Tag Archives: education

Debunking History: book review

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Some time ago someone got me a copy of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History: 152 popular myths exploded, 2nd edn. (Stroud 2009), as a present. Their reasoning was that as a historian I ought to enjoy it, and eventually I read it and my reactions were sufficiently mixed that I thought a review might be in order. That is, after all, a form of appreciation of a gift, right? It’s made me think…

I have to make some kind of disclosure beforehand, which is that the authors tackle nothing earlier than the eighteenth century and mostly British and European episodes, with some US ones and recent global politics salted over the meat. That despite, I don’t think I’m just ragging on them here from the perspective of the ignored medievalist; they picked that period and area because it’s the one they know, they say early on (p. xv), and indeed their currency with the debates seems pretty clear (though of course, I’m a medievalist, so they could probably fool me pretty easily). And they have a reasonable preface about the different ways in which people can be wrong about history: factual error, uncritical adoption of myth or legend (the one without historical foundation, the other with) and controversy of interpretation leading to an as yet unjustified opinion. At the least, this is thinking work, and I’m not unfriendly to such books, as my occasional mentions of the key medievalist one will have shown.

One does have to wonder about the title, though. As far as I can see, the authors have chosen their particular misapprehensions to combat largely by meeting them as school or college examiners (p. xv), and fair enough, but very few of them meet their own definition of ‘myth’; indeed, ‘Popular Misunderstandings’ is only one of the thirteen chapters, while in the case of some topics like the Carbonari, the Tonypandy Massacre, the Speenhamland system, Harold Wilson’s devaluation of the pound in 1967, the origins of the word ‘dole’ (which they get wrong, because of not knowing their ancient history) or the Ems Telegram, I doubt that there is any really ‘popular’ opinion to correct; some of these things were unknown to me, and I am a historian who tries to talk to his modernist colleagues every now and then and so on. Probably only someone who has examined history A-Levels in the UK for a long time is familiar with everything in this book. Neither, often, do these ‘popular myths’ wind up ‘exploded’; some of them are sustained, most of them are conditioned or qualified and a few outright rejected, but even in those cases the reasons that people have understood incorrectly are also usually set out and seem reasonable in their own terms. So I think the publishers probably have some blame to bear for deciding what would be on the cover of this book and how little relation it might bear to the contents. This is not History debunked: this is, I think, two experienced teachers claiming a right to decide what History is.1

Despite that, the contents often seem pretty good, though not always and the bad cases are worrisome as we’ll see. The balance is about forty-sixty between cases where the authors think that the jury must remain out (so that the ‘popular’ misapprehension is that there is an accepted answer) and cases where there is an answer and it’s not the one the authors think is popularly held. Each controversy is set up with a short summary rubric then the facts as we know them are set out and the changes in historians’ interpretations or the reasons for popular misapprehension exposed. It’s usually clearly and pithily written and it sounds authoritative, though it would take a lot of work to dig up the evidence on which they base their conclusions; there is a decent-looking bibliography (pp. 437-441), thematically organised (and mostly recent) and separated into a reading list and a reference list, the latter apparently being the support for the authors’ judgements but hard to link back to them. Despite that, the book would make a good update for someone who studied modern history a generation ago, I think, though that person might then want to read more than or differently from what he or she is set here.

That reader would need to be more neutral than the authors, indeed, whose own prejudices and interests sometimes loom very large in their writing. This is in part evident in the selection: one or both of them clearly have interests in military history and there is an awful lot of ‘great men’ stuff. But again, I don’t mind that. More problematic are the judgements made in such cases. Is it really a historian’s job to answer such questions as “Talleyrand: was he guided by principle or personal advantage?” (pp. 41-43: the latter, so no explosion here), “The Last Tsar: a vicious tyrant?” (pp. 53-56: thoughtless more than vicious), “How Deserved was the Reputation of President Reagan?” (pp. 205-208: undeserved but deliberately promoted), “Edwardian England: a golden age?” (pp. 179-181: not for anyone below gentry level), “Hitler: dictator or dreamer?” (pp. 319-322: a man without workable plans or the brains to realise that but with the will and opportunity to oppress those who threatened his attempts to bring them about anyway, so, both?), “Disraeli: the father of modern Conservatism?” (pp. 376-379: no!), “The Papacy: was it soft on Fascism and Nazism?” (pp. 398-402: yes but for the sake of survival) or, most of all, “Did Tony Blair betray British Socialism?” (pp. 420-426: socialism already long dead in Britain, sez they)? I could pick many more, and they’re all matters of opinion, as if a historian’s proper job is to guide society’s moral verdict on its architects or attackers. We do, of course, exist partly to make people feel better about things, I admit that, even if another part of our point is to make people question everything, but these potted verdicts are so inherently subjective that I would expect any reader who can follow them to realise that there’s nothing authoritative about them and that one really doesn’t need a historian to reach them.

