Tag Archives: Alexander O’Hara

I left my heart phone charger in St Andrews (1 of 3)

Right! I’m really back now. And I used up all my buffer while I was away so had to actually write stuff. To help me with this, the world broke my catch-up lie-in with two early morning doorbells, the second of which woke me from a dream about how I’d forgotten to get up in time and had lost the whole day and not fed the child yet (the child gets his own breakfast quite happily but my subconscious is not satisfied with dull facts), and this left me deeply confused about what time it actually was. I could wish I’d been feeling cleverer when I wrote this, because there are agendas to be considered in the reportage. Quite apart from the basic complications of saying things about others in public, one person I’ve met wanted not to be reported without seeing it first, which is quite understandable but not my usual practice, and it will be difficult to write anything at all without endangering other bloggers’ anonymities. So if any of the below is incoherent all that’s why. Anyway. I think I have about eight posts I have to write. This is the first, and is about a conference I went to in St Andrews. Before I got very far trying to write this up short it became clear that it wouldn’t stay that way, so instead of one Leviathan this is the first of three posts, one for each day with the last half-day also having a round-up and the shout-outs. Okay!

View of St Andrews from St Rules Tower, by Joel Afferty

View of St Andrews from St Rule's Tower, by Joel Afferty

St Andrews is one of my favourite towns, to visit at least; I might find it a bit slow to live there, but I keep hoping to try anyway. I have friends there, some of the people in the profession I would consider friends even if they weren’t colleagues and some others not in the profession, and I always find stuff there to make me think. This time the stuff mainly came from a conference organised by two postgraduates under the name of Monasteries and Secular Authorities in the pre-Millennial Medieval World, and it must be said that they did an awesome job. Maps, programme, equipment, accommodation and free-flowing socialisation all just seemed to unroll without any major problems, and these guys could surely be making better money as PAs somewhere, though I hope that they don’t take it. The whole programme was full of good stuff. You can read it at that link so I won’t replicate it here but just remark on a few of the papers that really made me think.

Aerial view of the Irish monastic site of Clonmacnoise

Aerial view of the Irish monastic site of Clonmacnoise

The first session was on the existence or not of the town in early medieval Ireland. It is widely argued that there was nothing in Ireland that scholars of other areas would recognise as a town until the Vikings fortified Dublin, and the debate isn’t even about that, really. The question is whether, until then, monasteries fulfil a similar function as centres of population, production and exchange. It seems to me that this is essentially subjective. A Roman villa could fit that description. Is Clonmacnoise up there any bigger than a Roman villa site? How large does a place like that have to get before it stops just being a farm with a religious function and perhaps some legal jurisdiction? This is a semantic field really and I prefer to deal in the archaeology of what was there, which is why I prefer the approach Martin Carver et al. have taken with Portmahomack in Scotland where such questions have essentially been secondary. Anyway. There’s some useful introduction at the link under that image if you want to know more. Charles Doherty argued that the important churches of Armagh and Kildare had political jurisdictions by virtue of being associated with kings and particular kingdoms from early on, but they eventually had to settle for essentially spiritual jurisdictions as politics left them behind. Against this Colmán Etchingham argued that a lot of the evidence for non-agricultural activity, especially assemblies, at these places is based on faulty equivalences between modern Irish and Old Irish terms that have shifted their meaning. Agreement was not general with either speaker, but these two have apparently been sparring for a long time and were able to disagree like gentlemen and be friendly to all, which is exemplary. It did make me think, however, that by their criteria any of my subject monasteries are towns, which makes no sense in a landscape with cities in it such as I have. I just don’t think it makes any more sense in a landscape where the cities are missing; there’s just a sort of social articulation that doesn’t happen in Ireland till later, though it’s worth saying that Dr Etchingham thought that the paper I mainly have this idea from was all kinds of wrong.

Ruins of the medieval abbey of St-Guenolé de Landévennec, Brittany, from Wikimedia Commons

Ruins of the medieval abbey of St-Guenolé de Landévennec, Brittany, from Wikimedia Commons

