Kalamazoo 2015, Part 4 and final

Although it continues to be a ridiculous reporting backlog I have, yet it does advance, and we now reach the last day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. This is always the hardest day, because the dance is the night before but the first session starts early so that play closes in time for people to head home. I suppose I should just be grateful that for the first time in my attendance I wasn’t presenting first thing Sunday morning… But some people of course were, and since they included both a friend and someone talking about the Picts, there I duly was.

536. Pathways to Power in Early Medieval Northern Europe

  • Jan-Henrik Fallgren, “Early Medieval Lordship, Hierarchies and Field-Systems in Scandinavia and the British Isles”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “State Formation within the Localities: a comparative approach to land management and productive processes in early medieval England and Northwestern Iberia”
  • Óskar Sveinbjarnarson, “New Evidence for Emerging Power Structures in Northern Pictland”
  • Douglas Bolender, “A Household Perspective on State-Formation in Medieval Iceland”
  • This was a tightly-focused session. All were looking for answers to the same question: what can we say about how social hierarchy and power emerge in the northern edges of Europe in the post-Roman centuries? For Dr Fallgren one answer lay in farm organisation: he saw a pattern of central big houses, often long-houses, with surrounding fields with a marked-out perimeter in all of Öland, Gotland, Ireland, England and Pictland. This meant ignoring a considerable amount of variation about how this was done in practice and I thought the similarities he was detecting risked being more or less demographically determined, but if the causation could be more clearly worked out there’d be something to say here all the same. Álvaro, in the way that perhaps at the moment only he can, was also comparing widely, England, Ireland and Spain, emphasising that there was never a mythical autarkic peasant moment on which lordship comes to be imposed in any of these societies, but that still, lordship and organisation of settlement do intensify together in ways that we can observe in the historical and archæological record.1 His paper was valuable for emphasising that despite this, that lordship does not include everyone and Spain especially shows us lots of small independent proprietors continuing alongside and between the big coagulating lordships in their areas.2 For Mr Sveinbjarnarson, working with the much less forthcoming evidence from the erstwhile Pictland, where he had been digging at the fort complex of Rhynie, the significant time was the fifth and sixth centuries, when after a period of breakdown we see wealth acculumation and deposition as hoards, prestige imports reaching this far north again, an increase in size and decrease in numbers of fortifications, big old forts being reactivated and so forth. I think we sort of knew this but Mr Sveinbjarnarson was able to colour in a lot more of the picture than I knew about.3 Lastly Professor Bolender, who had the hardest job in some ways: although there is textual evidence for settlement organisation in early Iceland in the form of Landnámabók, ‘the book of the taking of lands’, finding enough of any kind of archæology to challenge it is very difficult; one question asked him what tools, roads or place-names might add to the enquiry, to all of which his answer was pretty much “the evidence doesn’t exist!” For now, Landnámabók‘s picture of initial large farms set up by the earliest settlers then infilled by smaller settlements, and eventually large consolidated interests emerging seems at least not to be contradicted. Iceland of course offers that initial purely peasant society which Álvaro was stressing didn’t exist in his areas, and it’s interesting to see the same dynamics nevertheless emerging, but I did think that the messages of this session might have been even clearer if one of the papers had tackled an area where large landownership never went away, like Southern Gaul, just to get a better idea of what they were seeing that was close-to-universal and what that was specifically extra-Roman. Still, to want so much is already a sign that the comparison was forcing some quite high-level thinking!

Then, I think we couldn’t face the canteen lunch and went into town for nachos. This was a good idea from the point of view of food, but less good from the point of view of timing, as we returned late for the last session of the conference, which was this one.

