book-larnin’.

But. I mean of course there’s a `but’. You might think it only a small `but’, or, depending on your social politics, you might think it more serious. You’ll remember, perhaps, how I’ve snarked that I first picked up this book to learn about nuns’ literacy, and found that Zimmermann denies it existed even though he cites a charter that six nuns signed and another one in which one (whose name was Caríssima) gave a Psalter to a church her nunnery had newly had built.4 You may also remember how I have snarked repeatedly that it mentions women on 3 of its 1219 pages, which is in fact a little unfair because I was counting indexed entries; it might be, ooh, nearly twice that really. But snark is not feeling like enough by now. The evidence Professor Zimmermann deploys in this chapter is mainly gifts of books to churches, and he gives a long list of them as an appendix indeed which is extremely useful, especially compared to other parts of the text where he often doesn’t identify the charters he’s using, only gives their dates. On p. 526 he tells us whom these books are all from, and notes that it is overridingly bishops and priests, sometimes abbots, very occasionally the counts and once, just once, a monk. The afore-mentioned Carissima, cited by himself earlier, here escapes mention. Just an unfortunate slip of the memory? (Again?)

Sant Hilari de Vidrà

Sant Hilari de Vidrà, whose earlier instance held Carissima’s Psalter

Well, maybe. But then further on, pp. 591-592, Professor Zimmermann discusses cathedral libraries, and here we are well served because there are actually two tenth-century inventories of property at the cathedral of Vic that itemise the books. And, oh, I am so conflicted: he sets up Vic in its time in the neatest two paragraphs I ever saw on it,5 they’re so good I have to quote them:

L’histoire chaotique du diocèse et l’instabilité de la vie canoniale expliquent que n’ait pu se former à Vic une bibliothèque aussi importante et de croissance aussi regulière que celles qui se constituaient au même moment dans les abbayes. Lorsqu’en 888 l’évêque Godmar s’installe dans la nouvelle cathédrale érigée in vico Ausonae, il se préoccupa immédiatement d’organiser la vie du clergé selon les prescriptions de la Règle d’Aix, mais les chanoines ne conservèrent pas longtemps la vie commune : le diocèse était en pleine réorganisation et les clercs étaient appelés à exercer des charges paroissiales qui les tenaient éloignés du chapitre. Le 10 juin 957, l’évêque Guadamir accueille favorablement la plainte d’un groupe de chanoines venus le trouver sur son lit de mort cum querela de canonica que iam retro fuerat instituta et per negligentia erat dissipata157 : il décide de doter le chapitre afin de permettre à douze clercs de pratiquer la vie commune (ut communiter vivere possitis) et de suivre les recommandations des Pères (secundum instituta Sanctorum Patrum fidelissimi dispensatores existatis). Mais cette vie regulière, si elle s’est maintenue, ne devait concerner qu’un petit groupe de chanoines : au même moment, d’autres clercs vivent en dehors du chapitre, font construire leurs propres maisons dont ils disposent librement à leur mort et, à chaque nouvelle élection épiscopale (en 1010, puis en 1018), ils se font confirmer la libre disposition de leur maison infra possessionem sancti Petri. Les testaments des chanoines attestent sans équivoque qu’au XIe siècle la plupart des membres du chapitre résidaient dans leur propre maison et disposaient librement de leurs biens ; beaucoup d’entre eux, avec le titre levita, possèdent un équipement militaire complet et assurent la garde de châteaux aux limites de diocèse ; ils sont étrangers à toute forme de vie commune et même religieuse. Vers 1080, l’évêque Berenguer Seniofred de Lluça [sic] tente une nouvelle restauration de la discipline, mais sa décision, confirmée par une bulle d’Urbain II, ne fut guère suivie d’effet ; il en resulta du moins une gestion plus cohérente de la mense capitulaire.

L’individualisme des chanoines eut des conséquences décisives sur la formation de la bibliothèque. En dehors des livres indispensables au culte et à l’office, qui appartiennent au trésor de l’Église, les autres manuscrits restaient la propriété des chanoines, qui les achetaient, vendaient, léguaient ou transmettaient à celui – fréquemment un neveu – qui leur succédait dans la charge. Même les livres appartenant au fonds commun étaient fréquemment prêtés à des individus ou à des églises paroissiales dépendant du chapitre. Le catalogue de la bibliothèque capitulaire ne saurait donc constituer l’inventaire exhaustif des textes connus aux Xe et XIe siècles des chanoines de Vic, qui comptaient parmis eux plusieurs érudits : sous l’épiscopat d’Atton, protecteur de Gerbert, tout d’abord. puis sous celui d’Oliba, devenu évêque de Vic en 1018.

