The second evening of the St Andrews conference I’ve been reporting, Monasteries and Secular Authorities in the pre-Millennial Medieval World, held the conference dinner, which was really rather good (though we paid separately for it), and then the next day was the last. I packed at some speed before the papers started, and as a result, it subsequently became clear, left my phone charger plugged into a wall—bet you were beginning to wonder about that—though I didn’t notice this till the battery actually ran out on the last day of Leeds, by which time it was a little late to do much about it.
Anyway, the third day was only a half day and in that half, Ann Williams discussed the alleged predatoriness of Earl Godwine upon the late Anglo-Saxon Church and found the evidence somewhat thin—apparently she plans to rehabilitate Archbishop Stigand next—and Rosemary Morris took us though the considerable intricacies of the tax evasion, or avoidance—when you can get the Byzantine Emperor to sign off your tax reduction, much to the annoyance of his own officials who are trying to enforce payment, the legality of your tactics are fairly moot—practised by the monasteries of Mt Athos in the eleventh century. She challenged the Western diplomatists to come up with anything as impressive as the chrysobull of Alexios Comenos; give me time… Then in the second and last session Matthew Zimmern told us about Stavelot-Malmédy, a house which developed a split personality to match its dual site in the ninth century, for reasons that once more could be apportioned on the one side to royal interests and on the other to those of the familia of Columbanus.
The conference and that session were closed out, saving the summary, by Leanne Good who was presenting on the foundation of the Bavarian (now Austrian) monastery of Kremsmunster. It only occurred to me some time after I’d left the town that although I’d been talking to her avidly about the edition of the place’s charters, which I met through Lay Archives, she may have been confused as I had jumbled it in my head with that of Kaufungen, which is a rather different place. Sorry, Leanne! Anyway, because Kremsmunster was a frontier foundation on a border with ill-defined territories owing notional loyalty to a non-Christian polity there were lots of things that leapt out at me from this paper that sounded like my area; granted, her non-Christians were Slavs and Avars and mine were, well, if only I knew but in some cases at least Muslim, but there are parallels. Not least, Tassilo of Bavaria was doing this exercise partly so as to pitch himself as a mission leader and Christian ruler in the face of Carolingian pressure on his independence; the situation isn’t quite the same with Guifré the Hairy, who is basically free of such pressure, but the parallel still gave me some added perspective on what Guifré may have been trying to do with his monastic foundations.
It also involved some interesting speculation on the audience for the foundation document, presumably the court, which in turn raised questions about what kind of pressures Tassilo was trying to deal with among his own nobility. It is as we were later to hear in Leeds; sometimes, the strange things that people do tell you most about them. Of all the papers we heard this was the one I most wanted a copy of, for my own purposes, and I must in fact mail and beg one. Warren Brown summed up, reminding us how much we’d heard about how the sources themselves interfere in the history they record, but also reminding us that so do our own interpretations. Should we really be surprised when we hear of cleric-kings, of family monasteries or monasteries with no monks, or is it just our modern perspectives messing up our expectations? And of course, though we had seen monasteries several times as political tools here we had also seen powerful communities asserting their own agendas, and ideally our pictures of how monasteries and secular powers interacted in the early Middle Ages would always remember that both parties to the interaction had some input.
All of this, anyway, will go some way to explaining why I got so much out of this conference. I ordinarily avoid themed conferences, partly because one of the things conferences do for me is tell me about stuff that I otherwise had no idea about, but I think that this one genuinely pushed all participants to think new things about their material and its possibilities, so I shall reconsider this policy now. I also got to meet a number of people of importance for my own work and, I hope, several new friends, and any excuse to go to St Andrews is a good one. So I came down on the train quite cheerful (though if Roy Flechner is reading, I should like to say once more: that bus would have got us there in plenty of time). As soon as I was back near a computer, however, I had to send literally twenty different e-mails as upshots or in preparation for the next conference, as a result of which my home and so on hardly saw any of me before I was off again, with the blog running on automatic and a suitcase with room for spare books as I headed for Leeds. The blog of that will follow in due course, but first, some light historiographical reflection… (Stay posted.)
P. S. Also, Sarah Tatum would like me to encourage you all to submit your work to the European Review of History, which is apparently short of medieval material at the moment. And, you know, there are worse places to be seen…