Tag Archives: periodisation

A trip across the pond some time ago

I don’t know about you, but in the current medical and economic climate, I am finding my identity as a researcher quite hard to maintain. As Dirk Gently would have put it, its waveform has collapsed. I have been letting correspondence about research projects and plans drop, just because I can’t see through to a point where they will be practical again, and I was already doing this before the pandemic to be honest. I am also, concomitantly, finding it increasingly hard to engage with the research that people are still managing to do, or at least present, like the recent virtual International Medieval Congress, which I didn’t attend. I mention this mainly because it’s one reason I’ve found it hard to get round to writing this post about the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2017; I was there and I learnt things and I had fun, although I wasn’t really presenting anything new, but it seems very far from what matters now. But maybe that means it’s important to retain, and in any case it did happen, however unlikely that large a gathering now seems. So here we are, an account. Continue reading

I found this coin, 3: imperial violence

I had intended to follow the last post, which was quite heavy, with something lighter-weight—specifically, about three and a half grams—by picking something out of the coins photography I was still doing in late 2016 and telling its story in that way that I sometimes do. And yet, without my having planned this, it functions rather well as an epilogue. So here’s three coins…

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Reverse of the same coin, with the imagery that’s important for this post, under the legend Virtus Exercitus, ‘strength of the army’

In one of the previous ones of these posts I remarked on a well-known but still interesting fact, that the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (306-337) to Christianity, however loudly his biographer Bishop Eusebius of Cæsarea wanted to tell us about it, shows up almost nowhere on Constantine’s absolutely prolific coinage, which retained the pagan imagery of his immediate colleagues and predecessors. The other favourite subject, however, was by now the Roman army. And above there you see the ideal results of its operations, two unlucky captives bound below a military standard, a reasonably simple visual message to parse.

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

And the reverse of the same coin, showing as you can probably see a Roman soldier skewering a fallen horseman with his spear

The three of Constantine’s sons who eventually succeeded him, Constantine II (317-340), Constantius II (324-361) and Constans I (333-350), were all, we suppose, raised Christian, and there is a bit more Christian imagery on their coins but mainly they stuck to the same theme. It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that the Roman army was the primary user base for new coinage, since they received it as pay, or in the case of pieces like these, as exchange for a low enough part of the value of their pay, which was made in gold, that they could actually spend it. So messages that say how great and fearsome the army was make sense on Roman coinage, but still, this imagery of violent and unequal battle and, let’s face it, death, was also the general circulating medium of exchange in the empire.

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of the same coin, showing the new emperor (admittedly then operating as junior to Constantius II still) maintaining the same imagery

Now, it seems to me that this is one of those lines our culture (by which I mainly mean the Anglophone liberal one in which I currently write) has set up between the past and us; we wouldn’t put imagery of our state employees killing the state’s opponents on our money. But where does the past start that we have chosen to mark ourselves off from in the manner I was describing last post?

Colin Gill, 'King Alfred's Longships Defeat the Danes', 1927, London, House of Commons, WOA-2600

Colin Gill, ‘King Alfred’s Longships Defeat the Danes’, 1927, London, House of Commons, WOA-2600, used under the Open Parliament License

Maybe not all that long ago, huh? We all know that the 1914-1918 Great War was not in fact ‘the war to end all wars’, but in 1927 the UK’s governing establishment was apparently still pretty proud of its previous wars, and of course this is still there now, part of the normal backdrop to the entry and exit of our ruling class from their place of daily responsibility. Not just them, either; the last time I was in the London auction house Spinks, there was on display there a, how shall I put it? ‘dramatic’, I think is the word, a ‘dramatic’ diorama of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, made in 1979. It eventually sold for £2,100 (lot 666, indeed). And we could go on piling up examples.

Which of us in the UK can, after all, honestly say that they have never uttered a line from this film? Not many! And yet it is the same message being delivered: this empire’s army surely does (did?) kill its enemies. Obviously, it surprises no-one to say that empires rest on violence. The Romans as a people knew this, not least because their state used means like these coins to tell them so. We would not put that on coins. But you can make a lot of money passing the message all the same. Funny, isn’t it, where our scruples now lie compared to theirs?

Is Victorian the New Feudal?

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on 9th March 2020

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on Monday

Since we are back on strike this week and I can blog unpaid if I want, let me bounce an idea off you all. I’m not sure how strongly I hold to this, but I found myself reflecting on it after going to the paper by another colleague of mine, Dr Elisabeth Leake, that I mentioned a few posts back. It is this: that whereas for many years, nay, centuries, the medieval past has been the one that modernity sets itself against, with especial reference to the word ‘feudal’, we are now moving into an age where that thing we do not wish to be is Victorian. Obviously, in saying such a thing I need to define ‘Victorian’ and more particularly I need to define ‘we’, given how much some people do in fact want to be Victorian in at least some ways. I probably mean ‘nineteenth-century’ more than ‘Victorian’, in fact, since I want to think more broadly here than Britain (so often the best plan). Still, I think there is something here to chew on, which I’ll try and set out a bit more.

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, image Crown Copyright and used under Open Government License

You would have to have been reading here for a very long time, or else have got here after avid pursuit of reviews in Early Medieval Europe, to remember that in 2010 I reviewed for that august journal a book by Kathleen Davis called Periodization and Sovereignty.1 Looking back now, and knowing how much I have continued to cite that book since then, I should have been nicer about it; I still think it is really two ideas extended to book length by considerable repetition, and it’s not really about the Middle Ages, but those two ideas are quite important. Specifically, one of them is that the pejorative sense of the word ‘feudal’ goes back to seventeenth-century discourses of modernity in which it came to typify the outdated aristocratically dominated social structures against which both the Jacobean kingdom, to an extent, and the new Parliamentary movement to a different and greater one, now set themselves. As Davis argues, here (and everywhere?) periodization is an act of power and differentiation; by saying that there is a division between ‘now’ and ‘then’ you mark yourself off as having left the ‘then’ behind.2 Whether or not you think that medievalists should use the ‘f-word’ to describe their societies of study, this helps understand how everyone else is using it and is arguably another reason to be careful.3

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, PA, 2008)

However, it’s now possible to find people trying to argue away the term ‘modern’ in much the same way as Brown and Reynolds want to get rid of ‘feudal’, albeit not for the same reasons. Indeed, their reasons are not the same as Davis’s, and I think it’s something more Davis-like that we’re watching. Of course, we have arguably never been modern, or equally arguably never haven’t, and paradoxically for medieval people ‘modern’ would have been the bad word with which to define that which was wrong, because their acts of power by periodization most often worked in the other direction; we are not ‘novel’ but still hold to the ancient ways…4 But, dear reader, I digress; this post, like Davis’s book, isn’t really about the Middle Ages. What I’m getting at is that we now most definitely have the word ‘postmodern’, which is another periodization term and therefore, per Davis though she doesn’t say it, another act of power by disassociation: modernity? We’re beyond that now.5 So where did it stop?

