Protochronism, or, ‘we did it first and better’: a historiographical weakness

Graph of the Blogosphere

I’m sorry it’s been silent here for so long; things are extremely busy and I haven’t been reaching the bits of the blogosphere that I usually do. I’ve got eight different posts in draft if I count this one but most are just small clusters of links or only a title to remind me that, when I have time, I want to write about its topic. As I’ve observed so often before, silence doesn’t hurt my reading figures at all; if I don’t post the graph just climbs and climbs, whereas now that I’m putting this up I bet it will fall off. All the same, eight drafts! that means almost anything finished is weeks-old already and needs to go up soon as. So, here’s one I prepared earlier.

I think that perhaps all historians, once they have found their speciality, should then be forced to take a course on the period before it. It’s so often tempting to emphasise a particular phenomenon of one’s field and then say that it started with your subject population, but as with rock music (which all goes back to Chuck Berry, really, except that which he stole from the blues, which is quite a lot, and wherever the bluesmen (and blueswomen) got it from…) there’s always someone out there working on an earlier period going, “but I could point you to twenty of those from my stuff!” or similar. I’m most used to this with high medievalists claiming the discovery of the individual, or autobiography, or sovereignty, which could easily be paralleled from Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon source material if they wanted to ask anyone, but that might challenge their unique selling point…1 But it happens in my period too, and then the answer is usually “the Romans got there first”. And often the Greeks before them. And hey, if we had sources from Mesopotamia, who knows? Obviously at various times people have actually originated stuff, but not half as often as it is alleged.

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style 'miles christi', by Hraban Maur

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style 'miles christi', by Hraban Maur

So as I make my way through Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty for a review I have to write, every time she raises the ‘sovereign paradox‘ I find her saying that it arose with the Enlightenment growth of absolutism.2 (The paradox is that in order to protect the law the sovereign must act outside it, defining the sphere of law but not being bound by it. The Weberian idea of the state claiming the monopoly of force helps with this, especially when you have a king who will say “I am the state”, but it’s not a whole answer, and doesn’t work for the Middle Ages at all because the king doesn’t claim a monopoly of force, but a consistent share and control of it.) This paradox, all the same, exists unresolved just as much in the works of Jonas of Orléans or Hincmar of Reims in my period, pondering what you do about God’s anointed when he goes wrong, and concluding that you have to just suck it up and wait for God to stop punishing you, not that this stops them retheorising after successful coups, and Visigothic Spain is even worse for this.3 And of course at all points we could hark back further to the Romans. Elagabalus or Caracalla were as absolutist as any Enlightenment ruler, and their actually-deific status didn’t stop people toppling them because there were no other restraints. And did I just say that about the Carolingians, why yes I more or less did! And so on.

A double-page spread from a fourteenth-century book of sermons, designed to evoke a cathedral

A double-page spread from a fourteenth-century book of sermons, designed to evoke a cathedral

Likewise, when someone says, “If we live in an image-saturated world as many argue we do today, the beginnings of that bombardment are medieval”, I smell a rat.4 Where do medieval people see images? In church, maybe; if they’re rich perhaps they have tapestries, and maybe even illustrated books. And, of course, on coins, but I often wonder how accessible the iconography of such coinage was to its everyday users.5 Did they know their king was having himself pictured as a Roman emperor? I gotta wonder. Anyway, other than coins, not often I suspect. Certainly as any reader of Got Medieval knows, medieval image culture was extremely rich and meaningful, but also confined to a fairly small group of ‘consumers’ until quite late on. Which is of course when our writer means, he’s just forgotten there were ever years with fewer than four figures in as do so many ‘medieval’ historians. But come on: what about the Romans? Inscriptions and carvings everywhere, a much more urban population thus seeing cityscapes constructed to bear imagery everywhere; and of course a much more monetised economy. That looks a lot more like ‘saturation’ than the Middle Ages, early or high, to me.

Reverse of a gold aureus of the Roman Emperor Commodus (180-92) depicting Securitas, relaxing on a throne, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.RI.1562-R

Reverse of a gold aureus of the Roman Emperor Commodus (180-92) depicting Securitas, relaxing on a throne, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.RI.1562-R

So for example this. I’ve chosen a gold one because it’s shiny but the type is issued in silver and bronze too, and reused over and over again from 69 onwards. In 69, after Rome rose against Nero, there were four emperors, and histories duly refer to it as “the year of the four emperors” (which of course meant that subsequent civil wars had to go one better) and then a moneyer of one of them, Emperor Otho (69), originated this design which Commodus was still using more than a century later, for the same purpose. The point is that Securitas, the Latin word, does not mean ‘security’ as we have come to use it, protection, defence, safety from attack. Its etymology is ‘se cura’, literally ‘without care’; so putting a very relaxed-looking Securitas with some symbols of rule on your coins is not sending a message about the staunchness of the army or anything, but telling the users, “you’ve got no worries now”.6 This is imagery any user can appreciate, since even if they don’t get the full etymological strength of the allusion, they do at least mainly speak the language, know the word and in any case can see the image, which is one about the ruling forces bringing ease to even the dullest viewer. A consideration for the defence against protochronism yer ‘onner.