157 Diplom. Vic, doc. 302.6

I translate, roughly, for non-Francolexics:

The chaotic history of the diocese and the instability of canonical life explain why Vic was never able to form a library as important and as regular in its growth as those that were forming at the same time in the monasteries. When in 888 Bishop Godmar moved into the new cathedral erected ‘in the vico of Ausona’, he straight away busied himself with organising the life of the clergy according to the precepts of the Rule of Aachen, but the canons did not maintain the communal life for long: the diocese was in the throes of complete reorganisation and its clergy were being called to take on parish duties that took them far away from the chapter. On the 10th June 957, Bishop Guadamir favourably received the plea from a group of canons who had come to find him on his deathbed ‘with a complaint about the canonry that there once used to be and which had been dissipated through negligence': he decided to endow the chapter so as to allow twelve clerks to live the communal life and to follow the recommendations of the Fathers. But this regular life, if it survived, must have concerned only a small group of canons: at the same time, other clerks lived outside the chapter, building their own houses of which they disposed freely at their deaths and, at each new episcopal election (in 1010, then in 1018), they got the free disposition of their houses ‘subject to the possession of Saint Peter’ confirmed. The canons’ wills testify unambiguously that in the eleventh century most of the canons lived in their own houses and disposed freely of their property. Many of them, bearing the title of deacon, owned full military equipment and undertook the guard of castles at the edges of the diocese; they were strangers to any form of common or even religious life. Around 1080, Bishop Berenguer Sunifred de Lluçà attempted a new restoration of discipline, but his decision, backed in 1099 by a Bull of Pope Urban II, hardly had any effect. It did result, at least, in a more coherent management of the chapter’s provisioning.

Modern metal statue of Bishop Oliba of Vic

A modern representation of Bishop Oliba, patron of big library budgets

The individualism of the canons had decisive consequences on the formation of the library. Apart from the books that were indispensable for worship and the offices, which belonged to the Church treasure, the other manuscripts remained property of the canons, who bought them, sold them, bequeathed them or transmitted them to the person – frequently a nephew – who would succeed them in their position. Even books belonging to the common stock were frequently lent to individuals or to parish churches dependant on the chapter. The catalogue of the library thus cannot constitute an exhaustive inventory of the texts known to the canons of Vic in the tenth and eleventh centuries, canons among whom there numbered many scholars. In fact, from the mid-tenth century onwards, the cathedral was the site of intense cultural activity, in the episcopate of Ató, protector of Gerbert, first of all, then in that of Oliba, made Bishop of Vic in 1018.

That, right there, that is my study area explained in six hundred words. On reading that I really wanted to love this book again. And then two pages further on, he gets properly into the booklists. Now, I’ve talked about one of these inventories here before, because one of the interesting things about it is that a quarter of the books were on loan as he describes, and it records who had borrowed them. If you quickly have a look at that post, and what I thought was important about it, you’ll be much better prepared for what follows when you come back; go on. Okay? Good, so, pp. 592-593 see Professor Zimmermann discuss these loans, and on p. 593 he notes, “Quant à Richeldes, il conserve le livre des Rois.”

‘Il conserve’? ‘Il conserve’? It’s a woman’s name, this is not a controversial or odd assertion, nor is there a man’s name I know with which it could easily be confused. Richeldes, Richildis, Riquildis, Riquilda or any variant spelling you like, it’s a woman and she’s reading Kings. Why is this worth obscuring? What would it do to this man’s world if, in 971, one more woman could read? I don’t know, but by now I feel quite strongly that it’s not OK.


1. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), I pp. 523-613.