540. Peasants and Texts

  • Helen Cushman, “Marcolf’s Biological Warfare: Dialogue, Peasant Discourse, and the Lower Bodily Stratum in the English Solomon and Marcolf
  • Sherri Olson, “Peasants, Texts, and Cultures of Power”
  • Shane Bobrycki, “The Peasant and the Crowd in the Early Middle Ages”
  • Maj-Britt Frenze, “Textualized Pagans: Depicting the ‘People of the Heath’ in Conversion Era Anglo-Saxon England”
  • Because of the late return, I can tell you nothing about Ms Cushman’s paper, which I entirely missed; my apologies for that. Professor Olson, however, mounted a strong argument from fourteenth-century court rolls from Elmlea and Durham that despite the popular picture of peasant societies as being illiterate, these ones both generated and disputed with written records, from their own agreements (kept at home, apparently) right up to the court rolls itself, which were sometimes consulted by peasant plaintiffs; while not by any means all themselves literate, they were still what the more theorised among us would probably call a textual community, bound by a shared interpretation of what these texts that governed their tenures meant.4 Shane, whom I met in Cambridge years ago and had not seen since, gave us an erudite run-down of shifting attitudes to crowds in the largely élite-written sources for the early medieval West: the Romans distrusted all forms of public crowd, for all that the élites needed their approbation, but in the early medieval context crowds were sometimes good, the legitimate forum for validation and expression of justice, righteousness and so on. Unless, argued Shane, that crowd was made up of peasants, in which case pretty much all our sources still consider them dangerous and illegitimate and use the language of ‘rusticity’ only for things they want to denigrate… Lastly, Ms Frenze did that most Kalamazoid of things, trying to strain new meanings out of Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Her conclusions were roughly the same as Shane’s: the ‘heath’ is dangerous, though for Bede Christian blood could sanctify it. I had managed to dodge all the Beowulf papers so far, so I guess I had to catch one, and I do understand why there are always so many, but if the deliverer of one doesn’t at least acknowledge the problem of dating the poem I’m afraid my response to them will always be sceptical.

And so that was that! Goodbyes were said and we variously made our ways to our transports, for us a train to Detroit and then a plane out the next morning after a small amount of cautious sight-seeing around that post-lapsarian city, and back to the groves of UK academe. But it was a good conference, more surprisingly like Leeds in demographic than usual but with most of the people I’d hoped to see seen and many things learnt. I always hope to make it to Kalamazoo again, but one has to know about one’s schedule so far in advance to mesh it with a UK teaching job that it takes forethought I rarely possess. Next time, though, I might now be exalted enough not to settle for the dorms…

1. Álvaro’s cites here seem worth giving, they being Susan Oosthuizen, “The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia and the Origins and Distribution of Common Fields” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 55 (Exeter 2007), pp. 153-180; Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, Thomas R. Kerr & Lorcan Harney (edd.), Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100: the evidence from archaeological excavations (Dublin 2013); Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming: a study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD (Dublin 2000); and Thomas Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge 2000).

2. The best cite for this case may still be Pierre Bonnassie, “Du Rhône à la Galice : Genèse et modalités du régime féodale” in Konrad Eubel (ed.), Structures féodales et féodalisme dans l’occident méditerranéen (Xe-XIIIe siècle) : Bilan et perspectives des rercherches. Colloque Internationale organisée par le Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique et l’École Française de Rome (Rome 1980), pp. 17-44, online here, trans. Jean Birrell as “From the Rhône to Galicia: origins and modalities of the feudal order” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 104-130.

3. He cited Leslie Alcock, perhaps his “Early historic fortifications in Scotland” in G. Guibert (ed.), Hillfort Studies: essays for A. H. A. Hogg (London 1981), pp. 150-180, or his “The Activities of Potentates in Celtic Britain, AD 500-800: a positivist approach” in Stephen Driscoll and Margaret Nieke (edd.), Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland (Edinburgh 1988), pp. 22-46. I’m not sure how the field at large feels Alcock’s stuff has held its value but I learnt an awful lot from it when I was still insular in my interests.

4. The theory in question would be Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: written language and models of interpretation in the 11th and 12th centuries (Princeton 1983), accompanied in Professor Olson’s citation by Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 2nd edn. (Oxford 1993, 1st edn, 1979). These two books certainly have kept on giving…

2 responses to “Kalamazoo 2015, Part 4 and final

  1. “despite the popular picture of peasant societies as being illiterate, these ones both generated and disputed with written records”: that’s interesting.

    I’ve sometimes wondered how the intricate open-field system of agriculture could be run without at least a little bit of literacy among the landowners, or even occasionally among the cultivators.

    I wonder whether there’s any correlation, with open-field areas of England being slightly more literate than the parts where the open-field system was never adopted? Could it even be related to the introduction of open-field: could it have been enabled by the Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxons and any related introduction of literacy?

    • I don’t know the answer to these questions, but the argument has certainly been mounted that it was the larger scale of landholding possible for the Church in Anglo-Saxon England, and the intensive style of agriculture they preferred to maintain their professionals, that introducued documentary administration to Anglo-Saxon England. Against that, you have people arguing that the system of food-rents and itinerant kingship which we can deduce from the earliest Anglo-Saxon laws bespeaks an administration of some kind that could keep track of available resource. There are counters to both these arguments, of course, and I think the one that reads a modern system of budgeting out of a law that essentially only says “this much must be rendered by everywhere”, and could presumably have been enforced simply by turning up to eat it whether or not it had been put aside, have the longer distance to make up. But in this one can tell that I worked for three years as John Blair’s stand-in; his The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society is where I would now go for the former argument at its most sophisticated.

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