This will be the last of these posts for a while, as the last of the papers I really can’t miss in the IHR‘s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar series this term has now occurred. No bad thing for my employers and for me also, as each of these visits this term has led to a small-scale personal disaster once I’ve stepped away from the academics (lesson for us all there), but I did make it to this one, Susan Reynolds talking on “Modern problems with medieval communities”. I won’t do it justice if I summarise, but it’s late and I don’t want to type up my notes just yet, so.
Professor Reynolds was basically arguing on two tracks. The first was that modern theories about communities which derive them from associations of individuals, theories with social contracts and so on in that she was arguing go back to Grotius in the sixteenth century, are fundamentally at variance with how the people of the Middle Ages saw their society. To them, she argues, the community was the natural state, not the `state of nature’ that modern theorists subsequently posited. Teleology has led to stressing of `communal’ or parliamentarian developments that took a long time to become associated and did not in fact develop in sequence one from the other. To medieval man and woman, society was fundamentally one of unequals, and therefore requiring a ruler, and this was, at least since (because of?) the Fall, `just how things were’. Evidence of people considering alternatives is pretty much non-existent—even the Communes deal with monarchs—and outside ecclesiastical circles, actually so. This was the other string of the argument: that to most people of the time, such theories were in any case irrelevant. People acted as communities long before they had any legal recognition as such, largely because the idea of legal personality that underlies the idea that they might need legal recognition so to act was not to be found before the twelfth century and then almost negligible in influence. A village was collectively responsible for its taxes without necessarily being a legal body; a body of frontier settlers (Professor Reynolds and I had a good talk about these, our common interest, later) raising a church don’t get permission to do so or a parish set, that comes with consecration. Communities have solidarity and can act together without needing to be told they can—this is self-evident, you may think, but Professor Reynolds believes that legal historians have managed to forget it. Mainly she was arguing through all this that the community, not the individual, was the basic unit of social action, and to understand the period we have to think in that way too.
There were obviously quarrels with this, mostly from Jinty Nelson on the grounds that priests at least saw their job as one of dealing with individuals and their souls, but someone (all right, me, I admit it) suggested that in this respect the City of God might be theorised differently from the worldly City, and hey, I thought it resolved the difficulty even if no-one else picked up on it :-)
There are obviously problems with any theory this grand once you dig down and find examples, and talking to Professor Reynolds helped me tease some of these knots out, but I thought there was certainly a helpful point of view in all this. Various things went wrong later on in the evening that have left me as yet uncaught up on sleep, however, and so that is the best analysis I can muster for the moment. Things will likely go quiet here for a short while now while I work on my Leeds paper but I’ll try and keep checking by meanwhile.