Tag Archives: use of history

Seminar CLXXXIV: making sense of Cerdic after Arthur

Returning after the pleasant trip abroad lately described to my seminar report backlog, the 2nd October 2013 saw me back in Senate House for the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because it was being given by Professor John Gillingham and that always bodes well. His title was “Richard of Devizes and the Annals of Winchester“, which was the only way in which this paper disappointed, as it had been advertised under the title “When Cerdic Met Arthur”. As John immediately pointed out, that never actually happened, “because they didn’t exist”, but in the period that John has made most his own, the twelfth century in England, that was of course not the general understanding, and the paper was about one particularly creative attempt to make that understanding make sense.

A romantic depiction of King Arthur

A suitably romantic depiction of King Arthur

The problem is Arthur, of course, whose history had grown from the twelve battles of its ninth-century genesis to the blockbuster of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work.1 Fitting that around the surviving contemporary sources from the Anglo-Saxon side of the mythical frontier, especially the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, both of which inconsiderately fail to mention the British high king, thus proved something of a challenge, and while some historians like William of Malmesbury did it by more or less dismissing Geoffrey’s work as fiction as we now do, others made more effort to find places in the Matter of England where the Matter of Britain might fit, and this is what led the writer behind the hardly-known Annals of Winchester, probably Richard of Devizes, to set up the meeting of John’s abandoned title.2

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9, showing the annal for 519 and also some of the marginal synchronisms, as well as a rather fine but inexplicable doodle

The Annals are edited only from the year 519 onwards, where they say that Cerdic ruled in England while Arthur was fighting in Gaul and died before he returned to fight Mordred, but the actual manuscripts (of which one now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, appears to be an autograph) have an extensive bit before this that tries to reconcile and synthesize several previous attempts to gel the two traditions.3 From Henry of Huntingdon (and ultimately from Gildas, I suppose) he borrowed the idea that the Saxons eventually defeated the British resistance by sheer pressure of immigration, and so he had Cerdic attack again and again until Arthur gave him a fief in Hampshire that the Saxon leader named Wessex. The Chronicle would have liked Cerdic to be a contemporary with the even-more-legendary Hengest,4 but Richard here preferred the Chronicle‘s later date for Cerdic’s arrival, and this he seems to have got from Gaimar’s Estoire de Anglais, whence he also borrowed a Duke Chelricus of the Saxons, with whom he had Cerdic revolt against Arthur at the impulse of Mordred, no less, from whom Cerdic got a considerable expansion of his Wessex, up as far as Kent, although Kent itself went to Chelricus along with Northumbria, that is, Hengest’s lands in the earlier versions of the story. Richard gave Mordred a seven-year reign after which he was killed by the returned Arthur in traditional Galfridian style, and then the text switches more or less firmly to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with the chronologies all now meshed.

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the winner and undisputed champion in this historiographical bout by a series of knockouts

This is arguably to have out-Geoffried Geoffrey, and it seems as if it didn’t travel well, as there are only two manuscripts, and in the fine copy of the two the copyist has borrowed much more of Geoffrey straight. It seems that Richard’s attempt to come up with a version that could have happened, according to what was then understood, failed against the pressure of the version that was already accepted, i. e. Geoffrey’s, and although Richard’s version has the effect of boosting the status of the Cerdicine line (which he draws back to Brutus to match that of the Britons) and various other interesting political takes, it’s still not clear (as came out in discussion) that it was ever written for an audience of more than one (the Annals are dedicated to a ‘Master Adam’ who is unknown).5 John was keen to emphasise that he had not finished with this text, but it already appealed to me because I remember, as a first-year undergraduate, trying exactly this game of getting all the various sources’ dates for early Anglo-Saxon history onto a single sheet of paper and then trying to work out a version that would let them all be true, and it was fun to see that I had unwittingly had such a predecessor…


1. The creation of an Arthurian history is usefully anthologised in Richard White (ed.), King Arthur in Legend and History (London 1997).

2. My notes don’t seem to recall on what basis the authorship of the Annals is assigned to Richard, but I seem to have accepted it, so I’m going to assume that John sounded reasonable on this score, even though I can imagine his rush to dismiss the idea as I write that…

3. Henry Richard Luard (ed.), Annales monastici, Rolls Series 36 (London 1864-1869), 5 vols, II pp. 3-128, online here. I asked why Luard didn’t do the earlier portion and the answer seems to be that he started at the top of a page in the second manuscript and for some reason thought what came before was a different work!

4. On the two Cerdics of the Chronicle, see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Steven Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

5. As a sample of the other fun things Richard did in this text that presumably had a purpose, he has King Harold II survive the Battle of Hastings and run off to join Arthur in eternal waiting sleep on the Isle of Avalon (presumably along with Brán the Blessed’s head and the spirit of British industry), and he has Britain converted to Christianity by Joseph of Arimathea, thus meaning that when the Romans invade they are pagans attacking Christians!

Leeds 2011 report two at last

Sorry! Publication deadlines, as you saw, then admissions interviews (about which I have seriously mixed feelings and may eventually write), then the wedding of a good friend and erstwhile medievalist, at which apart from, y’know, attending the marriage (hic præsens et testis fui!), I learnt a lot about Cassiodorus that will come in useful next term. And then, for various reasons, I’ve wanted to take a good deal of care with this post. But now here it is, my mandated Leeds report, part the two, covering the events of the 12th July 2011.

508. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman world and its neighbours in late Antiquity, III – Romans and barbarians

Since, as recounted two posts ago, I’d realised on turning up in this strand that not only did it have a set of titles long enough to be a monograph series by some German academy, but also that it was where the excitement was likely to be for its duration, I was back in the Mortain Link Room at nine in the morning to see more. That went as follows:

  • Alex Woolf, “From Civitas to Kingdom? Romanitas in the British provinces and beyond”.
  • Alex here raised with his customary sharpness of perception some important questions, not the least of which is what period were the “sub-Roman” British interested in imitating? The Roman buildings of Roman Britain were largely pre-third-century, for example. Does that mean that if someone was continuing to live like a fifth-century Romano-British noble, we would see him in his material leavings as British not Roman? Was public building and sculpture really the mark of Romanitas for these people, as it has been for some modern scholars? (Was it instead stone monumental inscriptions, basically only preserved from outwith the area of Roman government?) Alex also made the excellent point that the Old English wealh, usually translated as `foreigner’, was however not used of foreigners like the Vikings, the Gaels, Syrians, and so on, and that we might therefore do well to think of it as being linguistic, and applying to Romance-speakers only. How far Romance actually describes the language of lowland post-Roman Britain would be one of those questions where fewer people than usual would follow Alex’s arguments, I suspect, but the difference still wants an explanation.1 Lots to think about here.

  • James Fraser, “Thoughts on the Roman and Native Discoveries of Pictishness”
  • The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

    The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

    This paper came very close to my areas of British interest, as you will understand when I say that James started by critiquing the idea that the Picts were a single people for whom a material culture identity might be detected. In this sense, as he observed, the classic volume The Problem of the Picts has itself become the problem.2 Thereafter the paper became more of a historiographical survey of whom it is that the Picts’ identity has mattered to and how, but there were still some similarly live points, such as the observation that the word Brittones and its derivatives, originally Latin, appears to have been borrowed into the insular vernaculars only after a distinction had arisen between Britones and Picti; James can be found on record saying that probably the only difference between these groups was being inside or outside the frontier of the Roman Empire, which makes for linguistic difficulties as we’ve lately been seeing, but whether or not you buy that, he here has something that appears to need an explanation.3 James finally suggested that Pictishness was really a late construct used by state-building kings to meld a nation of disparate groups of peoples only lately differentiated from a generalised British identity, into a political unity opposed to English or Brittonic or indeed maybe Gaelic, stressing `barbarian’ cultural practices that were identifiable as such in Roman terms, like tattooing, like inscribing stones but not with Latin, and like deriving one’s origins from the Scythians, a reference that only makes sense in a Roman cultural complex.

    I found all this pretty powerful, as you might expect from things I’ve said in the past, and asked in questions whom he thought the agents of this new cultural formation might be; he blamed the Church, which I think makes some kind of sense if we can see the Church as a tool of kings in this area. Before that however the session had been completed by…

  • Fraser Hunter, “Breaking Down the Wall: Rome and North Britain in the late Roman period”
  • This was perhaps the least provocative paper of the three but that was not least because it was by far the best-evidenced, and left much less room for debate: Hunter showed simply that Roman luxury goods got beyond the wall into the lowland zone, and that after these goods stopped coming local cultural innovation attempted to make up the gap, which we kind of know, but that inside the walls a similar transition is happening from Roman soldier’s goods, money and gear to stuff that we would recognise as warband material. Rome, while it was active in the North of Britain, created haves and have-nots, but after it went only some of these people’s centres could keep some kind of supremacy going by continuing to import Romanitas. Thus, Dumbarton Rock and Edinburgh kept going, Birdoswald and others failed, and so the new political landscape was formed.

I don’t mind telling you that after this session was over my head was so full of thoughts that I obtained coffee, or at least the best available facsimile, and tried talking to Alex but had to excuse myself because I needed to try and write something down before everything I was thinking escaped; I couldn’t speak even to Alex in case it overwrote what I was struggling to articulate. After twenty-five minutes I had something like the plan of a paper, restating with extra nuance my thoughts about the regionality of the Pictish kingdom, and was able to put it away confident that some day I could write it (as indeed I subsequently have, though much of that first rush has then turned out to be unsustainable). That was the kind of session this had been for me, the kind that could not be fully contained in my head for the explosion of possibilities. “And I’m not even lying.”

608. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman world and its neighbours in late Antiquity, IV – new narratives in Hispania

Of course I don’t really work on Scotland any more, and if I ever finish that aforesaid paper it will likely be my goodbye to the research area. How convenient for me, then, that Professor Halsall’s excellent contributors also included a number of people interested in the Iberian peninsula!4? They were:

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Fragmentation and Thin Polities: dynamics of the post-Roman Duero plateau”
  • The Duero plateau had been an integrated part of Roman Hispania, not rich but with many villas, but the events of the fifth century turned it into a frontier zone between the Sueves and Visigoths, neither of whom really had much governmental presence there, and as such seems to have localised its identity, with seniores loci mentioned by John of Biclaro and perhaps local coinage being issued. Hillforts grew up, though none have yet been dug so the association is kind of hypothetical. The Visigothic kingdom, when it re-established itself here, seems to have done so not least by giving the local élites rights to tax or withdrawing them, but the lack of towns meant that it was never an integrated part of Toledo’s enterprise. This does not however mean, argued Professor Martín, that it was not part of the state, and he argued that we should recognise this as a kind of `soft hegemony’ that might let us think usefully about how the successor states worked in their own terms, with the kings getting the status that kept them in power and the regions getting the autonomy that stopped them from wanting away from kings. We’ve seen something like this idea expressed here before, I think, so I was right down with this.

  • Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo and Alfonso Vigil-Escalera, “The Elephant in the Room: new approaches to early medieval cemeteries in Spain”
  • Pretty much everything I know about burial in Visigothic Spain I read either in Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations or at Historian on the Edge, so I was keen to hear more from two names I have on several reading lists but have never quite got round to reading.5 The two of them, represented by Dr Vigil-Escalera alone, argued that categories like `Roman’ and `barbarian’ won’t cover this kind of evidence, which has urban `barbarians’, rustic `Romans’ and all kinds of other cross-category burials to accommodate, and that the variation could be explained without recourse to foreign populations, even if those were there; the burial evidence in their eyes neither proves nor disproves immigration. The archaeology instead shows a restlessness that is to be expected from a peninsula in political and economic turmoil. Instead of the stereotypes, they detect in the burial evidence a militarised élite interred in lead coffins, a lower grade of burial with few or no grave goods, and nothing visible beneath. Where there are cemeteries that associate with a settlement, 60-95% of graves are furnished, the figure being lower the later the cemetery runs; by the eighth century (but not till then!) grave furnishing had completely stopped. Beyond these generalisations, however, variation in this mortuary landscape was at the community level, not the level of whole `peoples’, and certainly can’t be broken down as `Roman’ vs. `Germanic’. Therefore, they asked, why blame barbarians?

  • Guy Halsall, “Why Do We Need the Barbarians?”
  • In answer to that question came the last paper of the strand by Professor Halsall himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who’ve heard him speak or read him on the Internet, this was the one that really started the war. [Edit: and, indeed, some changes have been made to these paragraphs by request of one of those involved.] The consequences, if not of this actual speech, at least of its subsequent display on the Internet, have been various, unpleasant and generally regrettable, and I don’t want any of them myself. However, I think that what Professor Halsall was doing, which was to demand attention to the way that terms like `barbarians’ and `immigrants’ have been and are now deployed in political discourse, in short, to think who might be listening when we deploy these terms and for what, is something that it’s necessary to discuss. There may be other ways to say what he was saying, though they might be less effective. After all, an old colleague of mine sometimes gloomily observed of his scholarly opponents, “Y’know, you can’t change these guys’ minds, you can only wait until they die,” and obviously that’s not going to do much for public feeling and policy right now, which is where the fight is needed.

    UK Prime Minister David Cameron expounding his party's `Big Society` ideology

    Dangerously empty bloviation

    But the issues must not be dropped! Since 2006 I have been on the web proclaiming somewhat casually that when history is used it is almost always misused; glib and untheorised though that was when I wrote it, there is a point there, and it behoves us to keep an eye on what our work may be used for. Some people are more conscious of this than others, as the recent furore over the way that the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK appears to have picked up and run with the Conservative party’s campaign slogan in the last UK national elections shows; but this consciousness is usually with the misusers, and we could do with the same awareness from people who aren’t deliberately selling themselves for political funding (although it should be noted that the AHRC have claimed that they weren’t, without responding in any way to pressure to actually alter their agenda). How then do we fight the misuse of history by those with political agendas? Professor Halsall argued in questions that we have to take the fight to popular sources of information, to publish opinion columns, to get on the Internet, to colonise Wikipedia and not to assume that people can’t handle our sophistication. These seem like worthwhile, if taxing, endeavours that would bring us benefit whatever our politics. If the humanities were any good at coordinating our defence this would already have been encouraged in every faculty across the land, as PR for the industry of academia itself, dammit; instead they have successfully set us against each other and this is the result. Party politics, whether left-wing (do we still have one of those?), centrist or comfortable Conservative’s, really don’t signify here: there is no UK political party interested in funding the humanities. But you’ve read me on this before and you’ll read me on it again, so no more here.

The whole strand had been extremely provocative, as you can tell, and events subsequently revealed that it had perhaps been too much so, but I also think that we need to awaken some kind of social awareness about the uses, misuses, impact and importance of history. Everyone in the field must surely agree that that importance currently needs all the acknowledging, emphasising and directing that it can get. The furore over this presentation has unfortunately hidden these issues, which deserved to continue under discussion and not to become so personal as to be swamped in antagonism and threats. I’ll have more to say about this here—probably not very insightful but one should not stay silent—but for the meantime I can only advise you to keep a close eye on Historian on the Edge, for reflection on the social and moral imperatives of our work, whether you agree with him or not. We’d all like to think our work was socially and morally important, I’m sure, so it seems natural to consider how that might work out, doesn’t it?

717. Between Palatium and Civitas: political and symbolic spaces throughout the Middle Ages

Anyway. That was the final session in Professor Halsall’s strand, and things calmed down somewhat after lunch. Since time is short and the backlog long I’m therefore going to tackle the rest of the day in briefer form. I crossed the campus now to Weetwood Hall and there heard these people speak:

  • Martin Gravel, “Built on Expectation and Remembrance: the visitation of kings as the symbolic recognition of palaces in Carolingian West Francia”
  • Aurélien le Coq, “Contestation, Networks, and Places of Power in Grenoble during the Gregorian Reform: Guigues of Albon’s trajectory”
  • Alexandra Beauchamp, “Royal Court and Capitals of the Crown of Aragon in the XIVth century”
  • Originally scheduled for this session had been Josianne Barbier, doyenne of the Frankish fisc, and given how much her work featured in my reading for that dead-stick Kalamazoo paper of a couple of years back, I’d been rather hoping to meet her. Alas it was not to be, but these papers were also interesting, for especially Martin’s, which wanted to look closer at what kings actually do with their palaces beyond turn up, issue charters (not always them of course) and leave. With a few documents of Charles the Bald and Louis the Stammerer he was able to do this, showing that certain palaces had certain functions and that they weren’t all equivalent. Obvious, perhaps, conceptually, but hard to prove! Martin did so. We subsequently proved to have an almost-inconvenient overlap of interests with regard to the later Carolingians and I’m looking forward to more of his work. Le Coq, meanwhile, I would like to give due honour for using the term “ecclesiamento” to describe the way that Grenoble came to be grouped around the bishop’s properties and interests in his period of study, and Beauchamp’s careful attempt to try and say something about how large the Aragonese court actually was, on a day-to-day basis, from an unpromising source base, was a near-perfect example of how to present a few key interesting things from what was clearly a much larger piece of work.

805. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Fortified Settlements in Different Regions of Europe

I try and go to as much of the relevant archaeological stuff at Leeds as possible, because there’s never very much and I want to encourage it, but also because it’s usually very interesting and full of information I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. This time I was also hoping to see and meet Marco Valenti, who is a name that crops up all over what had then been my recent reading, but in this I was disappointed. What we got was:

  • Neil Christie, “Burhs and Defence: assessing the military status of later Saxon burhs
  • Marco Valenti, “Early Medieval Fortified Settlements in Italy from the 6th to the 10th Centuries”
  • Hajnalka Herold, “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries in Central Europe”
  • You will be observing that Valenti appears still to have been there, but in fact, his paper was read by Professor Christie, a compromise that was certainly better than no paper but didn’t enable the kind of debate it would have been good to have. In short, Christie himself gave the audience a quick introduction to the fortification programme rolled out by the kings of Wessex in their fight back against the Vikings, and asked how much actual use the fortifications, many of which have come to be towns now and may always have been meant to, were. Christie preferred to see them more as exercises in literally building community, while I might prefer to see them as exercises in power demonstration, like Offa’s Dyke; certainly, Asser seems to show us that the relevant communities didn’t necessarily feel it.6 The Valenti paper, next, concentrated on castles in Tuscany, for a long time supposedly part of a major set of social changes just before or in the eleventh century that we know well round here, but by the kind of survey Valenti has been able to demonstrably a much longer-term phenomenon, starting in the ninth century if not before. There has of course been very little digging of such sites but what has been dug has forced this kind of re-evaluation too (as previously reported here indeed). Lastly Hajnalka, whose work I’d met at Kalamazoo the previous year, reintroduced me and introduced everyone else to her extremely interesting élite settlement at Gars Thunau in Austria, which has in its history a ninth-century building programme that seems to be chronologically, but not otherwise, connected to a sea-change in the development of such sites over a wider area, all of which nonetheless show no archaeological connections with each other. There’s something big here which has yet to be identified, clearly; Dawn Hadley asked what and Hajnalka said that the presence of the Church needs to be looked at, but that it will only explain some sites. Nonetheless, paradigms like Martin Carver‘s of a reaction in stone to such new power groups might well help here.7

Now, after this was the blogger meet-up, which was quite odd in the way it worked out. I was late, I forget why but probably not for any good reason, and the Naked Philologist and Magistra were left to coordinate the initial stages without me even though neither knew each other. By the time I arrived, it was busy but not with people I knew, which was good but unexpected. I can now remember only two of these people, Livejournallers rather than deliberate academic bloggers both, so I won’t name them in case they don’t want their personal lives linked to, but it was a pleasure to meet them and others, and I seem to recall that the gathering went on for a long time. I know that by the time I got to the St Andrews reception they’d run out of wine, but I also remember that this had somehow happened far faster than they’d anticipated so it may still have been quite early. In any case, company remained good and chatter plentiful, as afterwards seemed to have been so for a great deal of the conference, and it had been a stirring day.


1. The classic discussion of the term `wealh‘ is M. Faull, “The semantic development of Old English wealh” in Leeds Studies in English Vol. 8 (Leeds 1975), pp. 20-37; Alex’s take on such matters can currently mostly be found in his “Apartheid and Economics in Anglo-Saxon England” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 115-129, online here, last modified 18th October 2007 as of 10th December 2011, though for the linguistics he largely rests here on Peter Schrijver, “What Britons Spoke Around 400”, ibid. pp. 165-171.

2. Frederick T. Wainwright (ed.), The Problem of the Picts (Edinburgh 1955).

3. James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 785, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2007), pp. 44-49.

4. I probably don’t need to explain the range of circumlocutions I use here to avoid the word `Spain’, or indeed that the paper titles do, but suffice to say that if this seems clumsy to you, the modern country’s name really doesn’t cover what we’re trying to include here.

5. G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 296-300 & 338-346, but I should add at least J. A. Quirós Castillo and A. Vigil-Escalera Guirado, “Networks of peasant villages between Toledo and Velegia Alabense, North-western Spain (V-X centuries)” in Archeologia Medievale Vol. 33 (Firenze 2006), pp. 79-130 and now Quirós, “Early medieval landscapes in north-west Spain: local powers and communities, fifth-tenth centuries” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 285-311.

6. Asser, Life of King Alfred, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), cap. 91:

For by gently instructing, cajoling, urging, commanding, and (in the end, when his patience was exhausted) by sharply chastising those who were disobedient and by despising popular stupidity and stubbornness in every way, he carefully and cleverly exploited and converted his bishops and ealdormen and nobles, and his thegns most dear to him, and reeves as well… to his own will and to the general advantage of the whole realm. But if, during the course of these royal admonitions, the commands were not fulfilled because of the people’s laziness, or else (having been begun too late in a time of necessity) were not finished in time to be of use to those working on them (I am speaking here of fortifications commanded by the king which have not yet [c. 883] been begun, or else, having been begun late in the day, have not yet been brought to completion) and enemy forces burst in by land or by sea (or, as frequently happens, by both!) then those who had opposed the royal commands were humiliated in meaningless repentance by being reduced to virtual extinction.

This passage doesn’t make me like Asser or Alfred any better, actually.

7. As in for example M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings (London 1998), esp. pp. 52-93.

964, 1978, who’s counting? Of monks, canons and new toilets

The New Minster, Winchester

The New Minster, Winchester

Here’s a short one. I learnt a little while back from News for Medievalists that the BBC had something to say about an occasion on 5th March when Winchester Cathedral opened the first new part of its building for 500 years. It is, unexcitingly, basically a toilet block (as up till then the cathedral hadn’t had any toilets, apparently!), but they managed to add some excitement by getting it opened by someone they’d just made an Ecumenical Canon, who is no less than Abbot Étienne of the monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire at Fleury, for which reason the new extension is to be the Fleury Building. ‘How very appropriate a choice of canon, if not of facility,’ I more or less thought and then found that the BBC thought so also but not for the reason I expected:

The link between Winchester Cathedral and the Abbey of Fleury goes back to 1978, when the then Dean of Winchester, Michael Stancliffe, and the Abbot of Fleury decided that the Anglican cathedral and the Benedictine monastery should be united in prayer.