In the second session Roy Flechner introduced us to the questions around Irish kings who were clerics, clerics who fought in war, monasteries that went to war against each other and in general a rather different attitude to war and its combination with the life spiritual than we usually think of even for the Middle Ages. Then David Dumville gave a paper about the monastery at Landévennec in Britanny. I suppose many people know that I have old personal issues with Professor Dumville but this was he at his best, sharply discriminating with the evidence and imaginative with its solutions, as well as crystal clear in delivery. Landévennec is important because so much that we know about early medieval Brittany comes from the abbey of Redon, which is right on the border with Francia and very much a colonising enterprise, whereas Landévennec is right on the western coast in the Celtic-speaking zone. Unfortunately it also got trashed by the Vikings several times, its monks became fugitives and the documentation from it is basically missing, so it also contrasts with Redon by mainly being an archæological site. Professor Dumville looked dubiously at the precept that the monastery later claimed to have got from Louis the Pious via an abbot whose name appears merely to be Breton for `good monk’, and which has been used to argue that Louis put Brittany under Benedictine observance, his doubt largely because it’s simply unproven that the Carolingians ever controlled that far into Brittany. He suggested that any such success was instead driven from the bishopric of Tours, and that the best division to make in Brittany might not be Frankish/Celtic, native/incomer, or whatever, but pro- or anti-Tours. I think that has something going for it but obviously the fact that sometimes there were dukes or kings opposing the Carolingian kings needs to be in there too, though we don’t really know how much they controlled either.1 The other thing that came up in this paper was the fact that there is, despite the social dislocation that they caused, very little Viking settlement evidenced in Brittany, except right up in the north-east near Coutances. This caught my ear because Coutances is very near Bayeux, where we were discussing Viking settlement only a short while ago, and Alex Woolf later informed me that the Norse names in that area are in fact predominantly Hiberno-Norse, suggesting that the invaders came from Ireland. This may be where the Benjamin Hudson theory one commentator on the previous post mentioned is coming from.

The tomb of St Columbanus at Bobbio

The tomb of St Columbanus at Bobbio

The third session opened what was going to become something of a theme of the conference, the monastic family of houses left scattered across Europe by Saint Columbanus. Opening the theme was Sarah Tatum, who argued that the Vita Sadalbergae, ostensibly the saint’s life of the foundress of Langres and Laon, should really be seen as a piece of writing intended to stress their connection to the Columban familia, as opposed to the foundress’s own family who only get the endeavour into trouble. I have to say that I thought she made her point pretty convincingly. The other paper in that session was given by Alex O’Hara, who was looking at conflict between Columbanus’s house at Bobbio and local aristocracy in the tenth century (which is, as I’ve said to many people these two weeks, where it’s at). Here the interest for me came in the questions when Federico Marazzi suggested that the real deal here might not have been the landownership exactly, but who had the lordship of lands that had been public within the monastery’s endowment. As the royal ability to control the fisc waned, that is, this might have come up for competition in a way that it hadn’t before. This of course entails knowing more about the fisc… but I think there’s something in it, even if only one case of many. Damn, that makes this a feudal transformation post

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

The last two papers were perhaps the most challenging for me specifically. They were given by two of the people involved in the Lay Archives Project, of which I have oft-times spoke, and first up was Warren Brown who was emphasising again what he has said before, that the formula or model documents that we have lurking about in various early medieval collections tell us about a much wider range of things than those documents that usually survive, which are naturally enough usually about land (because that, too, survives longer than most other goods).2 The formulae preserve all kinds of unusual operations a scribe might have to record, but it is often argued that they are relics of an age when document use was different. One set that’s definitely not, as Warren was here emphasising, was that written up by Notker Balbulus, the Stammerer, monk of St Gall and biographer of Charlemagne, d. c. 912, which Warren therefore used to explore how lay people were using documents in Notker’s time.

One of the things that came out of this, among much else that might be of interest to few, was that one of the things Notker thought his pupils might need was a document whereby an old or infirm person made a donation in exchange for his upkeep for life, not to a monastery or cathedral necessarily (which are of course the ones we have) but to a layman. This is one of the things which, counter-intuitively, the Lay Archives project has repeatedly come up against, that really when we can see laymen using documents, they do just the same things as ecclesiastics do with them, albeit here saving body rather than soul.3

The reformed church of Wynau, Switzerland, once St Mauritz, proprietary church of the Bechburg family, eleventh- or twelfth-century

The reformed church of Wynau, Switzerland, once St Mauritz, proprietary church of the Bechburg family, eleventh- or twelfth-century

The second paper in that session was given by Hans Hummer, who was looking at monasteries as centres of lordship. The interesting thing there for me was his pointing out that really, though churches do not die in usual circumstances and are indeed not vulnerable to the divisions of inheritance, you still don’t necessarily want to try and shunt all your family lands into a church you control so as to keep them together, as has been suggested people did, because churches are vulnerable to other authorities, kings, bishops, reformers, and so on. You never wholly own a church, because it has a place in some wider hierarchy that’s outside your control. (Unless, as in the Catalan case, the bishops are all your cousins…) Because there is a body of work that contends that Merovingian- and Carolingian-period nobility, among others, did just this, the counter-perspective was useful.4 I wouldn’t like to guess which is more predominant but I like to have people considering alternatives.

