Tag Archives: David Ganz

Seminar CCVII: unmistakable greatness in a hidden place

Let’s not talk here about the hiatus, then; it won’t surprise those of you who know me that I have a place to do that scheduled slightly further down the list anyway… Instead, straight back on the horse with a much-delayed seminar report from 4th June 2014 (because dammit I am a year behind again and determined not to stay that way), when I was present in the Institute of Historical Research because none other than Professor David Ganz was presenting to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, with a paper called “Charlemagne in the Margin: a new Carolingian text about Karolus Magnus”.

An illustration showing Æneas, hero of the eponymous Æneid, from a fifth-century manuscript of it now in the Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225

An illustration showing Æneas, hero of the eponymous Æneid, from a fifth-century manuscript of it now in the Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225.

The margin in question was an extra-large one left around a text of the works of Virgil that was made at the monastery of Saint-Amand in the modern Netherlands in the late-ninth century, that is, in the full flood of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance.1 In that prolific endeavour of cultural uplift, Virgil assumed a much larger rôle than one might expect the premier poet of pagan Rome would have in this thoroughly Christian endeavour. But not only were the scholars of the early Middle Ages quite conflicted about their inner love affair with the Latin Classics (at least at the top level; I don’t suppose people who liked The Golden Ass were quite as bothered as Saint Jerome2), Virgil’s was acknowledged to be about the best Latin that had ever veen written, and a very different sort of Latin to the Bible, the other main introduction to the written word. We are before textbooks here; the scholars of this age learnt their Latin the hard way, by starting at the top.3

Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 407, fo .151v

And now, the manuscript, and indeed the very page, in question, thanks to the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Gallica! The actual manuscript is Valenciennes, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 407, now fully online (click through). The bit we’re after is in the box at the right opposite the line that starts “Agm. agens clausus…”

Probably not so many people learnt their way through the whole thing, but we have, said David, forty ninth-century manuscripts of the Æneid and almost all of them were made to be glossed, that is, to have notes, references, clarification and so forth added in the margins. These usually came from a Christian commentator of the fourth century by the name of Marius Servius Honoratus, and his gloss travelled so closely with most manuscripts that bits of it could get copied into the main text by mistake, in some cases.4 In this case, however, there is more, since as an expert palæographer David was able to say that only the Servian gloss was added by the scribes of the original text, but that several other glossators then went through parts or all of the manuscript adding their thoughts, and in this case those seem to have been particularly interested in comparing pagan and Christian religious practices. Mostly this was fairly neutral, using the Romans as an anthropological light on the Christianity of the manuscript’s era although at one point, apparently, a glossator uses a sermon of Saint Augustine which we no longer have to critique Virgil. And, on the reverse of folio 151, in Æneid Book VII, a character by the name of Clausus is explained with the words, “Sicut de magno Karolo data est comparatio: Nam adeo uultuosus erat ut non expediret interrogari ab eo qui eum numque viderat quis Karolus esset.” A very rough translation of that might be, “Comparison may justly be made to Charles the Great: for he was so terrible of aspect that there was no need for anyone who had ever seen him to ask which one was Charles.” This is interesting not least because it seems to be based on something that Charlemagne’s second biographer, Notker the Stammerer, also bases a story on, in which a Frankish exile in beseiged Pavia repeatedly tells the King of the Lombards that he will know when he sees Charlemagne, but it’s probably also the earliest reference to Charlemagne as ‘Charles the Great’.5 As David said, he was epic already…

Cover of Christopher Lee's Charlemagne: by the sword and the cross

Perhaps, however, not yet this epic. Rest in peace, Mr Lee

This is a unique and early usage of Charlemagne’s later byname, in a rather out-of-the-way place, so in questions the topic that mainly concerned people was who it was that thought this and how many people would ever have noticed. Was this a teaching text, which many a student would have worked with, or someone’s private annotated version? Was this a private thought or a schoolroom lesson? It is, after all, only one of several sets of glosses, as you can see above, so it is at least partly a question of which glossator preceded which. At the time of address, even David’s master palæography could not determine that, and with several scribes clearly working at around the same time in the same place it would probably only be guesswork if anyone were to attempt it. At least, however, the manuscript shows how for its users Virgil was not just a dead pagan poet, but a source of insight into their own, Christian, times worth going back to again and again.


