Seminar CCXVII: medieval Paris graduates in faraway places

The backlog advances but does not yet catch up the year; I now reach 25th November 2014, when I was still in Birmingham. Birmingham’s School of History and Cultures has a considerable number of postgraduate reading groups and seminars, organised by the postgraduates themselves, and occasionally these cross with the staff seminar series. Such was this occasion, when a sudden gap in the schedule of the Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages almost coincided with a meeting of the Rosetta Forum and as a result two of the local doctoral students stepped into the breach to deliver short papers about their ongoing work. I sometimes don’t blog postgraduate presentations, but these two are both old hands, one has featured here before and they were after all presenting in a public forum, and anyway why shouldn’t they have the publicity? The lucky recipients of this dubious honour, therefore, are Ryder Patzuk-Russell, presenting with the title, “The Development of Grammatica in Medieval Iceland: the teaching and study of languages and literature in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries”, and Jeffrey Brubaker, speaking to, “Nuncios or Legati: what makes a papal representative in 1234?”. About the only link between the papers other than period was the presence of scholars trained at Paris in both, and somehow both involved in translation. I’m not sure this was intended, but it was a nice coincidence.

Illustration from a manuscript of Icelandic sagas

This image from a manuscript of sagas really has nothing to do with Ryder’s research except country of origin, but it’s obviously too good a picture not to use anyway

Ryder warned us straight away that he had no conclusions yet, but he has set himself up an interesting question: how did people in Iceland, almost the furthest outpost of Latin Christianity from its sources, learn Latin, when they did at all? There are very few manuscripts to go on but what there is either in that form or recorded in booklists suggest that they did so largely in the vernacular; almost everything is translated and there is much more evidence for vernacular literacy, literature, poetry and even theology than there is for Latin, even though much of what they were using must have arrived from, typically, the archbishopric of Nidaros or, yes, the University of Paris, in that language. The translation may have been going on at the cathedral schools which by the early twelfth century existed at Skálholt and Hólar, but that’s very much the opposite way round to most non-Latinate European cultures, which usually acquired literacy in Latin first, and raises questions about why into which Ryder is even now looking.1 Some reasons might be the pre-existence and continuing use of runes, which were even used for Latin as late as the high Middle Ages here, and the obvious necessity of beginning instruction in the vernacular, though that also applied in other places. The two languages interplayed in many more ways than one might expect, it seems, and what Ryder comes up with may have something to tell us about how vernaculars met and interacted with Latin elsewhere too.

Gold hyperperon of John III Doukas Vatatzes struck at Magnesia between 1222 and 1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6091

Contemporary Byzantine theology of a fairly basic but important kind: Jesus has Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes’s back and Mary holds his crown, so watch it. Gold hyperperon of John III Doukas Vatatzes struck at Magnesia between 1222 and 1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6091

Jeff, meanwhile, was dealing again with a particularly messy diplomatic episode in the history of the relations of Byzantium with the West. Religiously divided by a set of issues which had taken until the thirteenth century even to be delimited, the two halves of northern Mediterranean civilisation were forced into interaction at that period because of the ‘success’ of the Fourth Crusade in capturing Constantinople and then their progress failure to hold onto the captured territory in the face of the resurgent Byzantine power at Nicæa. This made a council at that city in 1234 at which union between the two churches was discussed especially heavily loaded, and the fact that union between the churches was not only achieved then but not at any point thereafter either has, Jeff reported, made most historiography teleologically assume that it could not be achieved, that all participants knew this and that the whole affair was therefore only a show, which ended not in union but in mutual condemnation of either side as heretics. It seems a lot of effort for such an outcome, however, and there were obvious upsides to union if it could be pulled off (which is why it was repeatedly contemplated and sought after at many other points in the period, after all).

The Lefke Kapisi gate at Iznik, Byzantine Nicæa

A symbol of Nicene obduracy, the Lefke Kapisi gate at modern-day Iznik. “Lefke Kapisi Iznik 932a” by QuartierLatin1968Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Resolving this question of whether the council was meant to fail might be answered, suggested Jeff, if we could be exact about the status of the Western envoys, a team of English and French friars trained at Paris but also given some brief preparatory research time at Constantinople. Could they in fact negotiate and bind their master, Pope Gregory IX, to their concessions? In other words, did they hold a legatine commission or were they there only as nuntii, glossed by one text as ‘a speaking letter’, only able to report a papal position and not to change it?2 If the latter, obviously, we could assume that the pope wasn’t holding out much hope for the council. Unfortunately, as Jeff showed, the texts (substantially the Greek statement of their position and the friars’ post facto translation of it, about which we’ve heard here before) are not specific; the friars did call themselves simplices nuntii at one point and denied any legatine commission, but on the other hand claimed that their decisions would be ratified; the Greek text, meanwhile, which might have used the word legaton, in fact uses apokrisarios, which is much less specific. Jeff argued that the status of the envoys was in fact genuinely ambiguous, which may have been one of their problems but rapidly became a place into which to retreat as negotiations deteriorated. It would be nice to solve this one, but I have to confess that I can’t see how we can. That is at least something like the position in which the friars (and indeed the Greek clergy also trying) found themselves, I guess!

1. I have this from Vivien Law, “The Study of Grammar” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 88-110, but Ryder cited the big version, Law, Grammar and Grammarians in the Early Middle Ages (London 1997), which I’ve never dared tackle.

2. For details of the distinctions here see (as cited by Jeff) Donald E. Queller, “Thirteenth-Century Diplomatic Envoys: ‘nuncii’ and ‘procuratores'” in Speculum Vol. 35 (Cambridge MA 1960), pp. 196-213, online here, repr. in Queller, Medieval Diplomacy and the Fourth Crusade, Collected Studies 114 (London 1980), II.

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