I can see two obvious answers here, and they’re both World Wars, although I think one could definitely add the financial crash of 2008 in the role of the buffers that finally stopped the intellectual train of modernity from rolling. At each stage things gave way: in particular, though not uniquely, in the Great War, among so much else, such as the last medieval empires, the idea of social progress by industrialisation, squashed into the corpse-filled mud of the trenches; in the Second World War one might single out colonialism, the price charged by the colonised for the survival of the colonial powers turning out to be decolonisation; and in 2008 it was the self-assurance of global capitalism, which had until then managed to maintain its own progress narrative and globalisation operations but now found itself faltering.

Julian Berthier's 'Love Love' on display at Canary Wharf, London, UK

Hereby hangs a separate tale. For a short while in 2008, you could see this in the small dock that is what remains of the original Canary Wharf, London, surrounded by the banking and finance megalopolis that now occupies the rest of the site. At the time my anthropologist of resort was working nearby and later lamented that they had not photographed it and labelled it ‘Capitalism’ for dissemination by Internet, but it turns out to be weirder than that, because the boat was not sinking. It has in fact been modified to float and indeed sail like that as a piece of art by one Julien Berthier called ‘Love Love’. That briefly raised the possibility that M. Berthier or his patrons (Lehman Bros, ironically!) had themselves hit on the very same satire as T’anta Wawa, but actually it had been arranged nearly two years before the crash. I’m no longer sure what the moral of the tale should be, therefore…

Now, I’m well out of my area of expertise here and a suitably-equipped modernist or cultural studies specialist can probably shoot me down in flames. But I reached this argumentative position by considering the things that the Western academy currently disparages: the most obvious, and for me quite rightly, is colonialism, as we try to decolonise the curriculum and address the structural whiteness of the profession and indeed the attainment gap between white and non-white students—which, ironically, seems actually to be generating more work on colonialism rather than on non-Europeans when they were not subject to colonial rule (or even recognising colonisation within Europe, where traditional medievalists could, if they chose, get involved…)6.

That would probably make the starting point of the new dispensation circa 1948, which fits with Elizabeth’s work indeed, and that in turn would make the disparaged past the wartime Europe of fascism and empire.7 (Of course, Europe maintained quite a bit of fascism thereafter, as another of my colleagues, Professor Peter Anderson, works to remind us…) But from a medievalist perspective, the roots go back further. Of course they do, right? Medieval studies has come lately and somewhat violently to the idea that colonialism affects it at all, but we have been deconstructing some older ideas for quite a while, sometimes with modernists’ help and sometimes coming up with things that the modernists might profit from learning. In the former category I think of the idea that nations existed before the modern nation-state, whose weakening hasn’t exactly reduced the volume of medievalist scholarship in search of national origins but has at least moved it forward to points where those origins could be the work of government rather than the inborn ethic of an inexplicably coherent people.8 Associatedly, in the latter, I think of all the post-war work that has been done to dilute and question the idea of steady and reliable ethnicity. It would not be unfair to say that, like at least modern-day geneticists, early medievalists now either don’t think about ethnic identity very hard or, if they do, don’t believe in it as a stable category; even if one doesn’t accept that an early medieval individual might have been able to self-determine in ethnic terms, I think we would pretty much all accept that ethnicity could change across one or two generations, rather than being something you were stuck with that travelled in your blood and never diluted out.9 Of course, most of that work is about people who were, functionally, white, which does potentially distance it from the problems we now see ourselves facing; there is of course now quite a lot of work on the almost contradictory attitudes of various medieval writers to issues of race that did map onto skin colour, which could certainly be negative, even when the people in question probably weren’t actually black (I’m thinking here of Berbers in al-Andalus), but also apparently perfectly accepting (as with the black bishop in my previous post).10 Nonetheless, the separation of ‘identity’ from ‘race’ within ‘ethnicity’ and the idea that identity must be both expressed and accepted to do its social work remain, I think, some of our big teaching points.

Lombard belt fittings, from Wikimedia Commons

“Lombard belt buckles”, says Wikipedia, to which one might reasonably ask, “How do we know who wore them and whether they claimed to be or thought they were Lombards? Maybe these were just cool. Wearing Levis doesn’t make us all American…” Image by Sailko, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the ideas that this work attacks are nineteenth-century ones. And when you start looking around, there are other nineteenth-century ideas dying on the spears of postmodernism: the idea that there is necessarily such a thing as a fixed definitive archetype of a text, rather than whatever we have that the author left which maybe he or she wanted to change, or had already circulated in other versions, or in charter terms, the idea that there is an ‘original’; the idea that trade is necessarily a benefit to the societies involved, perhaps, although the current global trend isn’t listening to the post-colonial scholarship about how empires used trade to dominate weaker partners here as it might; and there are probably others.11 I think that there are probably many more, and that it’s not just the medievalists who now find themselves wanting no longer to be the heirs of their nineteenth-century forebears. Of course, it’s ironic that we set about doing this while our own dying empires return to protectionism and the restriction of movement, defensive measures that make perfect political sense when you’re in a weaker position with respect to your opposing quantities but sit badly with postmodern, post-state, post-capitalist ethics, not least because they only make sense in terms of those same nineteenth-century stable national identities. We’ve either got something important to tell the political world here or we’re badly out of step with change—perhaps both—but as ever, we are struggling to convince the world, or indeed our employers, to listen to us.

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: 'Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit'

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: ‘Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit’, image from their site. This is the ethic that gave us medievalists so many of our core texts, almost all edited to produce that single Urtext that may never have existed. The thing I love about this as a teaching point is, of course, that its expression of German identity predates the German state by some way…

What that thing we have to tell and what the wider implications of this are, I haven’t got as far as working out—part of the problem with getting people to listen, of course—except maybe this one point. If, in fact, the medieval world is losing its relevance as the Great Other of Our Past to which both disparagement and fantasy resort, in exchange for factories, steam, brass, smoggy alleys and empire, then we may at least be a bit freer to decide what it should mean or tell people; but that elusive term ‘relevance’ is going to be harder and harder to claim, unless we work on two things. The first of these, more difficult, is medievalisms in the post-modern; I’m sure there are some, not least because even if the gaslamps might be encroaching there’s still a lot of market for medievalising fantasies at the moment. The second, though, and the one I’ve contended for for longer, is the value of the Middle Ages as a society that did things differently to us, which probably actually now grows more powerful, because if it also did things differently to the Bad Other, the reasonable use of it as an alternative perspective should become easier to promote. Since the Bad Other of this hypothesis was itself quite medievalising, though, and the Middle Ages did of course also have empires, slavery, and mass production even if not industry as the modernists would see it, that might require a level of special pleading and blinkers I’m not sure I personally can pull off…12

Silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Here is a mass-produced medieval item, a silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73. Florentine textile would be another obvious example; so would thirteenth-century Paris study Bibles… The production line is itself not a difficult idea to come up with, it was mechanised energy that made the difference.