The papers were given a closing review by Thomas Owen Clancy, who was erudite as ever, and then we dispersed to various locations for dinner that, St Andrews being the size it is, all wound up being the same one. I got drinking with Anglo-Saxonists, which can be dangerous, but lived to tell the tale and here I have been telling it. More will follow…


1. The top-down version of this story is told, as Professor Dumville graciously conceded, about as well as it can be told in Julia Smith’s Province and Empire: Brittany under the Carolingians, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 18 (Cambridge 1992).

2. Warren has said this where others can read him in Warren Brown, “When documents are destroyed or lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366.

3. See for Catalonia this case put in Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74.

4. The place I was most convinced by the original argument was Régine le Jan, “Convents, Violence and Competition for Power in Seventh-Century Francia”, transl. Jinty Nelson in Mayke de Jong & Franz Theuws with Carine van Rijn (edd.), Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages, The Transformation of the Roman World 6 (Leiden 2001), pp. 243-269, where the case is argued specifically for nunneries, but I was told at this very same conference by the estimable and charmingly irreverent Sarah Tatum that her thesis has thrown up a number of problems with le Jan’s examples, so that while the theory itself remains plausible actual evidence of it happening is somewhat lacking.

Leeds report 4 and final

So, by this time slightly broken from lack of decent sleep, I headed into the fourth and final days of this year’s Leeds by filling myself with fried food and heading for “Texts and Communities in Early Medieval Europe”, on the grounds of a friend presenting. The other two presenting were St Andrews grad. students, one speaking on the Vita Columbani and the other on the communities of St Filibert; the latter paper, by Christian Harding, revealed some interesting faction in the longtime-fugitive monks apparent in the hagiographic texts and was nicely argued. The final paper was James Palmer complaining that computistical texts are actually really complicated and that no-one, particularly Arno Borst, has really come up with an explanation of what they’re for that satisfies all or even most manuscript cases. He did say it was mainly a rant but he managed to make it interesting despite his lack of conclusions as yet.

The cloister of St-Philibert de Tournus

The cloister of St-Philibert de Tournus

Then much-needed coffee and collecting books that had been put aside so as not to weaken displays, and then the second session of the day and last session of the whole thing, “Rethinking Early Medieval Narratives”. In this Adrian Smith told us that Gregory of Tours sets up King Theuderic of the Franks as the bad guy in his Ten Books of Histories (or at least the one of them where he appears) for what must have been mainly rhetorical purposes as he makes him a good guy and his enemies the evil ones in his Glory of the Fathers; this was an interesting observation, if as yet unexplained. Marios Costambeys became the latest of many a scholar to get his hands dirty in the manuscript transmission of the Liber Pontificalis, the papal biography collection which sources so much of Roman history in the Early Middle Ages; and Steven Robbie argued energetically for a closer dating of Widukind of Corvey’s Deeds of the Saxons by suggesting that Widukind’s depiction of the coronation of Otto I must be based on actually having witnessed Otto II’s. This seemed, as I recall, to set up as many problems as it solved, because Otto II’s coronation is not mentioned in the text, so you then have to argue why there was time to redraft lots of the earlier text but not mention even briefly the patron monarch’s crowning glory (no pun originally intended). But such was the energy of the argument that it only became clear it didn’t work once we’d wrapped up.

Statue of Otto II and his wife Theophanu being crowned by Christ, in St Pantaleon\'s Cologne

Statue of Otto II and his wife Theophanu being crowned by Christ, in St Pantaleon's Cologne

And then, well, it was over. I got my things together, left the bike briefly in charge of the estimable Gesta while handing in papers, and got myself down to the station, getting lost and missing my train by minutes but happily being allowed onto the next one with no difficulty. Home by just late enough not to need to go into work. Which leaves me wondering how to try and give an idea of the whole Leeds thing. You’ve got some idea already, I guess. It probably comes over as very intense the way I tell it, but I spent most of it either panicking, desperately short of sleep or drunk or all three, and I expect many people might play it differently. There are for example excursions on all the four days if you want to do some medieval tourism instead, and there are plenty of local possibilities. I don’t see the point of missing out on the networking and learning myself, but if you’re not from the UK I guess that seeing some of these things with expert guidance may have more appeal.