This is especially worrisome when the authors’ own prejudices come out. They are in general pro-Britain although only in the twentieth century, where all its politicians have apparently done the best they can with limited information except maybe Blair (an absurd topic to include, given that we have only heard most of the evidence while this post has been in draft, six years after the book was even revised)! One of the authors at least, however, is acutely contemptuous of the USA, and this comes out especially in another of these worrying subjective verdict cases, “‘McCarthyism’: did the end justify the means?” (pp. 66-70). Here I’ll quote the most egregious bit (p. 69):

“Could the same phenomenon recur in American affairs? There is little doubt it could. The political leadership of the USA and the bulk of the American nation remain intensely patriotic in their feelings. They are starry-eyed to the point of mawkishness in their love of their homeland, whether or not the ideal qualities for which they regularly lay their hands on their hearts are as evident in their lives as they imagine. It is their firm belief that foreign states are deplorably feeble and cynical in not sharing their shining patriotic vision. To them, a clear-sighted grasp of America’s national interests, a single-mindedness in their country’s interests and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for their country are absolute imperatives, producing the same gut impulse to ‘save America’ as it did fifty years ago against communism. In this sense the McCarthyite spirit lives on, whatever may the ‘unseen enemy’ that seems to threaten thair sanctified vision of themselves.”

Now this is not history-writing; it’s not even journalism. It’s just defamation, and directed against an individual it would be actionable. What is it doing between covers of a book written by people who believe they are correcting misapprehensions with empirical expertise, and who can write in that same book (p. xi):

“… the borderline between error and deliberate misrepresentation is uncertain and often blurred. Sometimes what originated as a simple error has achieved a certain permanence in people’s minds because it seems appropriate – a myth perhaps even more appropriate than the truth…”?

One wants to use phrases involving words like “mote” and “beam” here, but perhaps the good old Wikimedian protest is still the best one:

Randall Munroe, “Wikipedian Protestor”, XKCD, July 2007, http://xkcd.com/285/


1. The book’s cover and online blurb both say, “Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley are history professors and authors of history textbooks.” The latter is easy to substantiate, but I can’t get anything out of the web to show the former. Odd?

Seminar CCXVII: medieval Paris graduates in faraway places

The backlog advances but does not yet catch up the year; I now reach 25th November 2014, when I was still in Birmingham. Birmingham’s School of History and Cultures has a considerable number of postgraduate reading groups and seminars, organised by the postgraduates themselves, and occasionally these cross with the staff seminar series. Such was this occasion, when a sudden gap in the schedule of the Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages almost coincided with a meeting of the Rosetta Forum and as a result two of the local doctoral students stepped into the breach to deliver short papers about their ongoing work. I sometimes don’t blog postgraduate presentations, but these two are both old hands, one has featured here before and they were after all presenting in a public forum, and anyway why shouldn’t they have the publicity? The lucky recipients of this dubious honour, therefore, are Ryder Patzuk-Russell, presenting with the title, “The Development of Grammatica in Medieval Iceland: the teaching and study of languages and literature in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries”, and Jeffrey Brubaker, speaking to, “Nuncios or Legati: what makes a papal representative in 1234?”. About the only link between the papers other than period was the presence of scholars trained at Paris in both, and somehow both involved in translation. I’m not sure this was intended, but it was a nice coincidence.

