As I mentioned a little while ago, the new season of the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research has now begun, and because I’m teaching the same day I’m having no trouble making it to them for once. On the other hand, because of that teaching, I am having trouble finding time to write up anything about them… So here is a combined entry briefly discussing the first two, and more shall hopefully follow in a more timely fashion.
On 3rd October we opened with abstruse Carolingiana, the paper being by Sinead O’Sullivan, who was attempting to tell us “Why Did The Carolingians Read Martianus Capella?” Now despite the best attempts of one erstwhile supervisor of mine to soak all their students in Carolingian high culture, I didn’t have a clear idea of who Martianus was—I wound up being a documentary historian instead, although said supervisor preceded me in that too so who knows where I’ll finish up—and I’m guessing that many readers won’t know Martianus either, so I’ll explain. He was, in fact, an early fifth-century African author who put together a 9-book work, of which the seven last are a one-by-one description of the Liberal Arts. The first two however are an elaborate allegory of a marriage of Philosophy and Mercury, which is incredibly recondite, loaded with hidden and double meanings and really really hard to read. Dr O’Sullivan argued that actually, in the rarefied scholarly atmosphere of the Carolingian court, that actually made reading it, and understanding it, more attractive because it meant you effectively belonged to a very select club of really clever people. She was arguing this from the glosses we have on the text in manuscripts from the Carolingian era, which are incredibly elaborate and often themselves loaded with extra and double meanings, sometimes concealed in Tironian notes.
Generally the discussion was accepting of the theory but some people wanted to hold out the point that if texts like this were being glossed, there was obviously some interest in learning from them and/or teaching them, and that implied a wider audience. This group suggested an alternative view of the text, which basically ran, ‘all human knowledge is here so obviously people are interested in the work of getting it out’.
I think there must be room for a compromise here. I think of Alcuin’s Disputatio Pippini, a long and elaborate dialogue in which he and Prince Pippin set each other high-falutin’ riddles, and it seems to me that although there definitely was a literary élitism in the Carolingian court, it was one to which the insiders were keen to recruit people, and that that kind of concern seems to explain the tension we got at the seminar. But it was still a fascinating glimpse of a really arcane world and text, if you let yourself sink into the murky waters rather than staying firmly on the ploughed sod.
Then on the 10th October we had Hilary Powell, whose title was “Landscapes of Legend: folklore in Anglo-Latin hagiography”. She was addressing a debate about whether or not we have genuine folk traditions embedded in saints’ Lives written in Latin in England after the Norman conquest. Me, I’d be quite prepared to believe that we do in some cases but she wished to be more certain. She was quite rightly pointing out serious issues with the way that folklorists often consider that if a literary motif occurs in a story, whose origin cannot be placed in the Bible or Classical traditions, it must be ‘folk’, and use indexes of such things to trace folk idioms through the ages. There’s the potential for all kinds of circular reasoning here and many motives that crop up in several such genres. So far so good.
However, she wished not so much to move beyond such approaches but to refine them and combine them. Finding problems with almost all the ways in which ‘folk’ content has been detected by various scholars, she had me convinced that they were all pointless and that we had to go back to a basic analysis of text in context, but she seemed instead to think that if rather than using one of these methods only we used several at once the balance of probability to things they count as ‘folk’ being genuinely ‘folk’ was raised. I think it probably just multiplies the errors together, and further think that if a method is demonstrably flawed, checking it against something else doesn’t cure it. For this reason I found all her actual examples quite unconvincing, and Alan Thacker, Susan Reynolds and Jane Martindale all, quite rightly to my mind, moved away from the idea of a separation between monastic and ‘folk’ zones of culture and towards the idea that monks liked folk-tales as much as the next man and could easily get at them and write using them without having to pop down the village and sit round the fire of an evening. All the same, anything involving hagiography always comes with some impossible stories, and the knowledge Ms Powell has of her material is clearly very deep. She’s a good speaker and the fact that I didn’t believe a word of it may just prove, again, that I Is Skeptical Historian…
(For those not necessarily listening in medieval, it’s kind of like whether Dylan post-electric has anything to do with actual folk. OK? Cool. No, I’m not saying where I stand.)