2. One particularly interesting instance of the Flores, which is the same as a florilegium, a kind of personal best-of collection of improving texts, and one that Zimmermann indeed notes, is the will of Dacó adolescens. We have this in the form of its publication before judges, which exists as a single-sheet in the Arxiu Capitular de Vic, but the original actual will as made by the boy was not formally drawn up like that; evidently things were quite dire, as it was written for him in a book in which he had the Flores psalmorum and a few other orationes and then he made his mark in it and that was the will. There’s so much that’s interesting about this: he was too young to be holding property so what he actually bequeathed was his rights in his father’s property, he had books but he couldn’t write, he was important enough that two cathedral clerics came and helped him write his will (in which they both feature, we might notice)… but no more is known of him but this document, which is edited as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològico LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1849 among other places.

3. I suppose if we wanted to work that analogy a step further we could observe the similarity between Flores-volumes and modern-day source anthologies.

4. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 645 & 856, cit. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, I pp. 302 n. 111 & p. 500 respectively, from the older edition of Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Madrid 1951), nos 128 & 146.

5. You could get a lot more detail, and in English, from Paul Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: tradition and regeneration in medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick 1983), online here, pp. 14-67, but that is, you have to admit, more than two paragraphs.

6. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, I pp. 591-592; the inventory is Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1106.

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24 responses to “Back in my bad books: l’affaire Zimmermann encore une fois

  1. I need to remember this post for whenever (I have no idea when) I put something up about the under-representation of women in literature/sources from the Medieval period. The question then becomes why a modern historian would do the same.

  2. Maybe it could be of some interest one of my posts/articles about women documentary presence at the start of C10th in Gothia. Not specific about reading or writinh habilities, just as landowners.

    • That is also something that people occasionally use to mark Spain off as too different to count, it’s true. I like to answer such dismissals with the suggestion that if they had four times as many documents they too might see things which they currently assume don’t exist, which is also how I would take Allan’s comment further into battle…

      • Yes the old ‘absence of evidence..’ thing is always lurking. But in this case it’s not Spain, it’s Gothia, that’s a key point. There are cultural differences, what can be true for Burgundy does not have to hold for Neustria or Gascony. And somethimg similar happens in the time dimension, 850-900 it’s not the same as 950-1000. It’s just that speaking globally reduces drastically what can be reliably said, imo.

        • Sharply observed! I think I am more interested in the change over time, though, since the functional uses of literacy would seem to be about the same in all areas of the Carolingian Empire and the impetus to improve it similar. Obviously action to carry that out and responses to those actions would differ, but to me to say that some areas are culturally disposed to be more literate just opens further questions, and these questions seem only to have axiomatic answers. At the very least I would rather see the position that more survival gives more varied evidence become the default, rather than just “here it was different”.

          • Well, the problem I have is that I fail to see the evidence suporting this uniform uses of literacy or of the will to improve-it acros the whole empire. Evidence, as usual is fragmentary, and to my best knowledge dissimilar between territories, Italy is not like Normandy nor is Bavaria like Gascony, local cultures and conditionants seems to make make the difference…
            Of course, axiomatic or tautological positions will not help to increase understanding, but it’s also true that complexity reduction it’s always a risky endeavour. So, I am with you about the need to overcome the ‘here’s different’ attitude; to me, the best remedy is to try to understant those differences.

            • Italy is not like Normandy nor is Bavaria like Gascony

              No, OK, that is very true. Just in terms of document production in the early Middle Ages, Italy was more urbanised than anywhere else in the old Western Empire and it retained notarised documentary production (though not civil archives) until at least the tenth century, as well as still sometimes using papyrus. Normandy was a fairly usual province of Neustria until the Viking take-over, whereafter its documentary usages changed a bit, but it would look a lot more normal except for the scale of losses at that time, I think. However, Bavaria had documentary culture reintroduced or introduced in the seventh and eighth centuries and then the Carolingians fairly aggressively reset it; the extent of the use of documents by ordinary people is very hotly disputed. Certainly they didn’t sign documents nor did anyone produce them in court in the ordinary way, though there were still an awful lot of documents and monasteries arguably acted as archives for their founders. Gascony has just had such terrible losses that it’s quite hard to say much about its usage, and what survives does so only in cartularies so we can’t say much about signatures. Nonetheless, even from that you will see that there are common factors in Gascony and Normandy already, and all of these places bar Italy undergo changes because of being part of the Carolingian Empire that bring them closer together: the shift to a single script (also slowly noticeable in Italy), a more-or-less similar court system that accepts written documents as witnesses (though they hardly get used as such in Bavaria till the tenth century, I believe), widespread foundation of monasteries that keep written records of their properties (not least because of the services they owe to the Empire from them)… I think it is arguable that Gascony and Normandy of the ninth century had a roughly similar documentary culture and that we simply hardly have the evidence left to be sure about it. Bavaria could be argued to move to join them over the tenth century, too.

              in all these cases there are differences that come either from circumstances of background or subsequent events, but I think that the most important variable is still survival of evidence, basically. If it is to be something else, what should it be? What commonalities and variabilities of background explain the variations as we see them?

