Seminar CLVII: finding friends in tenth-century England

Even my implicit schedule is getting off-kilter here, sorry. This week has been busy with job applications and seminars, on which latter subject on 23rd January 2013 I was at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research to hear Els Schröder, then of the University of York, present a paper entitled, “Searching for Friendship in Anglo-Saxon Sources: multilingual insights into tenth-century elite culture”, and I thought you’d maybe like to hear about it.

The pact of homage between Count Guillem Ramon of Cerdanya and Bishop Folc of Urgell in the <em>Liber Feudorum Maior</em> of the Counts of Barcelona

An illustration, not of Anglo-Saxons but of the problem: were these two men… "friends"? The pact of homage between Count Guillem Ramon of Cerdanya and Bishop Folc of Urgell in the Liber Feudorum Maior of the Counts of Barcelona

Dr Schröder completed her thesis in 2012, and was here doing that trickiest of things, trying to compress a 90,000 word thesis into a 9,000 word paper and still be comprehensible and interesting, which she certainly managed.1 There was still something of a chapter-by-chapter structure visible, so that we got methodology and literature first. That revealed that, unusually for the early Middle Ages, the sources here are unusually secular. For some reason we have no tenth-century letter collections, for example, so the usual focus on lettered ecclesiastics isn’t available. The relatively few charters also don’t use such language or work in such terms. There thus isn’t enough material to approach without models, and one needs several: the sources call ties of dependency as well as interdependency friendship, and such language is especially strong at court where the stakes are much higher and the social distances greater than we would find in wider society.2 Dr Schröder therefore called for more discourses to be brought into play.

One source of material is the Anglo-Saxon royal lawcodes, but here friendship turns up mainly as something the kings can make perform official functions: a `friend’ will stand surety for someone, will do the king’s bidding if they wish to retain his `friendship’, it’s quite formal and of course may not have actually worked. Such relationships where we can see them in operation are explicable in terms of negotiation as much as attachment, and may have been quite evanescent. (I myself think that such relationships, if detectable over time, must indicate a kind of attachment too, even if only an ability to get along for the parties’ mutual good, but I admit that even that model fails to register short-lived and unsuccessful friendships, which might be very useful to be able to cultivate for just long enough… Here, well out of my usual period, Richard the Lionheart’s persistent ability to bounce back from disaster by relying on even his enemies’ goodwill often strikes me like this.3)

Cover of Linda Tollerton's Wills and Will-Making in Anglo-Saxon England

The only decent image I can quickly find of an Anglo-Saxon will is on this, the cover of a work by another York doctoral alumnus and published by the same people as my book … so I guess I’ll link!

Wills look slightly better for the enquiry, as 15 out of 67 use this kind of language. Here again we see these relationships under strain, especially as what is being envisaged here is kind of the last call upon them, be that dependents appealing upwards or lords and husbands trying to call on loyalties in life to protect their wife and children after their death. The problem still exists that informal relationships are here being turned into obligations, just as in the laws.

Thus one winds up forced onto the writings of people like Ælfric and literature like Beowulf, as usual dragged to whatever century one needs for the argument—the field will probably collapse if we ever do agree a date for that poem… But here we get words like ‘leof’ (love) much more, even if Ælfric does tend to gloss it in Latin as ‘venerabilis’, venerable, or ‘honorabilis’, honourable, rather than, you know, ‘amatus’. Again, to an extent, we see these terms because people place obligations on them, to support the person expressing the tie either in preaching or in battle; the language is evoked to formalise a relationship into expectations of action. This also clouds the occurrences in hagiography: St Dunstan wound up looking after the treasury of King Eadred because he was the king’s ‘specialis amicus’, which thus winds up looking more like an office than a relationship, and is of course the same sort of arrangement as we see in the wills: you will do this, because you are my friend… Even advice and counsel can be viewed through this frame and once one sees the frame it’s hard to unsee it.

I presume that there must have been people in Anglo-Saxon England who got on with each other as friends in our sense of the term, but what this paper seemed to show is that our sources are largely using such terminology as cladding for something else when they write about it. Bernard Gowers made the excellent point that we only have such writing because the parties in a relationship are not, or are not going to be, in regular touch; we wouldn’t have anything from people who saw each other ever day and hung out together precisely because they could communicate face-to-face. Alice Taylor re-emphasised that these sources don’t see friendship as a relationship of equals, as we tend to do, and wondered what other terms could be searched for that might correspond more closely to our frameworks, but Dr Schröder thought that both level and hierarchical relationships could be found, and it seemed to me that we were seeing the terms in use when someone wanted to use the relationship, thus converting it into a power relation in which someone can deny a demand only at the cost of continuing the relationship. There are also issues about family, who don’t get treated separately by the language of friendship, and of gifts creating or cementing such relationships…4 the enquiry is not over. It was, all the same quite clear that there had been a thesis’s worth of work in getting this far, and it will be worth hearing about Dr Schröder’s next steps!

1. Her thesis was “Friendship and Favour in Late Anglo-Saxon Élite Culture: a study of documentary and narrative Sources, c. 900-1016″, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of York, 2012), online here.

2. The two works whose models my notes suggest were drawn on, and ultimately found wanting, were Gerd Althoff, Amicitiae und Pacta: Bündnis, Einigung, Politik und Gebetsgedenken im beginnenden 10. Jahrhundert, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Schriften) XXXVII (Hannover 1992), transl. as Family, Friends and Followers: Political and Social Bonds in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 2004), and Stephen C. Jaeger, Ennobling love: in search of a lost sensibility (Philadelphia 1999).

3. My pet episode of this is when Richard lifted Saladin’s siege of Joppa in 1194. He charged ashore in full armour, bust into the city and commandeered the three horses left there, but when the Earl of Leicester was dismounted in a press of fighting, Richard weighed in and put the guy on one of his spare horses, at which point Saladin’s brother Saphadin sends a man into the battle with two more mounts for Richard, saying to the king that he looks as if he’s running short! The two accounts of this differ on whether Saladin himself had sent the horses or not, and the matter is complicated by the fact that Richard had knighted Saphadin’s son earlier in the campaign. It could also be intended as a barb or a display of the disparity of resources, of course, but if so it’s still a joke between people who shared a frame of reference. Not in any way the same cultural circumstances of course, but Richard did go on to lift the siege, so those cultural circumstances got him out of his mess and he’d helped to create them… Source texts in Helen J. Nicholson (transl.), Chronicle of the Third Crusade: a translation of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Crusade Texts in Translation 3 (Aldershot 1997), VI.14-24, the knighting of Saphadin (Sayf al-Din)’s son at V.12; variant testimony noted p. 364 n. 67.

4. ‘Friends by blood’, as Marc Bloch put it. This subject is one of those many where it doesn’t seem like a few pages of Bloch’s Feudal Society (transl L. A Manyon (London 1961), 2 vols, I pp. 123-125 for ‘amis charnels’ and 231-238 for dependency expressed as friendship) ought to be able to say everything there is to be said on a subject and yet it’s really really hard to surpass them…

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