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Thursday at Kalamazoo: Books, Sessions and Bloggers

20 May

Before I get started I want to mention that if anyone happens to read these and feels that I’ve been inaccurate, please either e-mail me or comment. I’ve been corrected plenty of times. You won’t hurt my feelings.

Thursday morning I went to breakfast and ran into a friend who was among a group of people Paul Gans first dragged to Kalamazoo over ten years ago. By 8:00, as has been the case for every Kalamazoo since I began attending, I was at the doorway of the exhibit area. I don’t have any cute stories about hunting for specific books like last year. I did meet an individual who I’d interacted with on Library Thing, David Kathman. Of course I then had to inform him that as he was talking about the 14th century I wouldn’t be hearing his paper in favor of a session organized by Ralph Mathisen. Somehow Dave managed to go on living (I know this because I saw him again Sunday).

After the usual perusal of half-price Ashgates, $5 Penguins, etc., I walked up to the Bernhard Center for Session 43, “Medieval Environments I: Food Shortage and Subsistence Crises in Medieval Europe”, which has also been discussed by Michelle Ziegler. Choosing sessions is always interesting. In picking where I was going pre-conf, I had thought I might not go to a Thursday morning session as nothing seemed that interesting to me. More time for books, right? But the night before, as I was marking my brand new program book, I found this one and wondered why I wouldn’t have wanted to attend it. I just pulled out my original book and I hadn’t identified this as a possibility. I have no idea why.

Kathy Pearson of Old Dominion opened with, “After the ‘Fall': Feeding Rome in the Early Middle Ages.” This was a discussion of the food supply for the city of Rome in the 6th and 7th centuries. She discussed how, while Rome’s population from the period of Justinian’s Gothic Wars was radically reduced from that of the Empire, it was still substantial. With an estimated population of 25,000 to 40,000 it was the largest city in Western Europe at the time, and periodically it would swell significantly due to pilgrims and refugees. She discussed evidence of trade networks (diminished but still present) such as from North Africa and Sicily, the existence of papal estates, demolition of buildings within the walls in favor of arable ground, and crop yield estimates. This paper was heavy with information. Ultimately, Pearson believes that it is likely that as much as half of the land area within the walls was used for agricultural production. If this is the case she believes that if the population of the city was 25,000, then the city (this includes the surrounding countryside) would have been nearly self-sufficient, however with a population of 40,000 Rome would have needed to rely on larger networks.

From Tim Newfield of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor we received a new look at the Carolingians in “Shortages and Population Trends in Carolingian Europe, ca. 750-c.950.” Newfield believes that theories describing a fairly steady population growth during the Carolingian period should be regarded with caution. His main thesis is that the Carolingian Empire was subject to fairly regular and significant food shortages, which he divided into two categories; famines and lesser shortages. I won’t include all of his information however he identified 10 famines from 762/4-939/44 and 12 lesser shortages from 752-919, usually the result of unfavorable weather. He believes that these food crises would have generated in a strong demographic response, likely in the range of a 5-20% population reduction, and that while a post-shortage baby boom was likely, population recovery would have required twice the duration of the shortage (for a 2-year shortage it would take 4 years to regain the lost population). He believes that in order for relatively continuous growth to have taken place shortages must have occurred a minimum of 5-9 years apart while he believes it is very likely that they were more frequent. This was an interesting paper. There seems to be a growing body of evidence which shows that things may not have been quite as good during the Carolingian period as has sometimes been argued. I’m hopeful that a form of this paper shows up in EME or another journal where he can provide more details. The validity of this paper hinges on the quality of its information, particularly regarding the shortages, which there’s little time to explore in a 20-25 minute paper.

I can’t help wondering if the later time period for the final paper was the cause of my not identifying this as a session to attend. In any case, Philip Slavin of McGill University took us into the later Middle Ages with, “Alternative Consumption: Fodder and Fodder Resources in Late Medieval English Economy, ca. 1250-1450.” Slavin examined the use of fodder in feeding draft animals, how these changed over time, and what these changes may indicate. He divided fodder into two categories; grassland, consisting of pasture and meadow hay and; crops, consisting of oats, legumes and straw. 1 There are some interesting changes which took place during this period which he discussed with the help of some useful charts and graphs. One of these was that in 1300 over 2/3 of all fodder was sold by Lords with the remainder being fed while by 1400 roughly half was sold. He believes this points to a decline in the demesne economy and a possible increase in peasant wealth. Between 1300 and 1400 the percentage of oats in rations declined radically while pasturage and hay fed increased, indicating a shift of land from arable to pasturage, possibly due to a labor shortage. As a result of the reduction in the level of oats fed, animals became weaker, something he believes is supported by archaeological evidence from Wharram-Percy as this has revealed skeletal pathologies in animals including lesions and weakened bones.

This was a very good session and made my forgetting my program book well worth the trouble. This session was sponsored by the Environmental History Network for the Middle Ages (ENFORMA), a group I may have to keep an eye on. They sponsored several other sessions during Congress though this is the only one I made.

Following this session I headed back to the Exhibit area to resume my prowl through the books. I found that in addition to Ashgate and Cambridge selling books at 50% off, Brill had the same discount for its display copies, resulting in me finally owning one of their volumes. Yes, I have indeed arrived. I made it through a bit less than half the exhibit and decided Loome might take too much time so I returned to Bernhard, had some lunch and headed to Session 95, “The Ties That Bound I: Early Medieval Prosopography”.