And that’s a bit weird because the connection I’d thought of was that the New Minster at Winchester was reformed by Bishop Æthelwold of that see on his appointment there in 964, and he had been trained… at Fleury.1 This seemed like an obvious thing to mention, but then I wondered if the fact that he’d kicked out the canons, whom he found quite displeasing, and replaced them with monks made it, perhaps, awkward to mention that when making a monk your newest canon. Maybe they wanted those lines to stay blurry, I thought. And that would be interesting from the point of view of the continuing relevance of the medieval past to current institutions, and institutional memory and so on. But in fact the actual press release on Winchester Cathedral’s web-pages is happy to acknowledge the older link, just about:

The Cathedral’s origins are as a Benedictine monastery – Benedict being recognised as the father of Western monasticism – and although the Cathedral is no longer run by monks, Benedict’s values are at the heart of its ethos. The strength of the links between Fleury and Winchester are evident as the Cathedral and the Abbey pray for each other every day as part of the more recent rejuvenation of a relationship which stretches back a millennium. There are also regular exchanges between the two communities – including three trips by the Cathedral choir. It is therefore wholly right that the first of these Honorary Canons should be linked to its earliest origins.

They don’t say what that original relationship actually was, of course, but given what we are told of this episode by contemporary sources…

The king also sent there with the bishop one of his agents, the well-known Wulfstan of Dalham, who used the royal authority to order the canons to choose one of two courses: either to give place to the monks without delay or to take the habit of the monastic order. Stricken with terror, and detesting the monastic life, they left as soon as the monks entered…2

… you can understand why Winchester would have wanted to let this pass unmentioned on a happy day 1047 years later. This is not, I think it’s safe to say, how any of us would want to be fired from what we would presumably have thought of as, well, a permanent job. What about the BBC, though? Did they just miss the word `millennium’ in the press release, or what? Well, who knows. But even if they’re not counting, you can trust the historians to remember.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria, not that you can currently see it, or that if you could you could say anything there. Cliopatria’s recent upgrade… has not gone well.)


1. The obvious starting point for learning about St Æthelwold is Barbara A. E. Yorke (ed.), Bishop Aethelwold: his career and influence (Woodbridge 1998).

2. Wulfstan [not the same one!], Vita Sancti Æthelwoldi, edd. & transl. Michael Lapidge & Michael Winterbottom as Wulfstan of Winchester: the Life of St Æthelwold, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford 1991), cap. 18, here cit. from Alexander R. Rumble, “The Laity and the Monastic Reform in the Reign of Edgar” in Donald Scragg (ed.), Edgar, King of the English, 959-975 (Woodbridge 2008), pp. 242-251 at p. 242.

In which Robert Darnton appears to have the answers

I mentioned that I had another post brewing featuring a further interview from Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke’s The New History, and that interview is with French Revolutionist Robert Darnton. I once studied this stuff, as an undergraduate, and I didn’t know the name, which is odd because I recognise a lot of what he seems to have said from lectures; Tim Blanning and he must work in parallel brains. All the same, I’m not going to go hunting his work right now: I did mention a to-read pile half a mile high, as you’ll recall, and I finished that book chapter today and generally Clio is keeping me busy right now.

Robert Darnton

But there are a couple of really heartening perspectives in the interview. Pallares-Burke tailored her questions to her subjects, and edited out the least interesting answers I assume, but there are some running themes that come up in most of the interviews: the importance of women’s history, the balance between empirical work and theory, and so on. Sometimes the interviewees have answers, sometimes they gloomily disclaim the possibility of answering them, but Darnton frequently comes over as just having the answers to everything and making them seem obvious.

The first of these is where he is asked why he has such a passion for history, and his answer really is for me “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”:

I find something deeply satisfying about the study of the past, and I don’t know quite what it is. I feel it most when I work in the archives. As the tenor of a life begins to emerge from the manuscripts and I see a story unfold from one document to another, I have the sensation of making contact with the human condition as it was experienced by someone in another world, centuries away from mine. It may be an illusion, and I may get it wrong. I may sound like a romantic. But the archives, in all their concreteness, provide a corrective to romantic interpretations. They keep the historian honest. Unlike literary scholars and philosophers, we must marshal evidence in order to sustain our arguments, and we cannot pull it out of our heads. We extract it from boxes in the archives.

And he goes on with a short defence of the existence of actual facts, but already he’s got my vote there: that is exactly what I do it for, and if I’d paid attention to this when I first read it you’d all have been saved my waffling for several screens trying to say the same thing only worse. You get a glance of someone else’s life for a short space of time: and you know that it was real, that this character you find or envision really did have a life and that you may with some luck and judgement be imagining them correctly, because there was a reality that you might be able to approach. Real people. It is the point.

The latter, and less inspiring perhaps but still very neat, is where Pallares-Burke poses him the query that she has put to several of the other historians interviewed: when you go to the archives, do you go with no idea of what to look for, and just report on what you find, or do you go with a theory and a set of questions? The one risks finding nothing because of lack of focus, the other risks finding what you looked for and no more. And, well, yes, true to an extent but surely there’s some better conception because look, we do in fact get some history work done. It takes Darnton to add sense and a third way:

I love to do research because you never know what you’ll find when you open an new dossier and start reading… I think that intellectually it’s also invigorating, even though in my manner of describing it it may sound as if the historian’s task is digging a ditch. The reason for its being invigorating is that you go to the archives with conceptions, patterns and hypotheses, having, so to speak, a picture of what the past was like. And then, you find some strange letter that doesn’t correspond to the picture at all. So what is happening is a dialogue between your preconceptions and your general way of envisaging a field, on the one hand, and on the other hand, this raw material that you dig out and that often does not fit into the picture. So, the picture changes and you go back and forth between the specific empirical research and the more general conceptualization.