Anyway, this is where my musings have led me. There is probably plenty wrong with the above and I offer it up only for testing, perhaps to destruction, but I wonder what people think?

1. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008); Jonathan Jarrett, “Periodization and Sovereignty. How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. By Kathleen Davis. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2008. viii + 189 pp. £28. ISBN 978 0 8122 4083 2” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 348–349.

2. Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, pp. 23-50.

3. Old reasons to be careful to be found in Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063–1088, DOI: 10.2307/1869563, or more extensively Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996); for recent resistance, see Richard Abels, “The Historiography of a Construct: ‘Feudalism’ and the Medieval Historian” in History Compass Vol. 7 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1008–1031. I have never quite finished forming my own view.

4. ‘We have never been modern’ is easy to cite, because in French it was the title of an influential book by Bruno Latour, available in English as Latour, We have never been modern, transl. Catherine Porter (Cambridge MA 1993). “We have never not been modern” is harder. The earliest use of it I can quickly find as a reaction to Latour is in a 2004 blog post by Steven Shaviro, “Bruno Latour”, The Pinnochio Theory 18 February 2004, online here, but it was already being used as a phrase that needed quotation but no referencing in a much earlier article on a quite different subject, Donna J. Haraway, “The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order” in Feminist Review, Consuming Cultures, No. 55 (New York 1997, pp. 22–72, on JSTOR but not recommended reading with food or if squeamish. The quote was obviously already around but I can’t find out who first said it. Presumably it was a response to Latour… Anyone know? As for medieval reverse period snobbery, I immediately think of Hrabanus Maurus, and I probably do that because of listening to Mayke de Jong, who briefly dicusses that learned cleric’s studied avoidance of novelty in her “Monastic Writing and Carolingian Court Audiences: some evidence from Biblical commentary” in Flavia De Rubeis and Walter Pohl (edd.), Le scritture dai monasteri, Acta instituti Romani Finlandiae 29 (Roma 2003), pp. 179–195, online here, at pp. 189-190 with references.

5. For writing of this kind a good anthology is Joyce Appleby, Elizabeth Covington, David Hoyt, Michael Latham and Allison Sneider (edd.), Knowledge and postmodernism in historical perspective (New York City, NY, 1996), though a review of this and other works in the same vein by Patrick Karl O’Brien here shows that the victory of the postmodern is far from complete, and may even be heading for mainstreaming.

6. Two justifiably and simultaneous strident calls for this work in L. Le Grange, ‘Decolonising the University Curriculum’ in South African Journal of Higher Education Vol. 30 (Matieland 2016), pp. 1–12, online here, and Savo Heleta, “Decolonisation of higher education: Dismantling epistemic violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa” in Transformation in Higher Education 1 (Durbanville 2016), a9, online here, but it’s not just South Africa with this problem, as witness Hannah Atkinson, Suzanne Bardgett, Adam Budd, Margot Finn, Christopher Kisane, Sadia Kureshi, Jonathan Saha, John Siblon & Sujit Sivasundaram, Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change (London 2018), online here, esp. pp. 63-64 but really passim. As for colonisation within Europe, I was thinking straightforwardly of R. R. Davies, The First English Empire: power and identities in the British Isles 1093-1343, Ford Lectures 1998 (Oxford 2000), which people seem slowly to be forgetting.

7. See Elisabeth Leake, “At the Nation-State’s Edge: Centre-Periphery Relations in post-1947 South Asia” in Historical Journal Vol. 59 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 509–539, and eadem, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (Cambridge 2017).

8. In this area we’re all more or less stepping in the path laid down by Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd edn. (London 2006), online here, which may not be a perfect book if you’re a medievalist but is a very good place to start, and means that for example we now have the assumptions behind George Molyneaux, The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century (Oxford 2015) rather than those behind, say, William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: the transition from paganism to Christianity (Manchester 1970).

9. The case for self-determination in Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554 (Cambridge 1997); my go-to reference for this concern is Walter Pohl, “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity” in idem and Helmut Reimitz (edd.), Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of the Ethnic Communities, 300–800, The Transformation of the Roman World 2 (Leiden 1998), pp. 17–69, with honourable mention to Florin Curta, “Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 159–185. Resistance in Heinrich Härke, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 1–28, online here, even though the same man can write “Archaeologists and Migrations: A Problem of Attitude?” in Current Anthropology Vol. 30 (Chicago IL 1998), pp. 19–46. For a geneticist’s statement of the irrelevance of race, see Andrea Manica, Franck Prugnolle and François Balloux, “Geography is a better determinant of human genetic differentiation than ethnicity” in Human Genetics Vol. 118 (New York City NY 2005), pp. 366–371, online here.

10. My references for the work that’s gone on demonstrating that the Western Middle Ages were not completely lacking people of colour are sadly thin; I need to collect more, but at the moment the best thing for it I own is Pamela A. Patton (ed.), Envisioning Others: Race, Color, and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 62 (Leiden 2016), and I’m more aware of work that wants to stress that there was also racism in the Middle Ages, such as Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons & Jews: making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton NJ 2003), Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror: the medieval origins of anti-Jewish iconography (New York City NY 2014), or Geraldine Heng, The invention of race in the European Middle Ages (New York City NY 2018). We might also ask why all this work is by women and why there are no equally obvious male contributions, but that would be a different post, by somebody else!

11. While I know that I’ve read short punchy proclamations of the death of the single original Urtext in scholarly editing, trying to find any of them on the web drowns you in Biblical scholarship that is predictably uninterested in the idea of plural originals, so right now the best I can find is the first part of John Bryant, The fluid text: a theory of revision and editing for book and screen (Ann Arbor MI 2002). On the same problems in charter studies I tend to cite Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 38-48, which some day I will write up into a proper methodological article. As for exploitative trade, the most obvious example available right now to me is probably Erika Rappaport, A thirst for empire: how tea shaped the modern world (Princeton NJ 2017), which should probably make me feel guilty rather than thirsty but sadly doesn’t.

12. On Victorian medievalising the best thing I’ve found is Marcus Bull, Thinking medieval: an introduction to the study of the Middle Ages (Basingstoke 2005), pp. 7-41.

Towards a Global Middle Ages II: the middle of what, exactly?

Picking up again the threads of the Global Middle Ages Network meeting I was at in September 2014—see the last post on this for the background if you like—the second post I want to dedicate to this is on the question of periodization. Of course periodization is an issue for the medievalist of any scope. The very fact that we study a period called medieval, of the age in the middle, raises the question of what it is between and how those twin poles define it. Calling something ‘medieval’ began as a way of dismissing it into the past, says Kathleen Davis, and despite the problems I find in the book where she says it the case is persuasive.1 To be medieval is to be defined as between other things, usually the great glories of Classical Antiquity and the Roman Empire and the new modern Age of Empires, which is problematic not least because the people whom we as medievalists study did not think of themselves so. Indeed, those who thought about such things instead tended to think that they were at the end!2

An illustration of the two beasts of the Apocalypse from Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional. Ms. Vit. 14.2, fo. 191v.