1. Still best approached, I think, via Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994); for wrangles over the term Renaissance here see John J. Contreni, “The Carolingian Renaissance” in Warren Treadgold (ed.), Renaissances before the Renaissance: cultural revivals of late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Stanford 1984), pp. 59-74.

2. I was lately reading Apuleius while off-air, in fact, in the rather ancient Penguin translation, Lucius Apuleius, The Transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as The Golden Ass, transl. Robert Graves (Harmondsworth 1950) anyway; if you know it you’ll likely agree that refinement and high culture are not its main subjects. As for Jerome, his fear of being too Ciceronian resulted in visions of angels beating him up for it, which is probably more severe than most!

3. On education and its methods the entry point is still Pierre Riché, Education and culture in the Barbarian West, sixth through eighth centuries, transl. John J. Contreni (Philadelphia 1976); see also Contreni, “The Pursuit of Knowledge in Carolingian Europe” in Richard E. Sullivan (ed.), The Gentle Voices of Teachers: aspects of learning in the Carolingian age (Columbus 1995), pp. 106-141.

4. See Don Fowler, “The Virgil Commentary of Servius” in Charles Martindale (ed.), The Cambridge Comnpanion to Virgil (Cambridge 1997), pp. 73-78, doi: 10.1017/CCOL0521495393.005.

5. Notker, Gesta Karoli, transl. of course in David Ganz (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2008), pp. 45-116, II.17.

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Seminars XCVI, XCVII & XCVIII: lectures and learning in Oxford

Returning the story of my academic life to these shores, there is a triennial lecture series here in Oxford established in the name of Elias Avery Lowe, the man behind Codices Latini Antiquiores, which if you’re a certain sort of scholar is a second Bible (and with nearly as many books) and if you’re any other sort of scholar you may never use.1 He was a palæographer, and the lectures are about palæography, and so it was a good sign of, I don’t know, something, that this year they were given by Professor David Ganz. I had hoped to make it to these because David is always erudite and interesting and has often been a great help to me, but I was thwarted in this by various factors of timing and I was only able to get to the second one, “Latin Manuscript Books Before 800, 2: scribes and patrons”, which was given on Monday 16th May. This is to say, as you may have spotted, that it was the day after Kalamazoo ended, and so I was there on the back of a few hours bad sleep on an airliner and a five-hour time-shift, but I was there.

Letter from Jerome to Pope Damasus IV on the correction of the Bible, in Codex Sangallensis 48

Letter from Jerome to Pope Damasus IV on the correction of the Bible, in Codex Sangallensis 48 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The sad result of this is that my notes, while quite entertaining where legible, I think don’t always have much to do with what David was saying, as my subconscious was clearly getting the upper hand of my listening ear at some points. Nonetheless, I feel fairly safe in telling you that David talked about:

  • copyists, starting with the kinds of errors and corrections that we know about because they were faithfully copied over (apparently St Jerome excused himself in one manuscript from fourteen different sorts of scribal error, which is proof if any were needed that pedantry does not bar one from Heaven);
  • about the diffuseness of this sample and the very small number of scribes we have who show up more than once, which shows the vast number of books there must once have been if there was even occasional employment for all these people that we only get one glimpse of (like die-links in numismatics, this, I like it so I hope David actually said it);
  • about the authority for changes, and the respect for manuscript integrity that leads to colophons telling us who copied a manuscript’s exemplar being carried over into the therefore anonymous copies that we have, which happens in four ninth-century manuscripts of things copied by Bœthius whose actual scribes we have no idea about;
  • and about how difficult it was, when only 8% of manuscripts (taking Lowe’s CLA as an inventory) of this period even name scribes, of working out who was employing them. Almost all of those 8% are churchmen, so ‘the Church’ would be a simplistic answer, but as long as one of them is a notary (and Vandalguis (sp?) who wrote our manuscript of the Laws of the Alemans claimed so to be) there must have been other structures.