              • What commonalities and variabilities of background explain the variations as we see them?

                A word comes to my mind: tradition, in the sens of social-culture (anthropologically). Scanty evidence (of course, a critical factor), difficult to interpret, yes, but I don’t see how can we try to explain those variabilities without taking-it into account.

                • Well, that is certainly true but may also be only a way of restating the question, because tradition itself needs explanation. And there are at least two parts to explaining it, beyond merely describing it: firstly, one needs to know how widely and deeply it was shared – so, for an obvious example, we can see that most of our scribes (though not all) shared an idea of what form and sequence the elements of a charter should take, but firstly, what about those who do it differently, and secondly, does this reflect ideas and formation distinct to the scribes, rather than the people who might also sign and participate but couldn’t necessarily have written a charter accurately? – and secondly one needs to know how it is maintained and how much change it could undergo within that maintenance.

                  For example, I would argue (and do in my forthcoming piece in Problems and Possibilities) that the Carolingian take-over causes a change in the formulae used in documents in the northern areas of Catalonia, but that it is not a replacement of a Visigothic tradition with a Frankish one or even a blend of the two but a selection and stylistic reformulation of current Northern Iberian documentary practices (which are not to my mind clearly identifiable with the very limited Visigothic documentary survival’s practices, pace Graham Barrett) to differentiate the area from its neighbours without disconnecting it from their shared heritage. It is deliberately ‘traditional’ but it is also new in some aspects. This raises questions like: Is tradition deliberately maintained different from simple continuity? Could a deliberate revival result in practices more ‘traditional’ than a social practice maintained by inadequately-informed participants, despite the latter being more continuous?

                  So I would like to go beyond ‘tradition’ to get at what is working to maintain or reproduce that ‘branding’ of social practice. And as you can probably tell I have been reading some quite theoretical stuff to try and find ways of expressing these questions. I’m afraid my attempts may not be very comprehensible yet, especially when translated! But hopefully you see what I mean. I don’t think we can get very far with tradition without having some idea who cares about being traditional and why, what they can do to achieve it and how effective that is.

                  • Formulaic practices are a very specialized activity (so you have all my simpathy and attention for triyng to understand such difficult topics).

                    I was thinking about tradition in a more common senses. For example: To what extend the rebelion of Willhem, the son of Bernard of Septimania, was a popular cause in Gothia? or: How deep was the influence of judaism in local customs (religious or not) ? or: How did the writters of the Gesta Comitum Barchinonensis considered the contemporary histories of the chansons de geste, about the family of the first rulers of Barcelona? or: How pagan it was popular christianism, and it what ways (your post about a tree named ‘caralio’ could be a perfect sample, and there are many more) or: What myths were told and what were not, and why? or: What about femenine hereditary practices? etc, etc, etc.

                    As for formulaic evolution, all I can think of, right now, could be to design and realize a statisical analysis of available evidence, but you surely already know far better than that. In other words, I’ll look forward for your articles about this! :)

