Tag Archives: Benedict of Nursia

Finally, Kalamazoo 2011 can be told, Part I

Yes, I know, it’s September and I’m dealing with things that happened in May, it bodes badly, but I’m doing the best I can and since there were complaints from venerable parts of the blogosphere that people weren’t doing Kalamazoo write-ups any more I don’t want to let the side of obsessive completism down. So, a few scant days after the last paper I reported on I was, courtesy of the British Academy, in the USA for the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, yet, already. I can’t hope, at this remove, even with my notes, to give a very comprehensive summary of what I saw and did, but then I hardly have time so that’s probably OK. I’ll talk about papers for the first three posts and then say something more general after the shorter paper sum-up from the fourth day.

Goldsworth Valley Complex, University of West Michigan

Goldsworth Valley Complex, University of West Michigan

Coming in from Detroit was an easy journey, albeit expensive due to an empty but mendacious change-machine, but it badly mucked things up when I forgot, on arrival in Kalamazoo short of sleep, that I had changed time-zone again. The result was that for the first few hours on Thursday I was running an hour later than everyone else, meaning that I missed breakfast and a meeting and arrived late into…

Session 39. Generational Difference and Medieval Masculinity, I: fathers and sons in the early Middle Ages

This was a shame as it meant I missed most of Paul Kershaw‘s “Louis the Pious, Attila the Hun and the Problem of Filial Honour”, which was quite a lot of what I’d gone to see. My very short notes remind me that he was cunningly reading the Hildebrandslied and the Waltharius against each other for how fathers and sons react to each other in those texts and that it sounded as if it would all have been fun to hear. Oh well, my own silly fault. The other papers were:

  • Mary Dockray-Miller, “Glory and Bastards: Godwin, Tostig, Skuli, and Ketel”, which talked about using foster-families on the North Sea world of the eleventh century as an alternative sort of status to less-than-shining origins of birth, either because that birth kindred was still on its way up or, in the case of Earl Tostig of Northumbria‘s sons, very much on its way down
  • and Allen J. Frantzen, “Fathers, Sons, and Masculinity in the Anglo-Saxon World”. This was an erudite and eloquent but also very political paper, in which Professor Frantzen argued that feminist scholarship had, well, emasculated study of masculinity by constraining it into categories from the battle of the sexes rather than what was actually going on at the time we study, which was a combination of both extremes. I thought that the aim here, to combat or at least recognise assumptions both in our sources and in ourselves that male = power and female = weakness, was laudable, but it was a difficult paper to listen to because of hearing it as a feminist maybe would as well as as a scholar should. I also thought that the Romans should have got a bigger part in defining masculinity since the whole rationality-and-moderation topos, here instanced from Ælfric, surely goes back to them, which raises questions about our assumptions about the sources… but it was one of the richer and more stimulating twenty minutes I’ve spent sitting listening, all the same. He actually has a web-page up, apparently in preparation for the session, which sets his fellow participants reading; you may find this interesting…

So, OK, I must write less about the rest, but this will be tricky as I then stumbled on my subject area, sort of, in:

Session 75. Negotiating Monasticism in the Early Middle Ages, I: claustrum and sæculum

Virtual reconstruction of the Abbey of Lorsch c. 1150 by Robert Mehl

Virtual reconstruction of the Abbey of Lorsch c. 1150 by Robert Mehl

This was the first of a set of sessions arranged by, among others, the very excellent Albrecht Diem, and it was tempting to treat them as one can treat Texts and Identities at Leeds and just sit in familiar territory for as long as the strand ran. I didn’t, but I saw these papers, which were:

  • Hendrik Dey, “Before the Cloister: monasteries and the ‘topography of power’ in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages”, an account of the arrangement of processional spaces in late Roman cities and early medieval monasteries, finding numerous interesting parallels in the more elaborate (Carolingian) cases like Lorsch, where the monks seem to have done a lot of walking.
  • Hans Hummer, “Family Continuity and Christian Monasticism in late Antique Gaul” was a complex paper questioning work that has seen either family or lordship as the basic structures of early medieval society by showing monasticism as both or neither, determined to escape such structures but made to serve family or political agendas all the same. This also made the point that an early medieval monastery about which we know is, by and large, exceptional; how many passing references have your documents got to communities that we just can’t identify? I know mine has lots, and Hans’s too apparently.
  • Valerie Ramseyer, “Cave Monasteries in Early Medieval Southern Italy and Sicily: centers of isolation or population?” was an eye-opening paper, not least because of the scenery in the presentation, about monasteries, and in fact whole villages, built in cave networks in Southern Italy. A few of these places still function or function again as restaurants or curiosities but the paper argued that they were never, as they have been pitched when they’ve been studied at all, mere refuges or somehow a subaltern choice of habitation but elaborate, and often luxurious dwellings; the ideological assumptions and the elusiveness have left them under-studied, argued Professor Ramseyer, and I was certainly persuaded.
Byzantine-era cave settlement in Canalotto, Sicily