Again, he is right. Those Casserres parchments I blogged about earlier were my latest case of this: I went expecting to find a vicecomital takeover of a small church and a raft of donations and found instead what seems to be the wholesale adoption of a substantial mother church’s archive by making what French diplomatists would call “copies figurés”, copies meant to look like originals, and getting people to sign the new copies but putting them all onto as few parchments as possible… And I’m still going back and forth between what monastic archives are supposed to do and what this one seems to have done as a result. He has it right, I tell you.

Darnton seems to interview a lot: I found two more, both focusing on the impact of the Internet and Google (and Google Books, in one case), whilst looking for an image of him just now; so if you would like to know more, and since those subjects are hot concerns of both mine and others, you may find these links interesting.


Robert Darnton, interviews with Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, Oxford, July 1996 & May & June 1999, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Robert Darnton” in eadem, The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2002), pp. 158-183, quotes from pp. 162 & 170-171.

What kind of post-modern are you?

No, not some journal poll, but a question raised in the interview in her The New History that Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke included with her husband, Professor Peter Burke. He comes across, perhaps unsurprisingly, as a very clear-headed and sympathetic model of academic detachment; perhaps to drag more out of him, her questions by contrast seem oddly negative and nihilist. So, as well as saying things I can relate to about how one’s books are attempts to repair the previous one (I know I haven’t finished one yet, but it’s only discipline that’s stopping me writing the beginning of the one that will hold some of the stuff I won’t be able to say in the first) and that one really needs to get out of Oxbridge fairly frequently if one wishes to work there without becoming terribly isolated, some of his questions address what are becoming this blog’s perennial questions about how much theory helps or hinders and what use the whole historical enquiry shebang are. While I stay busy with actual writing and learning how little I know about real numismatics despite working in the middle of it for two years, you can therefore ponder the thoughts of someone wiser than me about this, our profession.

Peter Burke

Firstly, Dr Pallares-Burke asks him if he thinks that post-modernist approaches have robbed us of any chance of getting at the truth. He is subtle in response, distinguishing between a deliberate and self-conscious philosophical approach (as ‘post-modernism’) and a vaguer embedded cultural assumption (as ‘post-modernity’). Unsurprisingly, he sees the conscious version as more helpful, but characterises both as being about a readiness to believe that social structures, assumptions and beliefs are ‘soft’ and changeable, that accepted dogmas may change, and that the individual retains agency in the wider world, as opposed to older views that put us all in the grip of deterministic social forces. His actual answer to the question is that our new perspectives make it less likely that we will attempt to impose our vision on a swathe of history but also makes us less likely to do the work of relating what was then to what is now, a task of interpretation that he sees as the core of the historian’s task. It’s quite interesting to find a self-avowed practitioner of the ‘new history’ that the book’s title distinguishes saying that, in retrospect, it’s been unhelpful because of opening the possible range of questions so wide that historians now lose touch with each other. In particular, I could see the force of a suggestion that interdisciplinarity is a very necessary thing, but drives in many directions, and that if what we wind up with is a range of historians who speak more to members of other fields than to historians, all we have done is create more incompatible specialisms. That is, interdisciplinary scholars need to keep enough touch with some central idea of history that they can still usefully inform each other, not just their more traditional colleagues.

Secondly, there’s a bit that may as well be quoted in extenso:

“‘What is the use of history?’ Marc Bloch wrote a whole book trying to answer this simple question, put in all its simplicity by a child, because, as he said, it dealt with the important issue of the ‘legitimacy of history’. How would you deal with this question?

“If you’d like a short answer to this huge question, I would simply say that the use of the study of the past lies in helping us to orient ourselves in the world in which we live. A longer answer would involve making distinctions between uses (more or less practical), and also between pasts (more or less remote).

“Since the world is in constant change, it is impossible to understand it without trying to locate what is happening in broader trends over time, whether they are economic, cultural, or whatever. This is the essential justification for the study of the recent past. But the recent past is not intelligible by itself. I sometimes think that we ought to teach history backwards, starting with current events….

“Another use of history is to tell people about their ‘roots’, the culture from which they and their families came. At a time when more and more people feel uprooted in a world which is changing faster and faster, and when many people have been physically uprooted… this psychological function of the study of the past is an important one. It explains the increasing interest in local history in the last few years.

“But to study our own past alone is dangerous. It encourages insularity and a sense of superiority over others…. So it is crucial to combine the study of ‘us’ with the study of others, more or less remote….”1

This makes me ask myself several questions. I am very much interested in the early medieval history of the country from which I come, my first piece of sustained research was on Anglo-Saxon London and my second was on Scotland, where I have ancestry and family. I moved to looking at Catalonia principally because, as Magistra says below of literature, it has the sort of sources that answer the questions I want to ask. And my knowledge of England does help with my study of Catalonia, if only in contrasting the very different way the two societies used charters. All the same, I don’t think I do this to anchor my identity; if anything I do it to dissolve it, to suggest that my modern nationality and heritage (and, I suppose, privilege—it may all be guilt-driven, in the end) are no more important than what some small landowner did with a short-lived terracing project on the side of a Pyrenee eleven hundred years ago. The selection of my ‘other’ has been driven by a desire to find unploughed historiographical ground and an interest in mixing zones and liminal territories, and it may well have pushed me further than is good for me from the mainstream. But despite all of this introspection, I have given very similar answers to the `what use is history’ question in the past, even if I no longer do, and it gives me to wonder that I no longer seem to believe it. It may well be truer for others than it is for me.

