Tag Archives: Low Countries

Seminars CIV & CV: two from off my map

Let me try and keep up the pace with a couple of quick notices of seminars I was at in October last year. (They’ll have to be quick if I’m ever to catch up.) Both are from the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford, where on the 17th October Hilde de Weert spoke with the title, “Empire and Information during the Twelfth-Century Chinese Crisis”, and the next week Jan Dumolyn gave us, “‘Let Each Man Carry on with His Trade and Remain Silent’. Politics and Urban Literature in the Later Medieval Netherlands”. Both of these are later and in different countries than I really know anything about, so my own thoughts on them are pretty limited, but they were both very interesting and I do want to try and get that across, at least.

Map of the empires of China in the early twelfth century

Map of the empires of China in the early twelfth century

Dr de Weert crammed an incredible amount of information into her paper, which was as well in some ways as I for one really needed the context. Her work here was on information networks in Song China as found in notebooks of commentary exchanged by the administrative élite of the period and country. There were apparently an awful lot of these, a genre that it’s really hard to parallel from the west, sort of worked-up commonplace notebooks with things like demographic information, maps, pieces of historical writing, proto-ethnography and anything that a well-off civil servant was interested in, which would then be published (apparently at state expense because they administered those expenses in the relevant areas—this was one of the many parts of this system I had trouble getting my head round) and circulated and responded to in kind. This gives you two things that Dr de Weert was exploiting in this paper, firstly the actual networks of contact between these administrative intellectuals, an empire of letters but with a system of contact much more like academic publishing than personal correspondence, and secondly a brilliant source for the transmission of political ideologies, which was, if you like, where De de Weert’s story really started. She was looking for language of and initiatives towards centralisation and standardisation, and the descriptions of the previous era, in which the Sung court had been penned into the South by the Mongol Empire, use pejorative terms of it (‘the small court’) to help give grandeur and context to the new bigger and more demanding imperial operation of the thirteenth century. For Dr de Weert what this showed was a set of local élites who had internalised the imperial mission, and guaranteed that even if the empire held them only loosely and ineffectively it could still count them as members, and be sure that they too would so count themselves. There I saw some parallels with the way that Rome bedded down in the post-imperial West of the early Middle Ages, or indeed the Holy Roman Empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but I was much more fascinated by the exotic, and yet parochially familiar (because pseudo-academic) source material, these notebooks that we in the West just have nothing much like from any period I know about. Except maybe blogs, a point made by Dr de Weert in the questions, if one’s blog were provided by the City Council or similar!

Illustrated page from a 1456 manuscript of the poems of Anthonis de Roovere

Illustrated page from a 1456 manuscript of a poem of Anthonis de Roovere with which Dr Dumolyn started his paper. There are quite a lot of ways in which this is not like my usual material.

Dr Dumolyn, visiting us from Ghent, also had interesting source material, to wit plays written for performance in various cities of the Low Countries in the fifteenth century. Writing this kind of material was apparently confined to a fairly restricted group (again), a guild of poets, usually well-off lettered bourgeoisie with a strong interest in the status quo. For this reason, the social messages of these plays are usually fairly conservative, and only some 30 of his 600-odd pieces of material could be qualified as `social’, but even well-off bourgeois can get annoyed (as anyone who reads the Times‘s letters column can see) so there is some scope for getting at social tensions here. For these guys the main evil was war, which disrupted everything and threatened positions, but was also obviously easy to condemn for basic moral and religious reasons. There was also, however, here and there and with certain playwrights especially, a critique of nobility of birth that looks a lot like the kind of “When Adam delved and Eve span” rhetoric used in the English Peasants’ Revolt, and workers’ complaints get used as a way of making these points, outsourcing the social critique to mouthpieces from other classes. These writers were presumably not interested in starting a revolt, and lazy workers and stupid peasants also feature quite a lot, but some of them nonetheless felt it necessary, wise or convenient to give a voice to more, shall we say, communal, feelings in their work. Discussion then centred on whether this was really a form of protest, or a palliative intended to relieve social tension and actually keep off the danger of workers’ revolt. One answer seemed to be that the plays were often staged competitively, so that writers would try and appeal to audiences so as to earn the patronage and prizes that came from winning. In cities where the social tensions they pulled on to give themselves that kind of appeal were often very real, this may have been a dangerous sort of literary brinkmanship…

1. It has been observed to me that it’s almost more interesting to note which seminars I went to that I don’t blog. Since I have such a backlog, indeed, I’m being rather harsher about culling the ones about which I just don’t have anything useful to say from my to-do list. This isn’t necessarily to do with the quality of the paper – “it’s not you, it’s me” – but sometimes, well, it is. Of course, you’d have to know where I was the term before last in some detail to spot this happening and start to guess which was which…