Byzantine-era cave settlement in Canalotto, Sicily

That had all been such fun that I stuck with the thread for:

Session 122. Negotiating Monasticism in the Early Middle Ages, II: status and knowledge

This session had been somewhat demolished, as one speaker (sadly a friend of mine—there was a lot of this this year) had puilled out and the rest reorganised to make a reasonable programme. This actually made the session more interesting than I’d expected, and we got:

  • Matheus Coutinha Figuinha, “Martin of Tours’s Monasticism and the Aristocracy”, which argued, simply and effectively, that Sulpicius Severus, biographer of Saint Martin, was basically making up the nobility of the first monks at Marmoutier in that biography, because he cared a good deal more about such things than Martin apparently did.
  • Julian Hendrix, “Defining Monastic Identity: the Rule of St Benedict and Carolingian Monasticism”, looked at the different ways various commentators used the Regula Benedicti in the Carolingian age and therefore questioned whether complete Benedictinisation was ever the aim. This has been a bit of theme in this scholarly neck of the woods, lately, as further demonstrated by…
  • Albrecht Diem, “Negotiating the Past: reform and conflict in early meieval monasticism”, which pointed out how legendary St Benedict had become by the Carolingian age, that Gregory the Great did not apparently know that Benedict had written a Rule, and that in fact the first person known to associate Benedict of Nursia with the Rule we now claim to be his was Bede; even in the ninth century, in fact, it was feasible for Hygeburc to claim that her subject, St Willibald, had introduced the Benedictine Rule at Benedict’s supposedly own Monte Cassino. Albrecht has been a Benedictosceptic for a while and I’ve heard him say parts of this before but this was a fairly devastating assault.
  • Something I also want to remember from this session is Julian Hendrix saying in question that monastic rules tend to travel together in manuscripts, and adding, “They’re cenobitic in tendency, I guess”, which is the kind of throwaway I wish I came up with more often. It should also probably be observed that of late Albrecht has been putting all kinds of resources about monasticism, bibliographies, databases, lists of bookmarks, online, and that these are all quite useful things to know about if you’re in the field.

By this stage I think I was more or less caught up on the time zones but a drink was very welcome. I have since lost such information as I had recorded about whom I met when—kids, always have backups—so I won’t try and recapture that, but I probably ought to thank Michael Fletcher straight off as he was invaluable throughout the Congress as a willing driver, orchestrator and drinking companion and I’d have had much less fun without his help. So, that covers the first day in some sort of fashion, next there will be yet another post about a Catalan stone with a funerary inscription on it then I’ll return to the report.

I left my heart phone charger in St Andrews (2 of 3)

The island of Noirmoutier, first site of the community of St Philibert; perfect for isolation, sea breeze and Viking raiders...

The island of Noirmoutier, first site of the community of St Philibert; perfect for isolation, sea breeze and Viking raiders...

The second day of the St Andrews conference just mentioned dawned comparatively kindly since proceedings didn’t start till the civilised hour of 10 o’clock, which suits me very well, leaving time between closing time and breakfast time for enough sleep and then for enough reading and tea to become coherent by the time anyone tries to talk to me. And the way the programme unrolled, it was a while before I thought of anything to say anyway, but Christian Harding‘s study of the peregrinations of the monks of St Philibert, who once they were shifted from their original coastal house at Noirmoutier during the Viking Age went through about six more locations before finally settling at Tournus many decades later, did raise some questions. He was seeing the monks and the gifts from the kings by which they were able to move as political tools in the rivalry between the Carolingian kingdoms, starting as a loyal outpost in the Breton march where, as we’d heard yesterday, Carolingian control was never as tight as might be wished, and then being competed for between Charles the Bald and Pippin II of Aquitaine his nephew on that border. This raised questions about whether you could really shunt a community around like that, or whether they had serious problems settling and begged more and more land, where, in short, the initiative was in all these translations, questions that could have been argued for much longer than we had.