As for his first justification, that history needs background and the background needs background, ad infinitum, that I baulk at much more readily. Only a modernist can get away with this; it is teleological. Anything old that has not had modern social phenomena that can be claimed as its offspring loses its ‘use’ in this sort of argument, and studying it therefore leads to scrabbling attempts to make it ‘relevant’ that should be alien to anyone trying to be objective. Sometimes, things are interesting even if they didn’t lead to anything else. This is the problem that Randolph Starn was trying to get round with the genealogical approach I described a while ago, and as I said there, sometimes things just don’t fit into linear schemes. One could just about fit such societies into Professor Burke’s idea by considering the distant past as an ‘other’ to give us perspective, and certainly I think that’s something I get from studying it, but just as Professor Burke gives no impression of really wanting to look at the early medieval roots of his study areas, I don’t really want to take my studies forward to the sixteenth century to see what they go on to mean: I feel quite strongly that they had meaning at the time, if we can but get at what it was, and that that’s enough. The question remains, that he addresses and I don’t, is: as I am not then but now, what do I think is the point of moving this stuff, via my interpretation, from then to now? I’m not sure I have an intellectual answer that is more than “LOOK WHAT I FOUND!”, and I may need to think about that some more.

Those are the bits I have the strong reactions to. As to interdisciplinarity, I think I’m actually situated about right, trying to be able to understand the basics of work in most fields enough to ask for meaningful clarification from an expert, and understand it, whether that be literature, liturgy, archaeology (most usually), anthropology or even physics. I still want to do what I think of as just ‘history’, though some would say I am hard social and some would call me soft political, and I don’t mind. But because all this stuff is happening too, I like to be able to understand what its practitioners are saying without leaving my own work for weeks at a time (which is why apparently deliberate intellectualisation and obfuscation annoys me). As for post-modernity and post-modernism, I don’t even care where I am on the spectrum; labelling my approach has no interest to me at all, especially with labels that I suspect are not useful to describe it. But maybe you the reader see something there you like?


1. Peter Burke, interview with M. L. Pallares-Burke, Cambridge, May and June 1999, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Peter Burke” in eadem, The New History, pp. 129-157.

Attack of the Pseudonymous Medieval Commentators

I seem to have been contacted from beyond the grave. Mind you, this shouldn’t surprise me, I have Geoffrey Chaucer and the Emperor Antoninus Pius on my blogroll, after all, how far away could Archbishop Wulfstan of York be? Yes, an acquaintance of mine has brought to my attention a relatively new blog which rejoices in the name, What Would Wulfstan Do? Its noble aim is not so far off that of Modern Medieval, to give the people of the Middle Ages a voice that speaks to the modern reader, but so far the speakers are only two, though what a two: Archbishop Wulfstan, Lupus himself, and Ælfric of Eynsham. All the same, I gather that these two fear that they may not themselves be sufficient unto the day, and I have been asked to advertise their wish for collaborators. If anyone feels that they could channel some medieval opinion into the blogosphere, which let’s face it people are already doing, the archbishop and the grammarian would be joyous

Rock and roll and the use of history

I seem to have written quite a lot about what use history is since I started this blog, though partly because so have a lot of other people. I have, more specifically, taken the position that really history better not try to justify itself in practical terms, and that use of history tends to be misuse, and I have struggled to express the idea that really, it’s an arts subject and needs to justify itself simply in terms of making people feel better about something or themselves or existence, to add value and enjoyment to life. Thanks to a heads-up from Dr Virago, I am now able thankfully to point out that someone else has said this far better, and I recommend that you go and see. All the same, I did a little while ago come across another argument for pragmatism, from an unexpected quarter…

Lemmy reading in his dressing room at the Motörhead 25th Anniversary gig

People who only know Motörhead as a byword for greasy high-speed noise which would, famously, make your lawn die if it moved in next door, might be surprised how thoughtful dear old Lemmy can wax sometimes. And like an academic or two, he seems to go through several iterations of an idea, often over years, before hitting his ultimate formulation of it. The 2006 album Kiss of Death (SPV Records) seems to contain one of these:

Listen!

Where are we to go from here in time?
Do you see the future, do you know
What can you expect from years to come
And what can you do now to make it so?

All of history is there for you
All the deeds done in the world are mad
If you don’t know what has gone before
You’ll just make the same mistake again and again and again

Soldier, soldier, see where we were
You have to know the story
Older, colder, life isn’t fair
Got to grab the sword of glory

If you can’t see what bloody fools we were
Then you were also born a bloody fool
Listen to the hundred million dead
They didn’t know it, but they died for you

All you know is that you’re young and tough
Don’t you think those millions thought the same?
If you don’t know where it all went wrong
You’ll just make the same mistake again and again and again

Soldier, soldier, see where we were
You have to know the story
Older, colder, life isn’t fair
Got to grab the sword of glory

Read the books, learn to save your life
How can you find the knowledge if you don’t?
All the brave men died before their time
You’ll either be a hero, or you won’t

Don’t you realise the only way
Is see why all those brave men died in vain
If all that slaughter doesn’t make you sad
You’ll just make the same mistake again and again and again

Soldier, soldier, see where we were
You have to know the story
Older, colder, life isn’t fair
Got to grab the sword of glory

(repeat till fade)

Let the next people who want to mock him for collecting Nazi memorabilia remember that he does this. But seriously. In 2005 I went to Nottingham for a conference and a bunch of squaddies (I suppose the US equivalent might be GIs?) took the seats near me after a stop. I was a bit concerned because they were obviously excited and I didn’t think they’d take kindly to the long-‘aired inter-bloody-lectual sitting in the corner with a book, but actually when the conversation did start they were all kind of awestruck that I’d been to University and so on. They couldn’t have done that, they said, and maybe it was never a practical option I guess. But they were going to Iraq.1 They were all seventeen except one who was a ringleader by virtue of being nineteen and having joined the year before the others. I’ve often wondered if they all came back. And though he wrote it too late, I can’t help wondering if Lemmy’s song might have changed that. That’d be a use for history all right.


