Tag Archives: Durham

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…

Seminary LVI: what use a Carolingian chronicle?

Before I disappeared once more into unseminary occlusion, I made it to one at least of the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminars, not least because the speaker was Dr Simon MacLean of the University of St Andrews, long-time acquaintance of yer humble blogger and someone who will expect to see his paper mentioned here… Also, because of the subject, though mainly because I didn’t have to write a lecture for the next week. The subject was, “Recycling the Franks in 12th-Century England: Regino of Prum and the Monks of Durham”, and since Simon has been raising interest in Regino for some time, to the extent of recently translating his Chronicon into English, I wanted to hear what he was going to say.

Durham Cathedral by Mel Harland

Durham Cathedral, photographed from the river by Mel Harland

As the title suggests, the paper was more about twelfth-century Durham than anything Regino would have recognised, and needed a lot of setting up in terms of the contemporary politics, which were, on the grand scale (and usefully, since I’d been reading up on it for teaching at the time) the Investiture Contest and the aftermath of the marytrdom of Thomas à Becket. Durham, facing Scotland as it did and endowed with plenipotentiary powers which led its incumbent to be called the Prince-Bishop and the associated county a palatinate one, was a see over which royal control was very tight and the incumbent was frequently absent. It was also very often in dispute with its own cathedral chapter, and the special place of the bishop in the kingdom made it easy for the monks of the cathedral to obtain papal judgements against him when they came into dispute. Since Henry II was for a large part of his reign in breach with Rome, it is not a small thing that the monks of one his major sees were regularly going there to get judgements against their own bishop, and it shows you how the big agendas were pulled on by and pulled in smaller disputes and polarised them (as with family, chariot racing factions, Christianity at the adoption stage, and many other grand themes).

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 139, fo. 17r

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 139, fo. 17r, where the excerpt of Regino's Chronicon starts

Somewhere in all this the monks amassed a historical compilation, apparently put together out of several lesser parchment pamphlets, themselves all compiled for separate purposes. The result now survives in one lump as Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 139, which of course means that it’s online if you’re in the right places, but Simon was interested in the first pamphlet component, which contains a load of Durham-centric texts and an abstract of Regino’s Chronicon. This looks extremely out of place among its insular companion pieces, but Simon argued, with painstaking analysis lying behind his argument, that it had been selected carefully to make a point, and one of the reasons that we can believe this is that the manuscript of Regino that was being used is still at Durham where you can, apparently see that the text is marked up for excerpting in just the places it was done in CCCC 139. (Not sure if I have this right: the MGH suggests that the antecessor of CCCC 139 is (now) British Library MS Arundel 390 and mentions no Durham MS, but I think that’s what Simon said. The Durham MS collections are not catalogued online yet, sadly.) Regino’s original purpose was, says Simon and I don’t doubt him, to write a dynastic history of the Carolingians charting their rise and fall, but he was also very interested in their relations with Rome, and indeed saw that as crucial to the explanation of that rise and fall. (He is, for example, one of the best sources we have on Nicholas I, who as I keep telling you keeps coming up. Simon made this point without my having to question him, too, and I hadn’t stuck any of my rants about the neglect of the man up here yet.) The monks of Durham didn’t really care too much about the Carolingians, but they certainly cared about kings being deferential to popes, and that’s what they went through this text for, there being plenty to find. They included other things too, and what the agenda was there other than interest Simon admitted he could not yet tell, but where there was something that made that point it was included, and where there was something that went against that particular grain, it was not. All seemed plausible enough to me. That’s what Carolingian history was good for to some twelfth-century English monks, it would seem.

Chapels in the southern transept of Sawley Abbey church

Chapels in the southern transept of Sawley Abbey church

I accept all this, but I would still like to know—not that I know how we find out—more about the audience of the manuscript. Simon said that within a few years of its compilation and binding it seems to have been passed on to the new Cistercian foundation of Sawley Abbey, whose ex libris is visible under UV. Why that might be was hard to understand, given it was so Durham-centric in contents, and Sawley’s a long way from Durham, but Simon said that it did seem to have been connected to the contemporary Bishop Hugh de Puiset. That, to me at least, raised the intriguing (and unverifiable) possibility that the audience, in the end, had been the bishop, for whom many of the texts in the book could have been seen as exempla, and he hadn’t liked it, and had decided to piously get rid of it as far from his rebellious monks as he could easily manage… I like it as a theory, anyway!