St Edgwads Llanegwad, Wales, 10th or early 11th century structure with later modifications

St Edgwad's Llanegwad, Wales, 10th or early 11th century structure with later modifications

In the second session Thomas Owen Clancy talked about the leadership of the familia of Columba (not Columbanus this time) and Alex Woolf addressed the question of how the Welsh Church ran before the Normans got to it, focusing on the secular nature of its church communities, who seem to have operated by dividing the church property between them in private tenure. This is something that, though the Normans saw it as something in need of reform, I could easily recognise from the way that the pre-Catalan Church uses deacons and priests as unofficial managers operating from mother churches, and which Anglo-Saxonists might recognise as a bit like the `minster hypothesis’. As I said to him, Alex has a particular talent for taking a tangled argument and suggesting a brilliantly simple solution, and here again he had chosen one good way of doing this, which is to wonder if the situation was really weird or if what’s going on was what was going on in other places under different words. He also raised the important point that we often identify church sites with enclosures as monasteries, but the fact that there was a monastery at a site doesn’t necessarily imply that the site is a monastery.

The modern church of San Vincenzo al Volturno seen through the ruins of the Carolingian abbey, from Wikimedia Commons

The modern church of San Vincenzo al Volturno seen through the ruins of the Carolingian abbey, from Wikimedia Commons

In the session after that Federico Marazzi, who is leading the continuing dig at the huge Italian monastic site of San Vicenzo al Volturno, gave us an extensive introduction to the site, which raised among other things the peculiarity that the huge abbey church appears to have been accessible only via the cloister, and therefore to the monks and those they admitted; the locals, such as they may have been, must have worshipped elsewhere on the site. Melanie Maddox then told us about how Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, used not just force of arms but forces of clerics in her reconquest of the North-West from the Danes and Norse, by translating saints’ relics into new churches she’d set up, not least St Peter’s at what might have become a new Mercian capital at Chester.

The Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna, one of the establishments local sources consider a 'monastery', from Wikimedia Commons

The Mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna, one of the establishments local sources consider a 'monastery', from Wikimedia Commons

In the last session that day, all certainties were temporarily dissolved. We had begun the conference, most of us, reasonably certain that we knew what a monastery was and that, fundamentally, there was a Benedictine ideal in play for most of our period to which places either conformed or did not. Now, Tom Brown told us (more) about Ravenna, where drawing the line between monastery and not-monastery is made harder by a plethora of tiny little private cells with a population of maybe one or two who really lived elsewhere, more like Egyptian hermits’ cells than Benedictine abbeys except for the fact of their urban location. Monasticism can, as he said, mean a lot of things. But this was nothing compared to what Albrecht Diem unleashed by what started as an innocuous comparison of Gregory of Tours’s Vita Patrum to Jonas of Bobbio’s Life of Columbanus (told you we’d be back there). He stressed that almost all our sources operate by asserting some kind of continuity with the time of writing, even if it’s only a recognisable location, and that the present therefore shapes the past in its reporting, but then brought out specifically how Gregory’s and Jonas’s times and agendas bent some of our primary established facts about the ecclesiastical set-ups of their times. Gregory has a range of ascetics from all walks of life doing their various things, but the noble bishop is still the boss; but Jonas makes the ascetic the boss, even telling kings what to do and immune from their attack (both legally and by miraculous intervention), and the interesting thing is that he’s using Gregory as he does it; the parallels Albrecht drew were pretty damning. Someone out there can tell me where the maxim about not dismantling your master’s house with his own tools comes from (yes, OK, so can Google, it’s Audre Lorde), but here is Jonas at the very least rebuilding his master’s house with exactly the same equipment. Take that, Loltheorists!* The upshot is that we really don’t know a lot about the politics of these people’s times even though it seems as if we do. If the Vita Columbani is at least partly literary construction, how much do we really know about how Merovingian kings operated? Almost only what’s in Gregory, who makes them seem like illiterate buffoons because of his basic “trust the educated bishop” message. And for an encore, in questions, Albrecht went on to question the historical existence of Saint Benedict of Nursia and whether the Rule of Benedict even existed as a text before the Carolingians asked for a copy. I’m not joking. Piotr Górecki summed up with the air of a man slightly shellshocked, and urged that a book should come of all these papers; I later gathered that this is indeed the plan. If so Albrecht’s paper will be the kind of reading that makes the floor seem worryingly flimsy beneath us.

A later illumination showing Archbishop Gregory of Tours as suppliant before a king

A later illumination showing Archbishop Gregory of Tours as suppliant before a king


* Yes, I know that’s nothing like what Lorde meant, I’ve even read the original essay, and I will willingly admit that I am inappropriately using it to describe a contest of wits between two privileged members of a white male élite; but nonetheless they are politically opposed over where the control of monastic life lies, and one of them is repurposing the literary work of the other to completely invert his point. I think it stands up.