I am guessing that David will call me out on any errors here, in fact I entreat him so to do as I’m sure there must be some and I don’t want to copy them over…

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where Professor
Sarah Foot is a lay canon by right of her post

Then two days later a rather different occasion, involving more gowns and gilt and fewer images, when Sarah Foot, who is Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History in these parts, gave her long-delayed inaugural lecture, “Thinking with Christians: doing ecclesiastical history in a secular age”. In checking the date I find that the Theology Faculty evidently recorded this and already have it online as a podcast, so you could listen to it yourself, but what you will get if you do is quite a clever balancing act between the interests of various parts of her audience, the Anglo-Saxonists who know Sarah’s work,2 the theologians and canons who are her new colleagues, and the University’s old hands who will turn out for any event where lots of people will be wearing gowns in public and there will be free wine. Thus there is much about the history of the Chair to which Sarah has now succeeded and the denominational politics of the English Church that have sometimes dictated what the theologians of the University thought were the important things for a church historian to be working on (viz. the origins and basis of their denomination), and about the increasingly social basis of the discipline since the 1970s (in a kaleidoscopic barrage of citation that included Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Robert Moore, Clifford Geertz and Jacques le Goff to name but a few) and the threat she perceived in it that ecclesiastical history per se might become (as with so much else) just a particular flavour of cultural history. Sarah suggested that having had a ‘cultural turn’ now it might be good to have a ‘religious turn’, linking faith and thought as a theme of study. If that sounds like an interesting manifesto, you could go listen to how she argues it.

Psalm 23 in the St Hubert Bible, one of the manuscripts of Theodulf of Orléans's corrected text of the Bible (British Library MS Additional 24142)

Psalm 23 in the St Hubert Bible, one of the manuscripts of Theodulf of Orléans's corrected text of the Bible (British Library MS Additional 24142)

After that, to my shock, I seem not to have been to any kind of academic public speaking for a week and a half. Perhaps I was full up, or perhaps (more likely) teaching and deadlines collaborated to keep me from it. Either way, I resumed with Laura Carlson’s presentation of a paper called “An Encyclopedic Theology: Theodulf of Orléans and the Carolingian Wiki-Bible” to the Oxford Medieval Seminar on the 30th May. I don’t want to say too much about this, because I notice that Ms Carlson has what looks like a related paper coming up at the Institute of Historical Research and so to do so might constitute spoilers. Broadly, however, she was drawing out the difference between two different Bible-editing projects running simultaneously at the high point of the Carolingian Renaissance, Alcuin‘s single authoritative text as found in the Tours Bibles, and Theodulf’s comparative version, which drew as she sees it on a considerable range of texts, Italian and Anglo-Saxon themselves drawing on Greek, Vulgate, Cassiodorian and Irish traditions, and tried to incorporate the useful bits of all of them, as well as occasional Hebrew readings, slices of Patristic theological commentary, Visigothic Law and Spanish spellings (because, as we have discussed, Theodulf thought he was a Goth). Now, whether all this justified the title “Wiki-Bible” or not would be a vexed question (`citation needed’!) but it does go to show once more that the idea that the entire mission of the Carolingian intellectual court was standardisation needs questioning. Not least because, as Ms Carlson pointed out in questions, neither Alcuin or Theodulf ever cited their own versions of the Bible when doing other sorts of study!


1. E. A. Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores: a palaeographical guide to Latin ms. prior to the 9th century (1934-1971), 12 vols, with various subsequent addenda by others. Lowe’s lesser work is largely assembled in a very handsome two-volume collection, Palaeographical Papers, ed. Ludwig Bieler (Oxford 1972). I’m assuming that David Ganz’s publications need no introduction here but if you didn’t realise quite how voluminous they are then this list on the Regesta Imperii OPAC will give you an idea. More than can easily go in a footnote!