Unfortunately only one of the three presenters made it to this session. However the one paper, “Becoming Barbarian: An Examination of Stilicho in Fifth-Century Latin Sources” by Deanna Forsman of North Hennepin Community College was very good and made the walk worthwhile. She discussed source mentions and descriptions of Stilicho to assess his historical portrayal as a barbarian rather than as a Roman. A portion of this was a comparative analysis of Stilicho and Aetius. She had a really good slide which showed substantial parallels between the two, yet Aetius is generally referred to as a Roman while Stilicho is not. In examining the literature, Forsman found that source material is generally positive about Stilicho and almost all refer to him as a Roman. The only negative depictions come after Stilicho’s death and of those, only Orosius refers to him as a barbarian and he is the sole source for his being considered half Vandal. 2 Forsman believes that Jerome’s reference should be interpreted as Stilicho being called semi-barbarian, like a barbarian, or even equating to “barbarian-lover”, not that he was half barbarian as this has commonly been interpreted as. 3 Even Rutilius Namatianus, in a vituperative condemnation, doesn’t refer to Stilicho as anything but Roman.

Ultimately Forsman does not believe it likely that Stilicho was referred to as a barbarian while alive and that his being half Vandal is somewhere between unproven and unlikely. Stilicho certainly thought of himself as Roman and the bulk of the sources seem to support him. Good paper and Forsman gave an excellent presentation. There is a followup question of why, with so little evidence for this, did Stilicho come to be known as a barbarian? I can make a couple of conjectures (for example, Orosius wrote his Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri septem at the request of Augustine who may have helped disseminate this) but nothing concrete.

Next I looked outside, didn’t see a shuttle and set out for Valley III for my next session. I think this was the trek which woke my hip up. I can walk a long time with no trouble at an amble but when I need to push the pace a little it doesn’t take long for it to start speaking to me. I went to a four-paper session and I only have notes which would allow me to post a coherent summary of one of these. I have a bunch of data points but not much in the way of the overall themes or messages of the presentations. This was a 3:30 session which is a low energy time for me, at least when I’m short of sleep but I don’t recall dozing off or even having a hard time concentrating (as opposed to a session Saturday – not sure if I’ll mention that when I get to it). However I’m afraid I can’t offer much in the way of useful summaries so I’ll just leave this one alone entirely.

In any case, once the session ended I dropped my notepad in my room and headed to the Valley III registration area for the Blogger Meet-up. We hung around in the lobby for a bit before heading to the room. I’ve previously mentioned the Bloggers who were there but I think I left out one. At least I think Lisa Carnell has a blog, titled The View from Kalamazoo.

Several folks who don’t (but should) blog were in attendance. I’m not sure on the protocol for this so I’ll leave them unmentioned but I did appreciate meeting them. ADM did a nice job organizing this. Good snacks, a couple of wine selections and a variety of beer choices. We hung around, told stories/lies and I started to trot out what would become my 2012 Kalamazoo conversational theme, a combination of, “How I go about doing my job is very different from you,” with a liberal dose of, “My University doesn’t expect me to know how to write.” This last isn’t completely true but we have communications people who review our more formal pieces before they are unleashed on the general public. I only thought of this because at the time I thought I was meeting with my Comm. staff person and a graphics designer on the Tuesday after K’zoo (said meeting has been pushed back to this coming Friday) about a publication I’m currently working on.

There were also some creative ideas for new blogs which I shall allow to remain in the room for the time being. However Vaulting had a really good one which I think she should have a go at. We had a bit more time than at last year’s meetup, or at least this seemed to be the case. Afterwards several folks headed for Postmedieval’s “Burn After Reading” session which I had originally intended to make but following a couple of beers and with my hip making a bit of a commotion I decided to head for my room instead where, after putting together a quick update post, I went to bed.

1. I was surprised that oats were considered fodder as today they are classified as feed concentrates as opposed to roughages such as hay, pasture and silage.

2. I was unprepared when I first read Orosius on Stilicho (I believe this wasn’t long after reading Claudian so that may be the reason) but in 7.38 of his Seven Books of History Against the Pagans he comes down on him hard, accusing him of using Alaric and other barbarians as a tool to terrify Rome and of plotting to place his son on the throne and restore paganism (a bit contradictory re Namatianus accusing him of destroying the Sybilline Books). At one time up to 8-10 years ago I had this half-formed notion that if Stilicho hadn’t been assassinated the Roman Empire would likely have survived. I have since reformed my thinking (though if he actually had killed Honorius and been successful in placing himself or his son on the throne the possibilities remain interesting to think about).

3 This is in Jerome’s letter 123.17, where he asks Ageruchia, a wealthy widow, to not remarry. My version is from the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Second Series, Philip Schaff, ed., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson (2012) and says, “This humiliation [payment to Alaric's Goths] has been brought upon her [Rome] not by the fault of her Emperors who are both most religious men, but by the crime of a half-barbarian traitor who with our money has armed our foes against us.” Unfortunately this does not have an accompanying Latin original (the Loeb editon of selected letters didn’t select this one). I’ve found myself increasingly wanting to check translations against the original and this is one of several Congress papers which sent me looking.

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