Illustration from a manuscript of Icelandic sagas

This image from a manuscript of sagas really has nothing to do with Ryder’s research except country of origin, but it’s obviously too good a picture not to use anyway

Ryder warned us straight away that he had no conclusions yet, but he has set himself up an interesting question: how did people in Iceland, almost the furthest outpost of Latin Christianity from its sources, learn Latin, when they did at all? There are very few manuscripts to go on but what there is either in that form or recorded in booklists suggest that they did so largely in the vernacular; almost everything is translated and there is much more evidence for vernacular literacy, literature, poetry and even theology than there is for Latin, even though much of what they were using must have arrived from, typically, the archbishopric of Nidaros or, yes, the University of Paris, in that language. The translation may have been going on at the cathedral schools which by the early twelfth century existed at Skálholt and Hólar, but that’s very much the opposite way round to most non-Latinate European cultures, which usually acquired literacy in Latin first, and raises questions about why into which Ryder is even now looking.1 Some reasons might be the pre-existence and continuing use of runes, which were even used for Latin as late as the high Middle Ages here, and the obvious necessity of beginning instruction in the vernacular, though that also applied in other places. The two languages interplayed in many more ways than one might expect, it seems, and what Ryder comes up with may have something to tell us about how vernaculars met and interacted with Latin elsewhere too.

Gold hyperperon of John III Doukas Vatatzes struck at Magnesia between 1222 and 1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6091

Contemporary Byzantine theology of a fairly basic but important kind: Jesus has Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes’s back and Mary holds his crown, so watch it. Gold hyperperon of John III Doukas Vatatzes struck at Magnesia between 1222 and 1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6091

Jeff, meanwhile, was dealing again with a particularly messy diplomatic episode in the history of the relations of Byzantium with the West. Religiously divided by a set of issues which had taken until the thirteenth century even to be delimited, the two halves of northern Mediterranean civilisation were forced into interaction at that period because of the ‘success’ of the Fourth Crusade in capturing Constantinople and then their progress failure to hold onto the captured territory in the face of the resurgent Byzantine power at Nicæa. This made a council at that city in 1234 at which union between the two churches was discussed especially heavily loaded, and the fact that union between the churches was not only achieved then but not at any point thereafter either has, Jeff reported, made most historiography teleologically assume that it could not be achieved, that all participants knew this and that the whole affair was therefore only a show, which ended not in union but in mutual condemnation of either side as heretics. It seems a lot of effort for such an outcome, however, and there were obvious upsides to union if it could be pulled off (which is why it was repeatedly contemplated and sought after at many other points in the period, after all).

The Lefke Kapisi gate at Iznik, Byzantine Nicæa

A symbol of Nicene obduracy, the Lefke Kapisi gate at modern-day Iznik. “Lefke Kapisi Iznik 932a” by QuartierLatin1968Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Resolving this question of whether the council was meant to fail might be answered, suggested Jeff, if we could be exact about the status of the Western envoys, a team of English and French friars trained at Paris but also given some brief preparatory research time at Constantinople. Could they in fact negotiate and bind their master, Pope Gregory IX, to their concessions? In other words, did they hold a legatine commission or were they there only as nuntii, glossed by one text as ‘a speaking letter’, only able to report a papal position and not to change it?2 If the latter, obviously, we could assume that the pope wasn’t holding out much hope for the council. Unfortunately, as Jeff showed, the texts (substantially the Greek statement of their position and the friars’ post facto translation of it, about which we’ve heard here before) are not specific; the friars did call themselves simplices nuntii at one point and denied any legatine commission, but on the other hand claimed that their decisions would be ratified; the Greek text, meanwhile, which might have used the word legaton, in fact uses apokrisarios, which is much less specific. Jeff argued that the status of the envoys was in fact genuinely ambiguous, which may have been one of their problems but rapidly became a place into which to retreat as negotiations deteriorated. It would be nice to solve this one, but I have to confess that I can’t see how we can. That is at least something like the position in which the friars (and indeed the Greek clergy also trying) found themselves, I guess!


1. I have this from Vivien Law, “The Study of Grammar” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 88-110, but Ryder cited the big version, Law, Grammar and Grammarians in the Early Middle Ages (London 1997), which I’ve never dared tackle.