Reasons not to periodize, no. 1: we are all about to be destroyed by many-headed dragons anyway so what’s the point, right? From the copy of Beatus’s Commentary on the Apocalypse known as the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional. Ms. Vit. 14.2, fo. 191v. By Facundus, pour Ferdinand Ier de Castille et Leon et la reine Sancha (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

One form of argument that this has raised is one about where the period begins and ends. For Westerners, 476, the death of the last Roman emperor to rule from that city, has often been a good marker of the beginning but it is, in many ways, the final bits falling off a building’s ruins after it has already collapsed, and on the other hand, the fifth-century arrangement of the Roman West endured for centuries by many measures and was possibly only fully reconfigured by the secondary collapse of the Carolingian Empire, or even the semi-legendary ‘transformation of the year 1000’.3 That has led many scholars to hive the whole early Christian period off as ‘late Antiquity’ and just postpone the Middle Ages as the rest of the world understands it till after they cease to be interested.4 And there are genuine changes that make good reasons for doing that, while at the other end of the period, while the discovery of the New World in 1492 makes a similarly good marker, a European maritime empire was already funnelling the wealth of another Continent into Europe by then in the form of Portugal in Africa; firearms, the printing press and plague were already well-established, the Renaissance long under way; and Christianity would remain only either Catholic or Orthodox for a few years thereafter too. So, the impact that 1492 made needs to be argued too if we are to stop the early modern era spreading back into the quattrocento or the end of the Middle Ages disappearing under a pile of bodies in the Wars of Religion.

Fort Sao Jorge da Mina at Elmina, Ghana, erected by the Potuguese in 1482.

Colonial African architecture of the Middle Ages: Fort Sao Jorge da Mina at Elmina, Ghana, erected by the Potuguese in 1482. “Elmina slave castle” by Dave LeyOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In actual fact, the modernists seem largely happy to draw back modernity even further, to the Enlightenment and industrialization, which I think is probably justifiable, myself.5 That raises the question of why the people who work on the Tudors or the early Ottomans aren’t medievalists, one to which I don’t have good answers, and this conflation has been repeated structurally by many universities’ Centres or Institutes for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. But I do observe this same trend that Kathleen Davis points out, to distance modernity from the Middle Ages rather than to colonise them with it, and one of the declared aims of this group meeting (remember the meeting? This is a post about a meeting) was to write something that would force the modernists to stop ignoring the period before their own. But attacking this boundary and still putting a book out about the Global Middle Ages becomes conceptually difficult very quickly; if the boundary doesn’t exist, or is much later, then what does ‘The Middle Ages’ actually consist of? About the only alternative characterisation of the era that’s so far been floated, the ‘Age of Faith’, doesn’t get us out of this hole at all: I already mentioned the Wars of Religion…6 ‘The Age Modernists Ignore’ hardly seems better. And the other end of the periodization also presents problems, not least because with so many big empires with farflung (if ephemeral) contacts up and running, Alexander reaching India overland and Rome doing so by sea, Egypt reaching into Africa and so on, it’s so tempting for a global research agenda to start much earlier.

The Darial Gorge, on the border between modern Russia and Georgia

The Darial Gorge, on the border between modern Russia and Georgia, one of the places where it has been suggested that Alexander the Great built Iron Gates to keep the monstrous peoples who lived beyond them away from civilisation. Not necessarily true, but impressive! “Darial-Gorge” by Not home at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But the modern division is the one that’s defended, it seems; thanks to the border crossing of late Antiquity traffic between medieval studies and specialists in the ancient world is reasonably feasible. And that later division could be attacked in the European world, but trying to ‘go global’ with it introduces a whole host more problems as cultures other than Western Europe, working on quite different timescales, start to be factored in. China had a state bureaucracy, a fiduciary currency system, gunpowder and factories for most (all?) of the European medieval period; much of what we know of Africa looks a lot more ‘Ancient’ in any test against both the Classical or medieval worlds, on the other hand, and Meso-America wasn’t playing the same game at all, while at the other end of a scale I am suddenly reminded of a chapter of David Abulafia’s about Portuguese contact with the Canary Islanders in which the word ‘Neolithic’ is used to illustrate the culture gap.7 And it’s really hard to put India onto this scale, not least because of the legacy of Orientalism and history by colonists that framed it as eternally backward and a rival sort of writing that instead made it a pluralistically enlightened Utopia, both of which are responses to a terrible absence of actual datable evidence for what India was like in the period in which we’re interested.8 Then at the other end of the process there’s the problem of lack of change: that version of China could be argued to have continued till the Boxer Rebellion, and the whole awful ‘West and the Rest’ narrative derives from the appearance that changes happened in Europe which put the Middle Ages behind it, but which were not mirrored elsewhere in the world.9 Identifying something like feudalism in Japan is not going to be enough to force the rest of the world unwillingly into a fundamentally European chronology.10

A suit of hon kozane dou gusoku Samurai armour in the Tokyo National Museum

Medieval armour? A suit of hon kozane dou gusoku Samurai armour in the Tokyo National Museum. By Ian Armstrong [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Note, though, that the rhetoric of difference here really goes hand-in-hand with the defensive one of modernity. Actually, what differentiates the West from the Rest in that narrative, at least at a visible level, are the same things that differentiate Modern from Medieval: mechanisation, so-called Enlightenment, long-range commerce and the development of the two cultures, to pick an arbitrary handful. Doing that differentiation for the pre-modern is a lot harder. Mark Whittow suggested that one of the things that makes the West different from the Rest during the Middle Ages as we usually count them was an ‘archival habit’, the practise of keeping documents for a long time (rather than destroying them with each change of administration, for example, or never making them at all). And as I said in the last post on these issues, the variation in source materials is probably the most important one for any potential reader of the book that is to come out of all this to get their heads round, but otherwise to get too deep into the variation, however tempting and even analytically necessary, may be to miss a point. Invoking the Middle Ages at all engages scholars working on such themes immediately in two probably-useless exercises of justification: the identification of something as characteristically medieval which does not prevent comparison with the early modern era but keeps things distinct from the ancient one (without disparagement from either direction) and then an attempt to find it in areas where the tripartite division of ancient, medieval and modern has no relevance. One wonders whether just sticking with a title that invokes no period but only a division (The World Before Columbus was bruited) would present fewer problems. Alan Strathern argued something very much like this when he early on described the group as ‘pre-modernists who work on the Middle Ages’, but I’m not sure if even he had yet reasoned this through: to write on the Global Middle Ages and get away with it, we may have to cease identifying our work with the Middle Ages…

1. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008).

2. See for example Robert Markus, “Living within Sight of the End”, in Chris Humphrey and Mark Ormrod (edd.), Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge 2001), pp. 23–34.

3. Two cites of many many possible: Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. pp. 279-283, and Guy Bois, The Transformation of the Year One Thousand: the village of Lournard from Antiquity to Feudalism, transl. Jean Birrell (Manchester 1992), esp. pp. 2-4.