2. Very lately added to with her Æthelstan, the first King of England (New Haven 2011) but perhaps so far more famous for her work on female religious, such as Veiled Women: the Disappearance of Nuns from Anglo-Saxon England (Aldershot 2000), 2 vols, or on the development of the idea of England, classically in “The making of ‘Angelcynn‘: English identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 6 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 25-50, repr. in Roy M. Liuzza (ed.), Old English literature: critical essays (New Haven 2002), pp. 51-78, as well as of course much more here also.

Seminary LXVIII: a namecheck to be treasured

I am conscious that I’m writing these up more slowly than I’m amassing the notes, but this will presumably ease once term does and speed up once I finally get online from home, whereas, as it is, all blogging is kind of stolen moments. However, since I came into the office an hour earlier than planned the day I wrote most of this, because of missing the UK’s winter clock change, I suppose I have stolen some. On 13th October the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages seminar hosted a round-table about the Staffordshire Hoard, and it was jolly interesting. The speakers were Guy Halsall, Leslie Webster and David Ganz, and this had attracted such a crowd that Guy, who turned up perhaps a little bit behind the dot (not that I can talk) almost had nowhere to sit. There were plenty of others on the floor, I’ve never seen that room so full.

Stylised horse terminal from the Staffordshire Hoard

Images for this post are not going to be hard to find (and they're all Creative Commons licensed)

Alan Thacker introduced the proceedings, and the Hoard, and in doing so added several facts that I hadn’t managed to gather, and in particular hadn’t known when I wrote my Cliopatria piece about the Hoard some time ago: that the Hoard was found at Hammerwich (which as he said was an auspicious name for a metalwork deposit) and that the site is very close to Watling Street. It also emerged later that the deposition site may have once had a mound over it, which would have been quite clear from the road, and this considerably alters my thinking about it, but all that can come in a minute. Guy, who has written about this on his own blog indeed, once again presented the very strong case against the Hoard being a collection of trophies, because the identity of trophy items is important. If one had captured some really impressive swords, one would show off the swords, not their fittings, and so on. He also argued, and argues, that the size of the Hoard indicates that we should be thinking in terms of early medieval armies of hundreds or even thousands, not a 36-man warband as the Laws of Ine seem to imply. Then, most shockingly to me, he said that until a short while before he hadn’t had a better answer, but now he’d read one on the web and it was mine. Guy didn’t actually know I was there at this point, and so I was left in the corner with the usual bottom-of-stomach-missing reaction when an academic talks of my blogging—it is where my biggest dose of impostor syndrome is located, because I’m well aware that I don’t research these posts as closely as I do my academic work. Nonetheless, Guy liked the interpretation of the hoard as a ransom paid after a defeat, a humiliation by denuding the weapons of the defeated, and although, as I said cautiously in questions, that’s a very romantic interpretation, damned if I can think of a better one. And that was apparently roughly how Guy felt, although he went on to differ from me about the nature of the deposition, which is fair enough as, given the information about the mound, I think that what I then suggested about the deposition (that it was an attempt to steal the goods back gone wrong) is less plausible than Guy’s explanation of it as a symbolic deposit, neutralising the wealth of the enemy.1