1. So, for example, Colin Morris, The discovery of the individual, 1050-1200 (London 1972); Albrecht Classen, “Autobiography as a late medieval phenomenon” in Medieval Perspectives Vol. 3 (Richmond 1988), pp. 89-104; for sovereignty see n. 2 below.

2. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty. How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia 2008), passim or at least no block of twenty pages yet discovered without a mention of it…

3. On Hincmar at least, see Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship, Law and Liturgy in the Political Theory of Hincmar of Rheims” in English Historical Review Vol. 92 (London 1977), pp. 241-279, repr. in eadem, Politics and Ritual in Early Mediæval Europe (London 1986), pp. 133-171.

4. Michael Camille, “Art History in the Past and Future of Medieval Studies” in John van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 362-382, quote pp. 363-364.

5.Also wondered more thoroughly by Ildar H. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

6. It’s only fair to admit that this was first explained to me by Professor Ted Buttrey, one of my colleagues; and while I’m confessing, I got the word `protochronism’ and indeed the awareness of blueswomen from m’colleague T’anta Wawa. I understand from her that I’m not using the term as an anthropologist would, so I guess this is the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that, like the English language, shakes its neighbours down for their cool words then disappears leaving the context behind and heads for the dictionary. Sorry, anthropologists. You can have ‘alterity’ if you like, no-one round here is using it ARE YOU etc.

11 responses to “Protochronism, or, ‘we did it first and better’: a historiographical weakness

  1. A prof once told me (roughly), ‘If you think you’ve discovered something’s origins at the earliest point of your expertise, you’re probably wrong.’ It’s a good maxim.

  2. Thanks for this. I’m porting Weber’s point on monopoly of force to the MA for various reasons, so this will be helpful.

    Also look to my response at ITM in re: your colleague on horses. Short version: he’s been trapdoored.

  3. Glad to have been of use, and although I intend to ask the horse question here too I’ll be glad of your commentary first!

  4. Pingback: Seminar LXXXVI: let him who is without sin start the Fourth Crusade « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: Habeas Corpus before Magna Carta | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. At the risk of interfering with whatever labour action is happening at your university or across the UK which I do not understand at all …

    In the Mediterranean, the late medieval and early modern towns I have visited are full of images: the architectural members are sculpted and the walls are painted. Given those stave churches from Norway, I would expect the same was true in the North in the second half of the Middle Ages. People had lots of time to fill with woodcarving or embroidery or plaiting and weaving even if the poor had to sell most of what they made for food!

    Before block printing there were those paintings on cloth for the thin-of-purse right?

    • Oh, don’t worry, I don’t consider the blog part of my job, or I’d have been told to drop it long long ago. This has to be done on spare time, which is why it has become so irregular. If you want a student-level introduction to what’s going on there’s one here, but really, don’t worry about it, just keep reading and I’ll be grateful!

      As to the actual question, I don’t mean by this post to imply that the medieval world wasn’t full of imagery; Camille knew his material better than most and was naturally keen to stress its importance and fecundity. My point was only that the Roman world might have been even busier with imagery than that, much of it close to being mass-produced indeed. Your point about time to craft is well-taken; but that results in fewer more elaborate images than factory production of clothes, cookwares and coinage would.

  7. More protochronism: serial production of human and divine statuettes in moulds goes back to the Old Babylonian period! The ancient Roman economy was sure better at that kind of thing than say the Carolingian economy to my very limited knowledge of early medieval things.

    • So many of the Romans’ achievements do turn out to have been others’ first or as well! I usually pick them just because it gets the phenomenon out of medievalists’ reach and I know just enough to get away with it. But not this time, clearly!

      • Joseph Brown

        To be fair, the Hellenists have always been accusing the Romans of just imitating the Ancient Greeks’ best ideas. Meanwhile, the Egyptologists, Assyriologists and other specialists in really, really ancient societies just laugh and say “we’re the OG everything.” So really, protochronism is a game that everyone except late modern/ contemporary historians play.

        • I can only accept that point, but somehow it doesn’t stop us playing, does it? :-) It’s partly a battle against ‘the condescension of posterity’, I guess; one may not be able to defeat it but one can push it out of one’s court…

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