2. For details of the distinctions here see (as cited by Jeff) Donald E. Queller, “Thirteenth-Century Diplomatic Envoys: ‘nuncii’ and ‘procuratores'” in Speculum Vol. 35 (Cambridge MA 1960), pp. 196-213, online here, repr. in Queller, Medieval Diplomacy and the Fourth Crusade, Collected Studies 114 (London 1980), II.

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.

Gallery

Genève médiévale I: beneath the cathedral

This gallery contains 26 photos.

Firstly I should apologise for the longer-than-usual interval preceding this post; as you will see, it needed photos, and unfortunately my processing of photos is also backlogged…. Anyway, the background to this is that last year I had reason to … Continue reading

Seminar CXCIX: the importance of being eloquent in the Italian Church

I seem to have emerged from a hole somewhat in March 2014, suddenly going to lots of seminars after some time on rations. I put this partly down to the welcome presence of Another Damned Medievalist in London, which gave me a good extra reason to be in town, but also the new course I had been running that term was mostly unrolled and the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research had several things on the programme that interested me, of which one was when Giorgia Vocino gave a paper on the 19th March called “Bishops in the Mirror: literary portraits and episcopal self-fashioning in early medieval Italy”.

Mosiac portrait of Saint Ambrose of Milan

Mosaic portrait of bishop no. 1 for this paper, Saint Ambrose of Milan. “AmbroseOfMilan“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I knew Dottora Vocino as a face from Leeds but had never met her or her work, so this was valuable context. Her paper was about the standing of bishops in the early medieval world, and she took a complex and interesting approach to the question, taking several well-documented bishops and asking, respectively, how they presented themselves in their writings, how contemporaries report them and what their posthumous reputation was like. Her examples came from quite a chronological range: the earliest was Saint Ambrose of Milan (ruled 374-397) and the others were Pope Gregory the Great (ruled 590-604), Patriarch Paulinus of Aquileia (ruled 787-802×804) and Bishop Atto of Vercelli († 960), so perhaps it was not surprising that their own self-presentations, as Dottora Vocino characterised them, differed widely: Ambrose, despite his chiding emperors and leading mobs (this is my editorialising) presented himself primarily as a teacher of Scripture; Gregory saw the bishop as more active in the world, a shepherd more than a teacher (though a teacher too); Paulinus was most concerned with soldiering for Christ against the enemies of God, as befits one of the key scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance perhaps, by means of prayer, teaching and preaching but still more confrontational than the previous two; and Atto’s most revealing writing, a thing called the Perpendiculum is an anonymous prophetic condemnation of those who would depose kings, though it too got reused as a teaching text. Nonetheless, though they all taught only Ambrose seems really to have thought this definitional of his office, which evokes comparisons to the modern Academy that might be unkind but occur all the same.

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

It may then be that while those who have a quality in abundance don’t need to shout about it, those who do the same job without it still envy them, because what all of these bishops seem to have been remembered and praised (or even sometimes dispraised) for is none of the above, but instead their eloquence as speakers. Saint Augustine actually saw Ambrose speak and thought him amazing. Gregory was supposedly given his eloquence by the Holy Spirit (his senatorial education presumably assisting that gift somewhat), and although Gregory of Tours thought of his namesake as a scholar and the Liber Pontificalis remembers him mainly for building, as let’s face it it does every pope who didn’t get deposed violently, Isidore of Seville, whose brother knew Gregory, praised him mainly for public speaking. Paulinus is written up as having been preternaturally eloquent from infancy, and although we have no outside witness texts for Atto his own writings take trouble to refute charges of over-eloquence that had apparently been raised against him. This ars loquendi, art of speaking, is apparently the thing that Italian bishops got remembered for, whether they wanted that or not. Miracles, public works, and their own shared emphasis, instruction, all take a back seat to how they came over when they stood up in front of people.