                    • Well, it is true that the formulae are fairly specialised, though the training in them seems to have been fairly widespread – it’s not, for example, the case that people were all going to the cathedral to get their charter made as it often seems to have been in Anglo-Saxon England (though survival bias is again a big problem there). Your questions are all very interesting, and would be brilliant fun to solve, but the disadvantage of them compared to the formulaic one is that there are thousands of charters conforming to the formulas to their different degree, and that is actually susceptible to a very primitive statistical analysis; my chapter in Problems and Possibilities has tables and pie charts, and so on. On the other hand, for the rebellion of William, we have a tiny number of documents that might be relevant and all I can think of to do it with is to try and look for changes of office or disposals of property before and after his rebellion and to try to reconstruct factions from them and analyse their spread and importance. But the material from so early is so scant that you might find very little and the Barcelona area, especially and crucially, would be effectively invisible. It’d be a hard job and not as rewarding as one might wish. Judaism and paganism might have more material but also need much more thinking about, because especially with the latter the trouble becomes identifying `pagan’, or shall we say `superstitious’ or `non-dogmatic’ elements, in popular practice when a great deal of our template for such ideas must come from elsewhere due to the lack of local descriptive material. Nonetheless, good work has been done on this sort of thing using Anglo-Saxon place-names and that might be a good framework, as you suggest. In fact, I think work on the sense of the past in Catalan place-names has been done at a local scale here and there. It’s not easy though, and the results are highly debatable! So the formulae may seem difficult, but actually I have a large source base and a range of good comparative corpora which make rigorous comparison possible; the texts can be put next to each other. (Visigothic documentary practice remains a shadow, though, which is obviously a problem). It’s actually possible to get results out of this fairly easily, and they are results that tell us a lot about cultural dissemination in the area. You have probably chosen the harder path!

  3. It makes me wonder about the mothers of those nephews. Might one be able to expect the sisters and mothers of churchmen to be more literate than the average woman?

    • Now that is a very good question, not least because I have a tentative suggestion for the identity of this Bible-borrowing Riquilda that would indeed make her a churchman’s relative, though exactly how she was related is less clear… I think that the answer is surely likely to be yes, unless women were systematically excluded from some aspects of the household (which as Allan says of other spheres seems perverse just to assume) surely they would have been around books if there were books in the house.

  4. Allan McKinley

    I wonder if anyone has yet shown a case for a) early medieval religious women normally being illiterate or even b) early medieval women as a whole normally being illiterate, as opposed to excluded from public actions where they might display literacy. I remain to be convinced that in a society where literacy is at least theoretically available to all that the null hypothesis (which is I assume Zimmerman’s underlying issue…) is that people of any group or class are illiterate. A statement that radical needs justification, not to be assumed. And those few studies I know of local areas that touch on this are not exactly supporting the de facto null hypothesis…

    • as opposed to excluded from public actions where they might display literacy…

      Aye: there’s the rub! It’s not usually a good sign when early medieval women are brought into the public sphere, either; it tends to mean their representatives have failed and they’re about to get swindled or otherwise done over at law.

  5. highlyeccentric

    Someone has mentioned there’s a whole series of conferences on Nuns’ literacies at the moment which might be interested in this sort of rant, surely?

  6. The Nuns’ Literacies conferences seem to have finished now (http://www.nuns-literacies.org/) and from a look back at their programmes, they didn’t have much from the early medieval continent. (I think as usual, the early medievalists get marginalised even among the Middle Ages). I suspect this is one of the cases where if you want to get people listening, someone is going to have to read through decades of German research on religious women and pull out the key examples from there, and then combine that with the Catalan evidence and find someone who knows about Italian charters and do a lot of searching of the charter databases, and talk to Rosamond and David Ganz etc on manuscripts. In other words, like many early medieval problems, it needs someone synthesising stuff from all over the Carolingian empire till there are just too many examples to explain away easily. That’s how Rosamond esentially cracked the argument about lay literacy, by sheer weight of examples.

    Or in other words, while I share your indignation about Zimmerman, if we’re going to change the narrative Catalonia alone is isn’t enough. Once again, I get the feeling that no-one is connecting the dots with early medieval women’s history and bringing all the fascinating regional and individual studies together. And at some point I worry I may have to end up doing that kind of synthesis, because no-one else seems to be enthusiastic (and it’s probably not a project for someone with career ambitions).

    • I notice also that the Nuns’ Literacies people already had a contributor writing on Catalonia; I must find out what they had to say. In the spirit of Leeds, though. I feel as if I should say that if you’re thinking about trying to gather an international group of people working on something of obvious modern-day political relevance, that sounds like a funding bid waiting to happen to me!

  7. A minor point: most commentaries do not quote the scriptural text in its entirety. But you will remember how, at the start of Le Rouge et le Noir, Julien Sorel is able to complete any biblical passage read to him. More of the Bible was stored in people’s heads than we tend to assume. In addition to Flores do not overlook Gospel and Epistle lectionaries. And Visigothic Spain DID produce giant Bibles, and even portable ones.

  8. Pingback: Domna grammatika: a surprise from Michel Zimmermann | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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