4. The culprit usually blamed for the late Antiquity label is Peter Brown, especially in his The World of Late Antiquity: from Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London 1971), which is unfair in this case as he does much more interesting things with it than mere defence against later periods. Nonetheless, something started there.

5. A relevant example: Peter van der Veer, “The Global History of ‘Modernity'” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 41 (Leiden 1998), pp. 285-294, DOI: 10.1163/1568520981436228, and the debate of which that article forms part in that journal issue.

6. Not least because the most obvious scholarly example of that terminology for me, Peter Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700 (Oxford 2011) as that implies stops barely two centuries into the period.

7. D. S. Abulafia, “Neolithic meets medieval: first encounters in the Canary Islands” in idem and Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 255-278.

8. On the colonial contempt for Indian history, see Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, pp. 98-100, largely on the basis of Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Time of History and the Times of Gods” in Lisa Lowe & David Lloyd (edd.), The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (Durham NC 1997), pp. 35-60. For the idealising sort of writing fiction is the best source: try, for example, John Masters, The Venus of Konpara (London 1960), but the appeal to history is as political as ever inside India: see N. Pai, “Towards a shared understanding, and why it is important” in idem (ed.), A Sense of History, Pragati: the Indian National Interest Review no. 27 (Bangalore 2009), online here in PDF, last modified 26th July 2012 as of 30th June 2014, pp. 2-3.

9. The argument about the Boxer Rebellion can be found in Bodo Wiethoff, An Introduction to Chinese History: from ancient times to the Revolution of 1912 (London 1975), pp. 9-31. The West and the Rest analysis we love to hate is of course, Niall Ferguson, Civilization: the West and the Rest (London 2011), but it’s a much older trope than him. I could also mention once again Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York City 1997), repr. as Guns, Germs, and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (London 1998), which is one of those books one lends out and doesn’t get back.

10. On Japan I’m thinking of Jospeh Strayer, Feudalism (New York City 1975), whose comparative aspect derived from a genuinely global treatment of the same phenomenon in which Strayer also participated, Rushton Colbourne (ed.), Feudalism in History (Princeton 1956). Of course it is necessary also to mention Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994) as a required counter to Strayer and his views.

Leeds 2012 Report 2

My notes from last year’s International Medieval Congress seem to be pretty good, but I’m disturbed by how little of what I apparently attended I recall in any detail without them. I suppose this is why we take notes, but looking back through them I can see several of the hares that I’ve been coursing through the last year’s thoughts visible here, and I feel as if I actually ought to be using these posts to acknowledge people whose thoughts I obviously soaked up without the care and attention to whose they were that perhaps I should have taken. Anyway, that is a long preamble to the second post from my backlog that will try and give some account of the research I saw being presented at that conference.

504. Politics of Territory I: perceptions and practices of space in Germany and France (c. 850-c. 1100)

The 10th July started for me with a pair of sessions coming out of a project that Jens Schneider introduced, Territorium, which I think could be sort of categorised as geopolitical philosophy, comparing and checking the ways that French and German scholarships think about the connections of territories to the state. For me the interesting thing here was how people would define their ‘territories’, especially since in the first session we seemed to be especially encouraged to consider where territories ended, that is, frontiers, always and forever an interest of mine. This comes through in my notes, from which I relearn the following.

  • Laurence Leleu, “Space, Territory and Border in Saxony”
    Saxony had been outside the Frankish kingdom at the beginning of Charlemagne’s reign, implying a linear border, then became a marca, a province inside the empire but whose character was special, implying a zone. The speaker thought that this zone’s edges were often conceptual compared to geographical features like the River Elbe, even when it wasn’t the border. Within this zone, there were internal divisions, counties and bishoprics and even peoples (according to Adam of Bremen), but they often had islets and exclaves, so, basically, it was complicated, and the classic difference between line and zone was here largely a difference of scale. I thought the last point was the take-away one, though I was struck by the geography versus theory one too.
  • Miriam Czock, “Representations of Swabia: boundaries, spatial organization and power”
    This paper attempted to apply concepts of space to ask more useful questions about what political identities were available to those who lived after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Swabia is interesting in this game because it’s a territory that defies traditional German historiography by not having a ‘root’ people or leader; Dr Czock argued that people’s connections were to the monastery of St Gallen, the local castle network and the fiscal property in the area. I recognise that I’d be vulnerable to this criticism myself, and perhaps that’s why I think of it, but this seems to me like what we can see from the landholding and trial records rather than what was necessarily most important; at the least, though, it gives us an alternative set of structures to test origin theories with.
  • Albrecht Brendler, “Space of Power in Early Medieval Provence”
    Provence emerged from the expulsion of the Muslim garrison at la Garde-Freinet in 903 in some confusion, explained Herr Brendler: the Muslims had been only one side in a many-faceted civil war and though there was a clear Count of Arles, William I, his territory included two other counties and several bishoprics of areas that had been pagi, but no metropolitan ones; William called himself a Marquis, but of which crown wasn’t completely clear though King Conrad I of Germany claimed it. It theoretically belonged to larger organisations and wasn’t quite one itself yet it emerged as one because its parts weren’t part of anything else. I may, in that last bit, be going beyond what Herr Brendler said but if so that’s because I could basically write the same of Catalonia. This is a very interesting parallel, which I don’t seem from my notes to have appreciated at all at the time.
  • Charles West, “Response”
    Here Charles tried to mix up categories by pointing out that power over space is still carried out by acting on people, so that the people and space distinction may not get us anything useful, but that if it does what we are usually seeing is a monastic concept of space, which may not be the general one, especially since several different concepts of space could operate at once. It’s important not to privilege the one we can most easily see.
  • I tried to argue in questions that the sources’ intent was really the best way to approach such issues of importance, a functionalist approach, which Dr Czock argued would miss larger-scale change. Ryan Lavelle pointed out that in UK terms a project like this would be an archæological one and wondered what mapping via GIS would contribute. I also wondered that, but in a rather more negative way; I couldn’t see what it would contribute that plotting things on paper wouldn’t make just as clear. In general good questions came out of this and I think everyone went away thinking.

This was probably particularly evident in how many of us came straight back after coffee for the second half!