Basic things. The conference is split between two halls of residence, Bodington and Weetwood, about ten minutes’ walk apart. This means that a half-hour gap between sessions is just about enough to both caffeinate and travel between if you need to. At Weetwood the accommodation, food and drink is expensive and the coffee is drinkable; at Bodington the accommodation is cheap, the food lousy, and the beer acceptable but the coffee is not worth the name. Neither venue really makes tea possible and one of the best moments of getting home is a cup of tea in which boiling water actually formed part of the process. Eating conference food all through is not only unpleasant but unnecessary, though the breakfasts are good reinforcement if you don’t value your arterial clearances and the packed lunches are reliable and filling. For dinner, however, I recommend nipping down the road to Headingley and buying some stuff you can cook in a microwave; you’ll have one (you may even have hobs, but you can’t tell this till you arrive so bringing a pan may be pointless) and this will see you eating more cheaply and healthily. The buses into town are half-hourly, but regular; the conference shuttle buses between the campuses and accommodation are less regular, but numerous and usually adequate. The buses at either end of the process, from conference to station (like the campus shuttles, free) are horribly over-subscribed and not over-particular about timing, but I didn’t do much better on the bike, so hey.

I always stay in Bodington, partly because it’s cheaper and the accommodation, being student rooms in term, is adequate for a few days, indeed it’s better than two of the rooms I had as an undergraduate. The pictures below give you some idea. Also, Bodington, being the bigger and older of the two halls, has the computer lab (though as it won’t let Java applets run and has no SSH I effectively can’t check mail from there so I never use it), the big and cheaper bar, and the lawn on which people sprawl during sunny conferences. As I’ve said, this point where everyone relaxes together is one of the best bits for me, though there are plenty of people organising private or family parties—there is family accommodation, though it’s further away. Weetwood is probably a nicer place to chill, however, and because it has the high-tech presentation equipment tends to be where the trendy and literature studies types wind up socialising. Actually there isn’t an obvious causal link there but it does seem to work out that way. Perhaps it’s their beer choice that determines it? Anyway.

One end of this year\'s Bodington Hall room

One end of this year's Bodington Hall room


The other end of the same room

The other end of the same room

On the last night there is a dance. This would doubtless occasion ridicule from some quarters, though some people really can dance and they’re not all the ones you’d expect. Mainly I stay clear because by my lights, the music is terrible: eighties and nineties AOR and chart-pop, school disco fodder that I really can’t summon up a dancing urge to. As this in turn makes me feel like a wallflower when so many other people are able to enjoy themselves, I tend to spend it in the bar talking to people from Utrecht, Helsinki or Sheffield (or, this year, St Andrews, by the law of averages as much as anything). The point though is that lots of people do not, that even European medievalists can manage to let their hair down and have fun and if you think such-and-such an author doesn’t read like someone who would, you might be surprised. There is no harm in this except in the reinforcement of the idea in the DJ’s head that this music is what people want to hear. The football (soccer, that is) match that happens before is a different matter, mind. I gather Helmut Reimitz is a bit good…

Also, there are huge numbers of cheap books. Five or six second-hand sellers are far outnumbered by stalls from most of the big publishers with medieval interests. This year Cambridge University Press were conspic. by their a., and Brepols and Oxford University Press were inviting mockery with their prices, but I bought something from both so again, hey. There are many bargains to be had, and the offchance of being able to find the author if you so choose.

Mainly this is a forum where plans are made. You hear something that someone else is doing and perceive a link, an angle on your own stuff; you talk to them afterwards and you find, or I did, that next year the two of you are presenting a session. Next year it’s a strand, and there’s a book planned; you meet other people in the field and applaud some of their ideas, think others are useless (but probably don’t say so). You hear about texts and sites you didn’t know existed; you get new details on stuff you thought you knew; and sometimes, you nearly fall asleep being told stuff that doesn’t matter, but this can usually be avoided. You keep up with things and get the impetus to get ahead a short way in time for next year. You also see friends, but you’ll make more, even if only academic ones. (But sometimes more, you know: I’ve seen one marriage and a long-distance relationship disintegrate because the husband got together with one of the long-distance partners at the dance, but because I know them not the wife or the distant partner I only saw the happy side. No I am not naming names for this one, do you think I’m mad? But it happened at Leeds.)

I don’t know if Kalamazoo is like this, though I may yet have to go you know. But I know that other conferences in the UK aren’t. This is a congress that deserves its name, people are not conferring together but going about together. Its huge size allows this to happen, but also makes it very expensive: registration plus accommodation and food is in the realm of £150 sterling, and you have to factor in beer and books too as well as travel (though there are reductions and bursaries for students, unwaged, etc.) It is also hectic, high-pressure, crowded and usually very hot. But I guess I’m doing it again next year, because although I can see why someone would prefer not to and it’s not like I lack for medievalist chatter compared to many of my readers, Leeds has managed to make itself where things happen and it’s always nice to be part of a happening, isn’t it?

Sleep, however, that’s a trick I really need to remaster…