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 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
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
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
* 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.