604. Politics of Territory, II: perceptions and practices of space in Southern France (c. 750-c. 1200)

  • Adrien Bayard, “Fortifications and the Organisation of Power in Carolingian Aquitaine”
    This paper looked specifically at fortifications in the campaigns of King Pippin III by which Aquitaine was dragged more or less unwillingly to rejoin the kingdom of the Franks in the second half of the eighth century. Archaeology has shown a huge variety of sites in the area, ‘private refuges’, small hilltop forts, walled villages and big cities, some of which (like Bourges, notice the name) Pippin took by siege. The south was in general a zone of fortresses, even this early, unlike the north where palaces seem to have organised the territories (and Septimania where monasteries were key), and no matter what they were controlling, in terms of territory, service, renders and so on, a hilltop site seems always to have been the basis of lordly power in these zones.
  • Aurélien le Coq, “Reforming Church, Producing Territory: the second birth of the diocese of Die (c. 1000-c. 1200)”
    This paper was interesting in as much as it was chasing a ghost: the bishopric of Die is dissolved, and the extent of its medieval territory is unclear, though it was much larger than the modern province and seems to have included several exclaves. Over the eleventh century, during which time the bishops’ power was on the rise not least because of Bishop Hugh who became the papal legate to France under Pope Gregory VII, the county of Die seems to have sunk underneath the bishopric in people’s minds as the thing that defined the area. The counts wound up lords of only small parts of the area as the bishops profited from their increasingly international connections. (I have to admit that I wasn’t clear how they were profiting, exactly, but something seems to have brought about this change.) This however only lasted until the more powerful counts of Valence succeeded to the county of Die and their tame bishops started muscling in. M. le Coq saw this as an area where bishops were always in charge but which one might vary; I have to admit that again I wonder if ecclesiastical sources would show us enough of comital power to be sure of that, but I haven’t looked at the documents and M. le Coq has.
  • Steffen Patzold, “Some Reflections on Interregional Comparisons: France and Germany”
    Here Professor Patzold laid out some of the problems that arise with comparative projects like this: even though the team had picked peripheries that more or less match and scholars at similar career stages using similar questions, the sources vary considerably over the zones chosen and may still have been leading their conclusions. For example, with mostly non-royal charters in the south of France and far fewer and only royal ones from Saxony, we ineluctably have a middle-range perspective in the former and only a top-down one from the latter. But is the source difference itself a result of difference, or merely accident? On the other hand, because of the difference of languages, things that genuinely were similar between the two zones may be hard to recognise: is a vicarius a minister or were the two offices different across the language divide, and so on…
  • Discussion this time was less fruitful, I felt. People, including me, suggested various extra questions that might be bases for comparison, such as what use people had for the kings (this was me, based on the Königsfern idea that I took from Kalamazoo 2010), who appointed bishops and so on. Wendy Davies stressed that a comparison like this must rest on things that are similar otherwise it’s apples and oranges, but the various project members were keener on pointing out differences or reasons these questions wouldn’t work, and a particular boundary got set up around the project aims, the ideas of territory and space, over which I for one could not see. I realise that there is loads of work on space at the moment but when we’re talking about spaces of power, I agree with what Charles had said: spaces of power are spaces over which authority is claimed, and if no-one recognises it then those claims are empty. I don’t see how these spaces can exist except in the minds of the people in them, and the way we get at that is not by ignoring the dealings of those people in favour of deconceptualised mapping. That wasn’t what any of the speakers had been doing, either, but it seemed to be the platonic idea to which the discussion retreated as more traditional practitioners tried to make their favourite questions help.

Of course, sometimes such questions genuinely aren’t helpful. Even if they might be, they feel as if people are suggesting that if you’d only asked them first, they could have told you how to do your project much better! Nonetheless, this is supposed to be one of the things that presenting your work in public gets you, other ways to think about your problems, and I was quite surprised how reluctant some of the people in this comparative project were to try actual comparison, in their own terms or ours. I hope some day to organise conference sessions that actually demand this of speakers, I think it’s the only way forward in some areas and frontiers is definitely one of them. Well, anyway, then there was lunch and after that I returned very much to my own comfort zone, if I had even yet left it.

727. Producing, Keeping, and Reusing Documents: charters and cartularies from Northern Iberia, 9th-12th Century

  • Wendy Davies, “Keeping Charters Before Cartularies”
    Quite a lot of this paper was a summary of the patterns of the survival of the charter evidence from Northern Spain prior to 1000, and as such quite familiar to me. The points that did stand out for me were that enough charters were updated that it is clear that they could usually be got at; that they seem to have been stored in church treasuries quite often, but that that the marks that most bear on the dorses suggest some record of the records; and that laymen clearly kept documents too, as we have so many lay ones that survive to us even if through Church archives, so they presumably dealt with the same dilemmas of storage albeit on a smaller scale, unless the layman in question chose to keep them at a church.1
  • Leticia Agúndez San Miguel, “A Monastic Power in Reconstruction: the versatility of the past and the present time in the Becerro Gótico of Sahagún”
    It was quite strange to hear anyone other than Wendy talk about Sahagún, in fact, but this was a quite detailed codicological treatment of the monastery’s earliest cartulary, which the speaker thought had been put together as part of a project to get King Alfonso VI to confirm and add to the monastery’s property at a time when the Bishop of León and the Cluniac congregation were moving in on the old monastery’s area. This meant inventing a number of royal documents, but after a while the real ones they apparently did have got added in anyway, once the immediate need was past. Almost everything that got put in the cartulary was put there defensively, though, was the general conclusion, which is not how I have come to see some of my target archive’s early cartularies I must admit. I may have to rethink.
  • David Peterson, “The Becerro Gótico of San Millán: the reconstruction of a lost cartulary”
    This was a detective-work paper, trying to piece together from an archive loaded with forgeries and a later cartulary what was in the earliest cartulary which is now lost. It seems to have been available to a couple of historians shortly after the monastery was dissolved in 1835, but ‘seems’ is the operative word. From what can be reconstructed, it seems that the later cartulary was heavily selective, containing only two-thirds as many documents in rather nicer copies. The picture of the lost one that emerges is of a book that was compiled as sort of quire-length dossiers of documents bound together and then continuing to expand, some onto extra sheets, some into the next quire. The new cartulary rearranged much of this at the top level, the order of the dossiers, to serve in a dispute with Calahorra, and some of the initial quires of the Becerro Gótico also had their origins in disputes, this seems to be more and more what we find behind cartulary compilation these days, which may also explain why their arrangements sometimes don’t make much sense to us; firstly, we would probably have had to be there, but secondly, their production was probably often quite urgent and may have cut some corners… This was a very suggestive paper despite its micro-study premises, which is in many ways my favourite sort of paper and the kind I like to write myself, so I am suitably envious!
  • Discussion here was good, but perhaps only if you’re a charter geek; especially worth considering, though, was the role of script change in the compilation of these things. The two Becerros Goticos there above are so called because they were in Visigothic minuscule, which is, shall we say, an acquired faculty; at San Millán the replacement is called the Becerro Galecana, from its Frankish-style script. These things must also have affected the use of original documents, and the sources themselves tend to stress such issues when cartularies explain themselves at all, but we keep finding reasons the task was finally undertaken to be more immediate.2 There’s a tension here to work out with future cases.

Powered by tea, I now did something I’ve never before tried at Leeds, which was to start a timeslot in one session and dash to another after the paper I wanted to hear. I try not to do this, because it’s rude to the organisers and the speakers whom one ignores in the first session and not exactly helpful to the second session, but sometimes one is just caught between senses of obligation and the proximity of the sessions makes it possible, and when the first session also has one of its speakers drop out, the temptation just gets too much. It seems best to combine the reports because they were experienced as one block, so, here goes.