Carolingian-period sculptural panel on a baptismal font ion the church of Cividale

I can’t find an illustration of Paulinus of Aquileia from earlier than 1790 but here at least is something he is believed to have had made, a panel from the baptismal font in the church of Cividale. Sailko [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There was some debate about why this should be. Dottora Vocino emphasised the politics that whirled around the writing of these bishops’ lives, and suggested that while miracles were a good way of indicating divine favour for the past bishops they might have been a tall order for the living ones who needed comparison to their predecessors; eloquence, on the other hand, could be presented as a divine inspiration but could also be performed by the current incumbents. Susan Reynolds wisely asked if any bishops were ever condemned for being bad speakers, but apparently there are some so it’s not just generic, however common. Alice Rio and Caroline Goodson both asked questions about regionality, seeing little of this emphasis in bishops’ lives from Francia and Southern Italy. Dottora Vocino thought that some comparisons in Francia could be found, but I think this is in some ways to be expected; she pointed out that the transmission of these famae, reputations or fames, probably needed schools, and I would add also audiences outside the schoolroom among whom such portrayals could be deployed, and both of these imply cathedral cities with urban populations, for which Northern Italy is about the most likely zone, though the South’s non-participation is still odd. It would be interesting to take the comparison across to the Byzantine world and see if the cities of Greece or Asia Minor thought of their bishops similarly. But the takeaway point for me was an old one, that people write history or similar for a reason; what someone did may not be as important for their memory as what someone later needed to do with it. Whether or not all these bishops were really talented orators we probably can’t tell, though Ambrose at least seems likely; what we can say is that while there was more to them than that, it was what served the interests of their successors to remember (perhaps because all other comparisons would have been unfavourable). As ever, it behoves us to think about what our sources did not need or want to mention before we decide what they knew.


I would have to do a lot of digging to pull together references to these various bishops works and the texts that Dottora Vocino was using, and it seems easier simply to refer you to her subsequent related publication, G. Vocino, “Under the aegis of the saints: hagiography and power in early Carolingian northern Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 22 (Oxford 2014), pp. 26-52, DOI: 10.1111/emed.12037, and hope that that will do. Sorry!

Domna grammatika: a surprise from Michel Zimmermann

Cover of Michel Zimmermann's Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)

Cover of Michel Zimmermann’s Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle)

I am now, nearly, finished reading Michel Zimmermann’s huge book Écrire et lire en Catalogne that has given me so much difficulty along with its information, only the bibliography and appendices (themselves two hundred pages) to go.1 One of the problems with understanding what is going on with this work is its pedigree. It is a version, little revised, he says at the outset, of his thèse d’état, a huge-scale thing akin to a German Habilitationsschrift that doesn’t really exist in the UK or US systems and doesn’t, any longer, in France either. Firstly, this means that a lot of it dates from a long time ago and when one comes across references to ideas published ‘recemment’ in 1978, one begins to wonder how much it was updated to reflect Zimmermann the learned professor as per 2002 rather than Zimmermann the young scholar as per 1982.2 Furthermore, these beasts could easily be the fruits of a decade’s work and then here he is updating it in the 2000s, so there’s prospect for quite a lot of change of opinions and knowledge even between its chapters. This may explain a thing I found in the last chapter which I didn’t expect, either from the material or the writer, and which for balance I thought I had to mention here.

The last chapter, a mere slip of a thing at 140 pages, is about what people learned in Catalonia and how, ninth to thirteenth centuries. This work gave rise to several other articles for its author in the eighties and if you put them back in somehow this would be a respectable little book by itself, and a useful one. It ineluctably duplicates some of the rest of the book as well, though not as much as the previous chapter, almost all of which is already present in the first volume somewhere.3 Here the author worked harder to eliminate what was redundant, and the citation is also more thorough and it generally reads more easily. I don’t know whether this makes it earlier or later in the book’s process, but it’s pleasant. There is, anyway, a substantial section on cathedral schools and teachers and one of the first things this does is to analyse the titles that are used of teachers in the documents. Caput scolae is the one we see most of, as below, ‘headmaster’ almost, but behind that (and I would say, largely later) we also see scholastici (advanced students?) and grammatici, and the surprising thing is that among that latter group there are two women.4

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 1297

A gift by the Archpriest Ermemir to Riculf, caput scolae of the cathedral of Vic, named on the first line (Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, no. 1297, with my fingers at the corner