Helmet cheek-piece from the Staffordshire Hoard

Helmet cheek-piece from the Staffordshire Hoard

Leslie Webster substantially agreed with Guy, but added a few very useful points. The first of these was that, since we can now say that the fragments of helmet in the Hoard don’t add up to one complete helmet, or even part of only one helmet, but bits of several, it is likely that the Hoard was only part of a larger assemblage, so that we need to keep the phases of accumulation, selection and deposition rigorously separated in our interpretation. My explanation really only covers accumulation. She also noted that (unlike Sutton Hoo!) almost all of the metalwork was of English origin. Dating of any of the individual objects is practically impossible; furthermore, the variation in the possibilities of dating them means that another possible source of variation, geographical origin, is smoothed out to invisibility. To put that another way, if two contemporary pieces of ornament differ because they were made one in Middle Anglia and one in the kingdom of the Hwicce, for example, but we don’t know that they’re contemporary, we are as likely to attribute the variation to development over time as to geographic separation. (This is why stylistic dating is so rubbish.) And when we add into that the problem that individual metalworkers at this standard were probably highly mobile… we’re just never going to know for sure. Much of the silver looks less military than the gold: there are for example quite a lot of things that seem to be cup-mounts. She agreed that the Hoard is definably male and almost entirely secular, however, and though I make her presentation sound substantially negative because of the dating impossibility, there was a wealth of snippets of observed information that possibly no-one else could have given us.

The inscribed gold strip from the Staffordshire Hoard

The inscribed gold strip from the Staffordshire Hoard

Lastly David Ganz (for it was he!) spoke carefully about the script on the metal strip that is the sole textual component of the Hoard. He also revealed one thing that I hadn’t spotted before, which is that the strip is inscribed on both sides (as witness above), but the other side appears merely to be a botched attempt at the same inscription as on the side we had already seen, so he suspects that this tells us that it was stuck fully down to something so that the mistake was invisible. He also told us (and few people could say so more authoritatively) that the text chosen, from Numbers, is not one that attracted very much interest from medieval commentators, unlike a similar one from Psalm 67 (as the Vulgate numbers it; you may, as I did, find it as Psalm 68 in your translation), so that the script as we have it is an odd choice. It does however crop up in the Life of Guthlac, which is of course almost the only Mercian text we have that isn’t a charter, and would presumably have been available to many from the liturgy. The orthography, he said, is unparalleled, suggesting that no actual text was available to copy from: someone who knew the text must have told it to the smith or the smith remembered it himself. As to its date, he would say no more than seventh-century, perhaps best paralleled by manuscripts from the latter part of that century (not least the Cathach of Columba) and Welsh inscriptions, but even that is enough to help decide between the widely-separated dates given by Michelle Brown and Elizabeth Okasha, the latter of which pushed the strip far later than we suppose anything else in the Hoard to have been, however wide its date-range may be. He lastly pointed out that the text itself is written in the body of a beast which forms the strip, which may indicate the banishment of the Devil by the incantation.

Obligatory pseudo-hoard photograph of material from the Staffordshire Hoard

Obligatory pseudo-hoard photograph of material (including the above pieces) from the Hoard

There were some lively questions, so much so that it was only at the very end that I could reveal my presence to Guy. Roy Flechner pointed out that St Patrick, on returning to Ireland, is said to have brought with him a collection of treasure with which he could buy stuff, and wondered if this too could be some migrant’s treasure trove, ‘banked’ in the ground and accessed as needed as Patrick’s would presumably have been. I don’t think that works for this, it’s just too special, but as a reminder of how such things might have worked in other cases it was very salutary. Guy wondered if it really needed to be so high-status, if armies were as large as he believes, but Leslie Webster pointed out that only at Sutton Hoo do we have any other case of sword pommels being deposited; otherwise, presumably, they were always kept back, but this Hoard has many of them. So whatever it is, and at the end of the day despite Guy (and me I suppose, indirectly) the jury was still out on that, we are pretty much agreed that it’s one of a kind. What that kind is, we may yet hope to agree at least, but maybe not when or whose alas.


1. I always struggle with this, because if one buried a lot of robbed precious metal somewhere obvious, my natural expectation is for it not to be there next day. And yet, we have Sutton Hoo, and there’s no way that the deposition of a boat full of treasure in a huge mound can have gone unnoticed by the local populace or been obscure of purpose to immediately-succeeding generations, yet it was left alone. And the same goes for every other rich and conspicuous burial, really. I recognise my twentieth-century capitalist upbringing shaping my expectations here, therefore. It’s later these things get stolen, if they do; the Hoard, if it had been deposited like that, could well have been left until no-one remembered it was there.