808. Political Rupture in the Early Middle Ages & 809. Cultural Memory, III: Inclusion and Exclusion (i)

  • Geoffrey Koziol, “Principles Know No Law: justifying insurgency after the Carolingians – Boso, Robert of Neustria, and the Saxons”
    It was a definite bonus of last year’s Leeds that Geoff Koziol was present, enlivening many a discussion and one of the people out there most energetically interested in the late- and post-Carolingian era where my own work resides. At the time I write this I very lately finished properly reading his first book and I really enjoyed it, not something I would say of every history book I read.3 Reactions to this paper exist that are less enthusiastic, however, and although its general suggestion, worked through rebellions against kings of 879, 923 and 1073, that those raising rebellion rarely actually addressed or raised specifics in their propaganda but instead asserted big moral imperatives, was reasonable, there was room for counter-examples or arguments that like and like had not been compared here. Nonetheless, the comparative range and conceptual power was as engaging as Geoff’s stuff usually is and I was glad I’d heard it, even if I promptly ran away…
  • Clemens Gantner, “The Popes and their Frankish Others in the 8th Century”
    The timing worked out just right and I got to hear all of this paper, which was looking at the extent to which the diplomatic contacts between popes and Franks of this period indicated that the popes saw Franks as a gens, and therefore not the same group as themselves. The Franks were evidently easier to define than the Byzantines (obviously not Romans any more, but not ‘Greeks’ till the ninth century) or the Muslims (many many ethnonyms), not least as they worked the ‘gentile’ concept quite hard themselves at times, but anyway, the eighth-century popes seem to have never reckoned the Franks as other than foreigners.
  • Mayke de Jong, “The Temptations of a Foreign Past: the early medieval West and alterity”
    I don’t like the word `alterity’, as is well-established, so it was nice to find that neither does Professor de Jong, though I don’t like it mainly because `otherness’ would plainly do; Prof. de Jong was arguing for its removal from our work as a theme on higher grounds, though, that it makes the period seem strange, foreign, easy to dismiss and incomprehensible. As Prof. de Jong observed, assuming we don’t rule out the idea that things change for the better completely, there must be a worse `before’ and a better `after’ when this happens, but this is no reason to let other people stick this onto us.4 Likewise, any effort to define ourselves involves defining what we are not but for Prof. de Jong, it’s important for early medievalists to throw bridges across the ensuing gap and storm it, resetting connections that others might prefer to ignore.5
  • The most interesting question here was one that Clemens had to face, of whether there was in fact a neutral way to talk of another political unit’s people in this period. Clemens thought that the fact that the way the popes conceptualised Franks was not the same as the way in which they did other Others made his conclusions valid, but Walter Pohl floated the much more unsettling answer that if a way of describing a group was neutral this would probably not be clear to us now!

I suppose that as Paul Edward Dutton said at a different conference, “The best we can hope for is to be wrong in new ways”, which still sounds like a lot of fun to me.

1. Since this paper was given, of course, these issues are now given what is really the full treatment in Warren C. Brown, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes & Adam J. Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013), the long-awaited publication of work from the Lay Archives Project for which I was once a data monkey. I will write more on that in due course, when I’ve actually read the volume, which is not yet though it is one of the very very few academic books I bought as soon as it came out at full price. (Quite why, I’m not sure, given I will very shortly be able to buy it cheaper at Leeds and haven’t used it yet, but obviously I meant to.) Anyway, leaving that aside, even before that volume emerged one could find related concerns being raised in Warren Brown, “When Documents Are Destroyed or Lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366 and Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, and it’s obviously no accident that they were in the Lay Archives Project too.

2. The text of standard resort here is of course Patrick J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: memory and oblivion at the end of the first millennium (Princeton 1994), which is still excellent, but although it will be a long time before its general case doesn’t stand up, exceptions to it do keep emerging. One can get some other perspectives from Olivier Guyotjeannin, Laurent Morelle & Michel Parisse (edd.), Les Cartulaires : Actes de la Table Ronde organisée par l’École Nationale des Chartes et le G. D. R. 121 du C. N. R. S. (Paris, 5-7 décembre 1991), Mémoires et Documents de l’École des Chartes 39 (Paris 1993) and Adam J. Kosto & Anders Winroth (edd.), Charters, Cartularies and Archives: the preservation and transmission of documents in the medieval west. Proceedings of a Colloquium of the Commission Internationale de Diplomatique (Princeton and New York, 16-18 September 1999), Papers in Mediaeval Studies 17 (Toronto 2002).

3. G. Koziol, Begging Pardon and Favor: ritual and political order in early medieval France (Ithaca 1992).

4. This is well set-out in Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 2008), which I cite much more than my mean review of it would make one think I would, though I stand by that in as much as this issue is well set-out several times over…

5. And in fact I read, only a day before writing this, another attack on the same issue by no less than Jinty Nelson, that being Janet L. Nelson, “Liturgy or Law: misconceived alternatives?” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Nelson & David Pelteret, Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald, Studies in Early Medieval Britain (Farnham 2009), pp. 433-447, who argues that both sides of the line lose something by not crossing it.

The unbearable emptiness of being post-Roman: Aragonese depopulation and the rest of the field (Feudal Transformations XII)

The latter part of a conference volume that I was recently reading, so as to make watertight the final revision of a forthcoming paper, has set me thinking about the whole transformation argument one more time.1 (Still not ready to write that paper yet.) However, because that conference was concentrating mainly on late Antiquity and was largely attended by archæologists and historians who travel with them, it’s left me looking at it from an unusual point of view, and one that I have some trouble articulating (though that may just be shortage of sleep or coffee). So here is a slightly wandering review which may help me clear my thoughts. It’s a long long post, so it mostly lies behind a cut; you’ll be able to tell, I hope, from what lies above that whether you need to read either the post or the book.

Cover of Philippe Sénac (ed.), <u>De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d'al-Andalus

Cover of Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d'al-Andalus

Because of the late antique focus, the book’s input is much less about the feudal transformation concept we know and, well, know, and more about what Chris Wickham has called ‘the other transition’, the end of the Roman system of trade and land ownership and the development of successor kingdoms. He, and some others, have argued that those kingdoms are ultimately based on a system of service-for-land that is later formalised as what the « mutationnistes » call feudalism and that others have wished that they wouldn’t.2 Okay so far?