These records are not quite as unambiguous as one might wish.5 We only have the name of one of them, Guisla grammatica, and the other appears as only homo domna gramatika, which looks as if it must be a scribal error in some direction or other, possibly for Hemmo, Emma; the Greek spelling of ‘gramatika‘ gives me strange memories of a lady I met once in Cambridge but also makes me wonder if the scribe thought the word couldn’t be declined, like Hebrew terms, though in that case why did he only know it in the feminine? Moreover, the first is potentially to be identified with a Guisla who was the wife of one Guillem, and he may be one of the other grammatici around the cathedral of Vic at this time, as they certainly had one of that name. In other words, Zimmermann suggests, she might be a grammaticus‘s wife using the family title, rather than actually having any teaching role herself; the cathedral’s grammarians certainly seem to have passed the title down to their heirs, but those heirs presumably also inherited the teaching? We don’t know for sure. But it’s interesting, and it’s also something that based on other parts of the book I wouldn’t entirely have expected M. le Prof. Z. even to have mentioned. Vic was somewhere with a history of encouraging female learning and study in a small way, and it’s nice to think that might have briefly been institutionalised as lay instruction took off more widely in the mid-eleventh century.


1. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles, Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.

2. Ibid., II p. 889 notes work published in 1978 by Colette Jeudy as having been made public ‘recemment’. Now, I struggle myself with admitting that the 1980s no longer counts as ‘recent’ (it’s still a horrible memory for me) but I think my working practice now is, don’t call anything recent which didn’t come out during the youngest likely readership’s lifetimes…

3. We do, admittedly, get the third run-through in the book of the inventories of the libraries of Ripoll and Vic, which also appear in the appendices, but here it’s just for books containing scientific material that Gerbert of Aurillac might have been able to see. This includes MS Ripoll 106, which we discussed here a while back; it’s kind of nice to think that he probably also flipped through it. (Though, to him, it would have been ‘recent’…)

4. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, II pp. 870-886 and here esp. pp. 878-881 for what follows.

5. Even in citation, alas: Zimmermann references these documents as Arxiu Capitular de Vic, nos 1052 and 1060, and gives a date for one of them that seems to preclude these numbers being dates, not shelfmarks. They’re not complete shelfmarks, however, says I as one who knows the ACV a little bit, and though the documents may be in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2006-), I haven’t gone and looked, I admit, as for some reason no library in this country has more of it than fascs 1 & 2, even though I know darn well the thing is finished because I got given its plates in an adventure I have yet to tell you about

Seminar CL: laying out the land in Anglo-Saxon England

One of the features of being so far behind with seminar reports is that I find myself writing about papers whose definitive versions have already been published.1 In some ways this is better than writing about work in progress, as it avoids the occasional issue about whether I’m letting people’s findings out before they’re ready for that to happen and means that my post becomes mere advertising (or, I suppose, warning, but I very rarely bother with reports on papers I can’t say good things about).2 In other ways this is worse: the people who are most interested may well already know about the work. But the Internet is large and not all of you are plugged in to the mains feed of the UK academy, so, I imagine people are still interested in Professor John Blair addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford on 19th November 2012 with the title, “Land-Surveying in the Post-Roman West” even though you could now read it for yourselves?3 (I should note, by the way, that this means I’m skipping Annette Kehnel talking to the IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 7th October 2012 with the title, “Rituals of Power through the Ages – a History of Civilisation?”, not because it wasn’t fascinating but because Magistra et Mater covered it in depth some time ago and you can read about it at hers.)

Fragment of a Roman measuring rod at the Musée romain de Lausanne-Vidy, image from Wikimedia Commons

Fragment of a Roman measuring rod at the Musée romain de Lausanne-Vidy, image from Wikimedia Commons