Seminary LXVI: chopping up Augustine with David Ganz

I have been buried in conference writing and too busy to write much else lately, for which I apologise. Let me now, at least, get the last of the queued-up reports on other people’s papers done before I descend into the maelstrom of Leeds and the write-ups that will require… This paper was David Ganz‘s appearance at the last Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research for the academic year, on the 26th May (yes, that was a while ago, you’re right, sorry) and his title was: “Chopping up Augustine: reading and fragmenting in the early Middle Ages”.

St Augustine refuting a heretic, New York, Morgan Pierpont Library, MS 92b (a C13th Book of Hours), fo. 112r

St Augustine refuting a heretic, New York, Morgan Pierpont Library, MS 92b (a C13th Book of Hours), fo. 112r

What David was asking about was the practice of reading by excerpting, compilation of authors’ most pithy remarks into effectively new works, without regard to the context that we (rightly) think of as crucial to understanding the source. Many a medieval user of these texts was, however, less concerned with understanding Augustine (or whomever) and more concerned with understanding the greater Truth they were all studying, and therefore most interested in the points where the writer they were using seemed to have got closest to it or was most helpful in breaking it open. The result is a vast number of manuscripts of such ‘best of’ compilations: the Liber scintillarum of Defensor of Ligugé, for example, is known in some 350 manuscripts (not a typo), which is surely more than almost any single original Patristic or medieval work. “Here you have what you want to find”, says Defensor in the preface (albeit this is only preserved in manuscripts of the eleventh-century and later, so may not be his), and it seems to have been an accurate assessment. This is, then, a widespread practice, but is relatively unstudied largely because we don’t work like that nowadays. David had a long array of early modern and Renaissance sages (none of whom, I confess, I had ever heard of before) who defended this style of ‘broken learning’ because it provoked enquiry more easily, but it’s still not how we usually play the game of scholarship now.1

Defensor of Ligugé, Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks), London, British Library, Royal MS 7 C.iv, fo. 62v

Defensor of Ligugé, Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks) in a C11th1 copy, London, British Library, Royal MS 7 C.iv, fo. 62v

Augustine was naturally a popular target for this approach, though not the most popular: Defensor used half again as much by Gregory the Great and twice as much as that from Isidore of Seville, whose style of work rather lends itself to excerpting I guess. Defensor was rigorous about naming his sources, and the oldest manuscripts (C8th2) have flashy rubrication indicating where the excerpted author changes (see below), but later excerpters, many of whom used Defensor, were less bothered about this. The truth was the thing, not exactly which authority it came from. Peregrinus, writing c. 780, does name his sources and they include not just Augustine, Gregory, Isidore and other Fathers but also Virgil and even Pelagius! Defensor tells us that he was selecting deliberately for the simple (which would, I’d have thought, exclude more Augustine than it admits…) so that the reader could take away the nugget of truth and meditate on it. That’s the purpose of works like these, another thing that we don’t do so much any more perhaps: to provide a kernel for prolonged and sustained reflection. That may of course be because this type of reading would exist most happily in a monastic context, and that’s not where scholarship largely takes place now. Even when we get to take time off and think, and how rare that is, we’re not thinking about just one paragraph. In this respect, I think personally, vive la différence, but the fact that this is how many of our authors are trained is probably something to bear in mind.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

One last point was possibly the most interesting to me: the manuscript survival of this material is quite early, and all the texts that refer to the practice of excerpting and contemplation like this are also early. David therefore wondered if it might not have been principally a Merovingian practice, and whether that in turn might explain the relative rarity of the copying of entire books that early. It is usually assumed that the Carolingian Renaissance mainly represented an increase in quantity of intellectual endeavour, because there was more patronage being put behind it; David however showed here at least one reason to suspect a change in the quality of that endeavour too, which is something that could mean a lot more when it’s fully worked out. However, there are a lot of grey areas around this, and for a lot of them, as David said in questions, the only ethical response is, “We don’t have the evidence, and sometimes we have the integrity to say so.”


