Seminary XIX: Rosamond McKitterick looks at the Liber Pontificalis

There is a certain speed one has to get up to with Professor McKitterick’s papers, at which one can take in a full manuscript description in about five seconds. Without this one can get hopelessly lost as the details of stemmas and contents ravel inextricably before you. Or at least, this is how it happens to me, and I’ve been listening to Professor McKitterick a long time now. But this time, at the Institute of Historical Research‘s now-legendary Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 13 February, where she was speaking to the title “The Liber Pontificalis in its Early Medieval Historiographical Context”, there were only three or four manuscripts gone into in detail and after about ten minutes of floundering I caught up and was able to follow the string of intriguing and subtle points.

Miniature from a late manuscript of the Liber Pontificalis

The Liber Pontificalis, for those unfamiliar, is a collection of papal biographies that runs from Peter up to the mid-ninth century. It is believed, so Professor McKitterick told us, to have been written in two big bursts, a first draft circa 530, an update probably in the 570s, and then a new set of lives added in the seventh century after which it was sporadically updated life by life. The paper showed that there was at least some reason to believe the `second draft’, the 570s version, circulated independently, and the later versions are not widely known.

Her basic points were that, firstly, there is all kinds of stuff going on in Italy at the time, the Ostrogothic wars, Justinian’s attempted reconquest, and so the repeated agenda of the popes proving how superior they were to the patriarchs of the East in theological argument has all kinds of agendas to it; and secondly, that even in Italy there is a ferment of historical writing at the time, all dealing with this idea of how to cope with the fact that Rome, which previous centuries of Christianity had managed to appropriate into their intellectual world view as centre of a new, holy Roman Empire (not that one! but think ‘Eternal City’ -> ‘City of God’ in good Eusebian tradition) was no longer centre of the world, but only centre of the West, and that rather shakily what with the Lombards. So what you get is a debate over the popes versus the emperors, and Professor McKitterick was urging us to see the LP, not as an official history, at least not when it was composed even if it later became one, but as a contribution to that debate, using secular serial biographies like Suetonius and the Historia Augusta as a model for a new set of ruler-histories replacing the emperors with the popes. And she emphasised that this was going on at the same time as a long-term programme of replacing Roman Imperial monuments with new Christian building, starting new processions governed by the liturgy, and thus remapping how people link up the city in their minds, and so on. In short, there’s an awful lot of change going on in Rome, and the popes are a big part of it, but not everyone view the changes the same way and the Liber Pontificalis is only one of the voices shouting about it, merely the best-preserved. (Though one irony that came out of the paper is that none of the surviving manuscripts seem to come from Rome itself.)

Professor McKitterick’s work is these days mostly on intellectual history, in a way, and she and I cross paths little except in wondering how people went about getting charters written. How much the average Roman man in the street cared about all this, when he could still be running round whipping the local maidens in the Lupercalia as the LP records with distaste, is a good question perhaps. But her work, by making the most of a huge volume of basically intellectual source material, opens up a vastly rich world of thinkers who were not stuck in ivory towers, but walking those same streets, thinking about what went on there, and then writing stuff from which we can sometimes get back at their world.

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