The whole reason that I spent three years in Oxford was ultimately that Professor Blair (whom I have to call John, really) had got money from the Leverhulme Trust to carry out a thorough-going survey of how settlement changed in Anglo-Saxon England, and I got lucky enough to be his stand-in. This left him free to bury himself in site plans, and as he did so, he told us, he began to notice a particular measurement coming up again and again. Now, this way madness can lie, as John was well aware. Not only do many medievalists not really understand numbers, so that they tend either to dismiss arguments that involve them or else accept them completely uncritically, but medievalists who do understand numbers have in some cases gone much further with them than many would credit, attributing immensely complex calculative abilities to those writing Latin prose in the period, er, just for example.4 At the far end of this lies work on monumental alignments, some of which is justly to be lampooned but some of which is just hard to assess.5 There is some limited work on Anglo-Saxon land measurement, which came up with a common ‘perch’ of 4·65 metres, but testing this has always been tricky because there’s always more material that might not conform.6 John, however, had got closer to being able to survey it all than anyone else ever has and saw what was, indeed, a ‘short perch’ of more or less 15 feet in many many places (although, interestingly, not in Wessex). Aware of the dangers, at this point he’d got a statistician involved and, giving them as close to raw figures as he could, was informed that there was a genuinely significant peak at the 4·6 m mark in them (pretty much 15 ft), as well as some other peaks at the multiples and fractions of that unit that were less demonstrable. Reassured that he wasn’t just seeing things, therefore, he then set out to find out how this was being used.

Diagram of Anglo-Saxon structures at Cowage Farm, Bremilham, with 15 ft grid overlaid, by John Blair

Diagram of Anglo-Saxon structures at Cowage Farm, Bremilham, with 15 ft grid overlaid, by John Blair

This part involved quite a lot of maps with grid overlays. Here, if anywhere, was the problem of subjectivity. Some of John’s example cases appeared more or less inarguable, although the problem of whether the archæological sequence was right in the first place and all the structures John was lining grids against had been there in the same period was lurking behind even these somewhere. This was easier to accept in some cases than others, especially given that John is famously willing to reinterpret other archæologists’ findings when he thinks there’s reason to do so.7 In other cases, though, I really wanted access to the files so I could see whether shifting the grid overlay by a metre or so one way or the other, or around by a few degrees, would not show up just as many matches, not that I would have been clear what it might mean for the theory if it had. Certainly, there were a few cases that made me think that John’s choice of what to align the grid to was possibly more arbitrary than was good for demonstration. This was much less so in the case of individual buildings (and a surprising number of square and rectilinear buildings could be relatively easily fitted to a 15 ft module, these including not least SS Peter & Paul Canterbury and All Saints Brixworth, whose bays and aisles snap nicely to it, with explanatory significance to which we’ll come), although quite a lot did so only in one dimension, being for example 15 ft wide but, say, 22 ft long, and most site maps provided one or two buildings that just failed to align at all, let alone be the ‘right’ size. The larger the map got the more this kind of non-conformity seemed to me to make the choice of where to lay the grid basically arbitrary, though the fact that some sites present several possibilities may work for John’s theory as much as against it and even, I suppose, open up the possibility of micro-phasing in their topography. Anyway, here was where I was least sure how much credit to give the idea.

Fourteenth-century illustration of surveyors laying out grids over a river, from the Traité d'Arpentage of Bertrand Boisset

Fourteenth-century illustration of surveyors laying out grids over a river, from the Traité d’Arpentage of Bertrand Boisset

But, as long as even a small number of widely-spread and unconnected sites appear to conform at all, even if many others don’t, something needs explaining, and John had an explanation for how this might all be that, I think, makes his other cases easier to accept as possible. Unlike the prehistoric monument guys who have to assume that the knowledge of calculating such alignments and measurement techniques (not so much of lengths, which could just be a marked rod—perhaps the best bit of the paper was pictures of John himself messing about in open country with a fifteen-foot rod of his own manufacture seeing how hard it would be to lay out a village plan with it, the answer being not very—but of consistently precise right-angles) was transmitted somehow, John could point to texts, in the form of the manuals of Roman surveyors, agrimensores, copied in monastic contexts more or less throughout the period. We’ve already seen some of these texts on this blog, in fact, as such a manual exists from Santa Maria de Ripoll. Finding them in Anglo-Saxon contexts is a lot harder, but the fact that a lot of the uses of this 15-ft module are in fact ecclesiastical suggests that this is the easiest way to imagine its dissemination, monks with building projects putting into action the instructions of the ancients that they actually had written down.