1. There may be a teaching point here: how would it work to take four or five scholars on a debated subject, take a paragraph from each and/or from the sources under debate, hand them to students as a worksheet and say, “how can these people all be talking about the same thing? Discuss”? This is even sort of the model I begin my forthcoming paper on aprisio with, though it was nothing like as conscious as that. It might be worth trying, rather than immediately giving them the full articles or books to read.

This is not a terribly good day for medieval studies

Redacted

There was a post here, to which some people had already responded, about the results of the consultation process over cutbacks in the Arts and Humanities at King’s College London, discussed here before. I’ve since been informed that my information was incomplete and I’ve thought it best to take the post down. As Bede had it, “quid de his scribi debeat, quemve habiturum sint finem singula, necdum sciri valeat” (HEGA V.23), a maxim that I ought to hold to more often. My apologies to the commentators.

This blog has teetered too close to gossip and unpleasantness at several points this last few weeks. I ought to know better than to put content up that I can’t safely footnote. I am going to aim for more strictly academic content from here on and leave that stuff to other places.

The KCL situation

Several people have asked me to write something about the situation at King’s College London. And indeed, it may seem strange that I haven’t so far joined in what has become one of the most widespread campaigns I have seen in my short span as a medievalist blogger. The cause of this alarm and outrage is that KCL is proposing to axe, among other staff to whom we’ll come in a moment, the English-speaking world’s only Chair of Palæography, that is, the study of ancient writing, the discipline which underlies any work done with manuscripts from a time before typescript (and after, where Gothic Black Letter is concerned, I might add). It is pretty important. Without training in palæography the original sources of this period basically become inaccessible, and work on OCR of such texts and so on has only increased this importance in recent years. And the incumbent Professor, David Ganz, has been a stalwart in the rôle as it was envisioned, giving advice to all and sundry (including me), whether they were at KCL or not, involving himself in new media projects and digital technology and also, publishing like a mad thing. By any normal UK academic assessment, based on research output and even this new and nebulous quality ‘impact’, David should be a shoo-in. But KCL are not assessing on this basis: they are severely short of income, and are assessing on the basis of the revenue the post brings in, in terms of research students, grants and class sizes. And in those terms, David’s post is one of many under serious threat.

King's College London from within

King's College London from within

The first thing that has spelled me from writing, apart from incredible busyness, is that I didn’t think I had anything to add to the immense coverage already out there. (I’ve tried to collect this at the end: so far I know of seventeen posts but I expect there are more.) There is a Facebook group; there is an online petition. Many letters have been written (and I made sure mine was in the post before publishing this). What am I going to add to all that? Secondly, it’s a bit awkward, because not only is David a friend and confidant (to whom indeed I currently owe a pint), there are other people I know well under threat in this situation, and it may be that not all of them can be saved. It’s also awkward because I used to work, briefly, at KCL’s Department of History, who were really nice to me, and so if I critique their decisions I am turning ungratefully on a former employer. (In what follows I am clinging to the idea that though the Department of History hired me, the decisions at issue here have all been taken at a much higher level. I hope History Department members and indeed future employers will bear that in mind if they read this.)

But the situation is very bad, and I can maybe reach places that don’t usually hear about such things, at least, such things in the medieval sphere, but where, alas, matters like this are sadly familiar. I’m not going to try and explain how important palæography is: others have done that already and better than I will, not least Mary Beard who commands a far wider audience. The subject is, after all, important enough that it is taught in many other places and although I respect his work immensely and have been keen to enlist his help when I have needed it, I was never a student of Professor Ganz’s. This is, in part, the problem he faces: the way he has filled this post very much fits the original vision in which it was created, as a help to the classicists, medievalists and even early modernists worldwide. His own students are a tiny fraction of his impact, but they are the only fraction that KCL now wishes to measure. It’s only KCL’s changing the rules like this that could ever have led to the suggestion that his post is of marginal importance. So, what’s behind the KCL rule change is what I’m talking about here.