1. There were a pair of US tourists in the seats behind us, and the ringleader of the group, who was a loud Geordie, kept throwing contemptous remarks about Americans over his shoulder at them. This bothered me, because I don’t like the US government’s policies much but don’t usually tar the population at large with the brush. But I was reminded that he might have a different perspective when they all got off the train, and he shouted as a parting shot, “f*cking Americans, making me go to war!” (translated from the Geordie, which was more like “fookin’ Mairkans, mekkin’ mae gore tore worwer!”). I felt bad for the tourists still, but I couldn’t help but understand where he was coming from. I hope he made it back.

Mission statements 2: custodians of memory

Logo of the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal

I was going to leave the previous post as a singleton, and then of course it was Remembrance Day. I might have thought the things I go on to say here when I came across Another Damned Medievalist’s post on the subject, but actually I was already thinking it because of, quite unconnectedly, having that evening watched an episode of Dr Who I’d not seen before in which they had cause to show part of a Remembrance ceremony. It was total coincidence that we chose that DVD this evening, as far as I can tell, but it contained the following words that may be familiar to you:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

This never fails to choke me up. And it’s not because of sadness for the loss of life, as such, or any of the more conventional tugs it’s meant to make at the heartstrings. I freely admit, I used to be a war geek, and I’ve made some effort to get an idea of what fighting in the wars of the last century might have been like, but it’s not even empathy that really gets me with that quote. I haven’t got much right to empathy anyway; I have no relatives who died in the war, indeed I exist only because of my father‘s clever ability to stay alive through it out of his own incompetence, as he told it. Somehow his incompetence made him a lieutenant who served at three invasions, so I’ve had my doubts about whether he, a lifelong pacifist, was really as useless a war sailor as he would have liked to think himself, ever since I read a really good article in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society about Australian Great War veterans and how they liked to remember their service.1 Meanwhile, it’s theoretically possible, though vanishingly unlikely, that my father’s landing craft may have ferried my maternal grandfather’s company onto a Normandy beach in 1944, long before they had ever had cause to matter to each other. They both survived. So it’s not even grief.

No, the reason that quote gets to me is because it’s not true. We won’t remember them, for the vastly most part. We’re already getting to the point where there aren’t enough veterans to hold memorial services for the Great War dead. Soon the media exposure those get will collapse as a result. In another century the Great War will be as distant from the people then as the Franco-Prussian War is now. Its history will probably still be taught in schools, but individual connections to the soldiers, whether by acquaintance or genealogy, will be the preserve of amateur researchers and real obsessives. After all, tracing one’s genealogy back as far as, say, the European settlement of the USA, is still fairly reasonable to our perspectives; but when you get people who claim to be descendants of English nobility from before the Conquest (which I have met twice already) you, or at least I, assume that they’re quietly and harmlessly mad, because we know what the evidence is like and that it basically can’t be done. It’ll be a good guess for most people that they had ancestors in the Great War, but for the most part knowing who they were or what they did or didn’t, won’t be an option without doing heavy research at Kew or wherever.

You may already have seen where I’m going with this. When popular memory fades, as it will, who remembers the fallen? Who, in fact, remembers anyone? We do. Historians are our cultural memory specialists. That sets all kinds of agenda that most of us would probably wish to disavow, but nonetheless we are the only ones who can. In the same way as I can’t bring back a full picture of Adalbert of Taradell, I haven’t been able to get a full idea of what, for example, Sergeant Edward Mott of the 1st Battalion, Border Regiment was like as a person: probably fairly frightening I would have to guess, because in my world people don’t charge German machine-gun nests single-handedly even after being wounded in the eye, but in 1915 actually some ordinary people did do stuff like that, because war is Hell. Similarly when I got my hands on the medal group of 2nd Lieutenant John Mitchell, RAF, my personal reaction was, “you madman!” but that doesn’t remember him as someone who knew him would have remembered him. We can’t do it perfectly; but when no-one else can remember them, we can at least pick up the bits and make something, and this is in some sense what we’re paid for (those of us who are).

Badge of Order of Saint Anne, awarded to 2nd Lieutenant John Mitchell, RAF

Now at the moment the Second World War is still close enough that memories are painful and we see the horror and the heroism with an unavoidable attachment. I read too many Biggles books when young and I still feel kind of the same way about the Great War although not to the extent of glamorising it I hope. But as I’ve argued above we seem now to be watching the Great War crossing that threshold of about three generations whereafter it will be difficult for people to be attached to its memory any longer. It will join the other stuff that we study in the past, where relevance is not immediately apparent and has to be argued, or else can even, eventually, be disowned because popular attachment is now so weak that just interest is a more powerful justification, which puts you about where I was with the previous post in this series. And it will be our job as historians, is already some of our jobs, to try and bring stuff like that back as far as it can be brought back, and to try and tell what it was and what it was like, with imaginative reconstruction where necessary and steadfast adherence to the evidence where possible and so on. Because no-one else will know how to do it well. We have been trained in where to look and how to evaluate. We are the memory experts; we’re boring compared to Beowulf’s scop, maybe, and it may be a toss-up as to who wins between us and Patrick Geary’s cartularising monks when it comes to care and disinterest,2 but for better or for worse, it’s we with the research Tardis whom society needs to hear these lost voices for them. I might have quarrels about whether we can improve ourselves by hearing them, but that’s what the previous post was about, why most of the uses for historians are dangerous or unhelpful in a situation where concrete benefit is demanded. This is the use for history that society will pay for least, though I suppose archivists have got it going on. But it might be the most important one.


1. Alastair Thompson, “Making the most of memories: the empirical and subjective value of oral history” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series, Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 291-303.

2. I refer here to Patrick Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985), which is actually really quite relevant to the whole question I’m attacking here.