Diagram of grid -planning in Anglo-Saxon churches, by John Blair

Diagram of grid -planning in Anglo-Saxon churches, by John Blair

Fitting nicely with this was not just the number of his examples that John thought could be linked to monastic contexts (especially here the estates of Bishop Wilfrid of York (among other places) whose resort to Rome and Roman technical knowledge is well-documented), where possibly others might be less willing to assume a monastic church structure all over Anglo-Saxon England than he, but also the fact that this module is very hard to find in use between the eighth and tenth centuries.8 In other words, it is best attested during the first, ‘golden’ age of Anglo-Saxon monasticism and then in the age of the Anglo-Saxon monastic reform, both eras in which monastic learning was in fact involved in economic development and alterations to land-holding and land use.9 This works not least because, even though John was quite happy to find connections via which monks might actually have owned or operated many of the estates in question, you don’t actually need that as long as you accept that someone with a project to build a new village or whatever might be aware that the monks had information on such matters which they would probably impart on request. It would need to be quite high-culture monasteries to have a copy of the Ars gromatica in their collections, maybe – it doesn’t show up anywhere outside Santa Maria de Ripoll in Catalonia before the 13th century, says Michel Zimmermann though with various inevitable issues about patchy evidence survival, and Santa Maria is the biggest knowledge storehouse not just in the area but for some way beyond – but a mechanism for the transmission of this knowledge is visible, plausible and thus arguable in the cases where the evidence on the ground might not convince by itself.10

Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, MS Ripoll 106, fo. 77v

Different ways of laying out fields in the Ars gromatica text in Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, MS Ripoll 106, fo. 77v

There is a lot more that could be squeezed out of this, including the possibility of what would basically be tenements laid out for what would basically be serfs by monasteries, although the questions afterwards came substantially from a number of people who were very interested in the continuing use of the Roman foot, questions that made John’s contentions look much saner by comparison in fact, and to which he wisely ducked all answers, saying that the external verification of his 15-ft perch meant that it was the only measure he dared say was genuinely present in the data. John’s final publication of this is a meaty 49 pages in the quarto format Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, too, so I guess that a good bit more has been squeezed out in that version. If you want to know more, therefore, I can only recommend you have a look and get the information from the man himself!


1. How do people manage this? I gave a paper on Monday. If I knocked in all appropriate revisions and rewrote, I could have something ready to send out by the end of the month probably. It would then take at least six months to be reviewed, the changes that required would probably take me another three and then it would still be eighteen months on average till it got to print. So, some time in 2016? Even being a retired expert with a complete grasp of the evidence would only let me crunch three months out of that two-years-plus process. But Lesley Abrams of last post cut that lead time in half and John Blair, of this post, did even better…

2. This has been a matter of concern for me ever since I did my first one of these posts, seven years ago more or less. I always come back to the same answer: if someone is willing to talk about their work in public, anyone who really wants to misuse it can already get at it, and meanwhile, if I write about it more people know whose work to use respectfully on the subject… But it’s always a little dicey.

3. As J. Blair, “Grid-Planning in Anglo-Saxon Settlements: the short perch and the four-perch module” in Helena Hamerow (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 18 (Oxford 2013), pp. 18-61.

4. By which I really mean David Howlett, British Books in Biblical Style (Dublin 1997), a six-hundred-plus page monster that rather defies evaluation, alleging deliberate arithmetical meter in a host of Insular Latin works and apparently only one of five such books Howlett now has on such questions.

5. For example, Charles Thomas, Christian Celts: messages and images (Stroud 1998), blisteringly reviewed by the normally-equable Thomas Owen Clancy in Innes Review Vol. 51 (2000), pp. 85-88, DOI 10.3366/inr.2000.51.1.85.

6 P. J. Huggins, “Anglo-Saxon timber building measurements: recent results” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 35 (Leeds 1991), pp. 6-28.

7. E. g. J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121.

8. The former is of course the great minster debate, actually framed as such in Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis’” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104 & J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212.

9. These threads both picked up and carefully woven into much else in J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2005), pp. 135-367, no less.

10. Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II pp. 891-897 on the Ripoll manuscript and its milieu.