A C7th list of rents from St Martin de Tours, Schoyen Collection, MS 570

Here, by way of illustration, is a manuscript that you probably can't read without help

The huge effort on the Internet is already reaching the stage of self-congratulation, which is dangerous: we haven’t achieved anything yet. More cynical voices are arguing that Facebook is all very well, and as David himself has observed it would be rather nice if the newest technology of communication came to the rescue of one of the oldest, but really what the people in charge will be watching is old-fashioned letters. One of the first things I wanted to find out, indeed, was who the people in charge were, to ask how come palæography had been selected first, what the timetable was for the other posts under threat and who’d decided who went first, who chooses who stays and whether (call me a cynic) there are any administrative job cuts planned. I rang the Head of Division in KCL Human Resources who deals with Humanities repeatedly over three working days, but never got through to more than her answering machine. However, the pressure of questions that I assume KCL have also been receiving from others has paid off in some way, because they have put the original internal document about the process online, and in order to make sure it stays that way I have grabbed a copy and it is up here. And from this we get some of the answers and realise that, oh lor’, it’s far worse than we thought. Continue reading

In which David Ganz makes me think twice about charters

A twelfth-century bifolium of a cartulary recording an 842 act of Charles the Bald for Burgundy

The second article in the Davies & Fouracre Property and Power volume is by David Ganz, who considers there the Roman thoughtworld in which people writing documents were circumscribing themselves.1 I’m not sure how convincing I find that, as yet; certainly the reason some of our early medieval charters look the way they do is because Roman documents looked like that, but a lot of them don’t, most of them survive in copies so we don’t really know what they looked like, and the content is so variable in formulae and style that I don’t think the practice of writing a charter is a conscious imitation of Rome so much as a conscious attempt to make an appeal to a higher law, be it of the people or of Heaven.2 David is striving to deal with this on the one side, but on the other the tension of the Church in handling this property that they have, and somehow reconciling it with the ideal of Apostolic community. On that part of the deal he is very clever indeed and I recommend it as reading.3

The reason this article got my attention however is David’s take on why people write charters. As I say the echo of Rome doesn’t convince me, and sometimes it was honestly, I’m sure, just an attempt to record something. Just, maybe not that often. All the same, David was wise to such concerns when he was writing; as anyone familiar with his work will know, David’s subtle prose can almost conceal that he is not so much thinking outside the box as leaning nonchalantly on its sides so as to push them out without you noticing, prior to pointing out that by now we’re standing in quite an odd place. An overworked metaphor, but I’ll explain the bit of this process that bit me in this article: in the middle of this fairly thick stuff about symbology and invocation of legal remedy, he suggests briefly that some people might have made donations that they had no intention of carrying out, simply so as to have their ownership of the property written down somewhere. From a modern perspective that seems crazy—the one way not to prove your ownership of something (whatever that might mean in the early Middle Ages) is surely to record your giving it to someone else!—but it does also indelibly associate you with the property and that association, we get readier and readier to accept, was not easily forgotten.4 It’s all very well saying that that isn’t the idea, but David is there to remind us that the people of the early Middle Ages didn’t necessarily have the same ideas as we do.


1. David Ganz, “The Ideology of Sharing: apostolic community and ecclesiastical property in the early Middle Ages” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), Property and Power in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1995), pp. 17-30.

2. For the actual Roman precedents of early medieval diplomatic, the classic work, more cited than read as the saying goes, is P. Classen, “Fortleben und Wandel spätrömischen Urkundenwesens im frühen Mittelalter” in idem (ed.), Recht und Schrift im Mittelalter (Sigmaringen 1977), pp. 13–54.

3. It makes a useful counter to the inevitable Terry Jones arguments of a corruptly rich Church that you might get from books like Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (London 1978).

4. This is now most ably brought out by the work of Barbara Rosenwein, especially her To Be the Neighbor of Saint Peter: The Social Meaning of Cluny’s Property, 909-1049 (Ithaca 1989).