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

Because, also, the book is mainly about the old Tarraconensis, the Roman and later Visigothic province of North-West Spain and the northern side of the Pyrenees, the contributors also have to deal with two other historical or historiographical complexes. First and less disputable is the effect of Islam on this furthest reach of Islamic Spain, though there is debate here about how strong that effect was. Second is the supposed Reconquest and its attached depopulation-and-repopulation historiography, which holds or held that the frontier zones between the new Islamic polity and the surviving or following Christian principalities along the Northern edge of Iberia became almost empty and were then settled by an aggressive movement from those kingdoms that culminated in the demolition of the fragmenting Islamic Caliphate and the recovery of Toledo, Tarragona, Lisbon or whatever your favourite important Iberian capital is. This historiography has, as we have seen before, come under less attack for Aragón than for elsewhere, and since that was definitely in the conference area opinions here varied quite widely. However I still have a sense of some consensus that the historians of the transformation who approach it mainly from documents are missing a number of important tricks, and am therefore trying to get my head round what these suggestions do to that historiography. Continue reading

Protochronism, or, ‘we did it first and better’: a historiographical weakness

Graph of the Blogosphere

I’m sorry it’s been silent here for so long; things are extremely busy and I haven’t been reaching the bits of the blogosphere that I usually do. I’ve got eight different posts in draft if I count this one but most are just small clusters of links or only a title to remind me that, when I have time, I want to write about its topic. As I’ve observed so often before, silence doesn’t hurt my reading figures at all; if I don’t post the graph just climbs and climbs, whereas now that I’m putting this up I bet it will fall off. All the same, eight drafts! that means almost anything finished is weeks-old already and needs to go up soon as. So, here’s one I prepared earlier.

I think that perhaps all historians, once they have found their speciality, should then be forced to take a course on the period before it. It’s so often tempting to emphasise a particular phenomenon of one’s field and then say that it started with your subject population, but as with rock music (which all goes back to Chuck Berry, really, except that which he stole from the blues, which is quite a lot, and wherever the bluesmen (and blueswomen) got it from…) there’s always someone out there working on an earlier period going, “but I could point you to twenty of those from my stuff!” or similar. I’m most used to this with high medievalists claiming the discovery of the individual, or autobiography, or sovereignty, which could easily be paralleled from Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon source material if they wanted to ask anyone, but that might challenge their unique selling point…1 But it happens in my period too, and then the answer is usually “the Romans got there first”. And often the Greeks before them. And hey, if we had sources from Mesopotamia, who knows? Obviously at various times people have actually originated stuff, but not half as often as it is alleged.

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style 'miles christi', by Hraban Maur

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style 'miles christi', by Hraban Maur

So as I make my way through Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty for a review I have to write, every time she raises the ‘sovereign paradox‘ I find her saying that it arose with the Enlightenment growth of absolutism.2 (The paradox is that in order to protect the law the sovereign must act outside it, defining the sphere of law but not being bound by it. The Weberian idea of the state claiming the monopoly of force helps with this, especially when you have a king who will say “I am the state”, but it’s not a whole answer, and doesn’t work for the Middle Ages at all because the king doesn’t claim a monopoly of force, but a consistent share and control of it.) This paradox, all the same, exists unresolved just as much in the works of Jonas of Orléans or Hincmar of Reims in my period, pondering what you do about God’s anointed when he goes wrong, and concluding that you have to just suck it up and wait for God to stop punishing you, not that this stops them retheorising after successful coups, and Visigothic Spain is even worse for this.3 And of course at all points we could hark back further to the Romans. Elagabalus or Caracalla were as absolutist as any Enlightenment ruler, and their actually-deific status didn’t stop people toppling them because there were no other restraints. And did I just say that about the Carolingians, why yes I more or less did! And so on.

A double-page spread from a fourteenth-century book of sermons, designed to evoke a cathedral

A double-page spread from a fourteenth-century book of sermons, designed to evoke a cathedral

Likewise, when someone says, “If we live in an image-saturated world as many argue we do today, the beginnings of that bombardment are medieval”, I smell a rat.4 Where do medieval people see images? In church, maybe; if they’re rich perhaps they have tapestries, and maybe even illustrated books. And, of course, on coins, but I often wonder how accessible the iconography of such coinage was to its everyday users.5 Did they know their king was having himself pictured as a Roman emperor? I gotta wonder. Anyway, other than coins, not often I suspect. Certainly as any reader of Got Medieval knows, medieval image culture was extremely rich and meaningful, but also confined to a fairly small group of ‘consumers’ until quite late on. Which is of course when our writer means, he’s just forgotten there were ever years with fewer than four figures in as do so many ‘medieval’ historians. But come on: what about the Romans? Inscriptions and carvings everywhere, a much more urban population thus seeing cityscapes constructed to bear imagery everywhere; and of course a much more monetised economy. That looks a lot more like ‘saturation’ than the Middle Ages, early or high, to me.

Reverse of a gold aureus of the Roman Emperor Commodus (180-92) depicting Securitas, relaxing on a throne, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.RI.1562-R

Reverse of a gold aureus of the Roman Emperor Commodus (180-92) depicting Securitas, relaxing on a throne, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.RI.1562-R

So for example this. I’ve chosen a gold one because it’s shiny but the type is issued in silver and bronze too, and reused over and over again from 69 onwards. In 69, after Rome rose against Nero, there were four emperors, and histories duly refer to it as “the year of the four emperors” (which of course meant that subsequent civil wars had to go one better) and then a moneyer of one of them, Emperor Otho (69), originated this design which Commodus was still using more than a century later, for the same purpose. The point is that Securitas, the Latin word, does not mean ‘security’ as we have come to use it, protection, defence, safety from attack. Its etymology is ‘se cura’, literally ‘without care’; so putting a very relaxed-looking Securitas with some symbols of rule on your coins is not sending a message about the staunchness of the army or anything, but telling the users, “you’ve got no worries now”.6 This is imagery any user can appreciate, since even if they don’t get the full etymological strength of the allusion, they do at least mainly speak the language, know the word and in any case can see the image, which is one about the ruling forces bringing ease to even the dullest viewer. A consideration for the defence against protochronism yer ‘onner.

1. So, for example, Colin Morris, The discovery of the individual, 1050-1200 (London 1972); Albrecht Classen, “Autobiography as a late medieval phenomenon” in Medieval Perspectives Vol. 3 (Richmond 1988), pp. 89-104; for sovereignty see n. 2 below.

2. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty. How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia 2008), passim or at least no block of twenty pages yet discovered without a mention of it…

3. On Hincmar at least, see Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship, Law and Liturgy in the Political Theory of Hincmar of Rheims” in English Historical Review Vol. 92 (London 1977), pp. 241-279, repr. in eadem, Politics and Ritual in Early Mediæval Europe (London 1986), pp. 133-171.

4. Michael Camille, “Art History in the Past and Future of Medieval Studies” in John van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 362-382, quote pp. 363-364.

5.Also wondered more thoroughly by Ildar H. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

6. It’s only fair to admit that this was first explained to me by Professor Ted Buttrey, one of my colleagues; and while I’m confessing, I got the word `protochronism’ and indeed the awareness of blueswomen from m’colleague T’anta Wawa. I understand from her that I’m not using the term as an anthropologist would, so I guess this is the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that, like the English language, shakes its neighbours down for their cool words then disappears leaving the context behind and heads for the dictionary. Sorry, anthropologists. You can have ‘alterity’ if you like, no-one round here is using it ARE YOU etc.