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This Should be Good

29 Apr

I’m something of a Rosamond McKitterick fan (not enough to start a Facebook page or anything). I’ve read three of her books and enjoyed each of them and I have another three on my shelves which I’m looking forward to getting to. I told someone once that I was turning into a groupie.

So after I came across a post titled, “Cultural Memory and the Resources of the Past, 400-1000 research project gets funding” on Medieval News I immediately thought this sounded like something she should be involved in and was pleased to see that she’s the lead on the project.

The professionals will be well aware of this but for quite some time McKitterick has been one of the most respected researchers in the field of Early Medieval Europe, particularly on the Carolingians though I know she’s done some work with a broader focus. What I’ve read of hers seems to involve; thought processes in Early Medieval Europe; the uses of language and literacy and; societal self-awareness and identity. In everything of hers that I’ve read she extensively utilizes source material and does a very nice job of explaining their meaning and implications for the society under discussion.

There are parts of the official announcement from the University of Cambridge which might ordinarily concern me, in particular the part of this paragraph in bold type:

It will focus on two principal issues – the ways in which texts were “transmitted” from one individual centre to another, and the problem of identity formation itself in the complex social, political and religious melting pot of early medieval Europe.

Basically, part of this project will involve exploring ethnogenesis. As I’ve noted in a previous post, I think the ethnogenesis debate has quite often become overly emotional, even verging on unprofessional in some cases. However McKitterick has already shown how this debate should be carried forward.

Until reading this announcement, her name was never one I associated with ethnogenesis but on giving it some thought I realized that McKitterick has been researching this, or something very like it, for a long time. History and Memory in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2004) which I posted a review to Amazon on a few years back, discusses how the Carolingians used language and writing to establish both a sense of place and a societal identity. That’s ethnogenesis, or part of it – but for a subject group I don’t usually associate with the term. The other two books of hers that I’ve read, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989) and The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge, 1990) also touch on it, though for the latter she’s the editor and a contributor for a volume of essays. She doesn’t come across as having a need to “prove” something, or as having a particular axe to grind. She studies the topic, provides extensive evidence – you want to learn something about the use of sources, read one of her books – and reports her findings. To be fair, there are what in technical terms I’d call a boatload of differences between discussing the Carolingians and 4th and 5th century Germanic groups however I look forward to her taking what she’s learned from her study of Carolingian cultural and societal evolution and applying it to this earlier period.

Placing such a prominent study in such good hands is fantastic news. I expect she’ll help bring the discussion level back to where it belongs. A couple of doctoral students are also going to have a great opportunity. Hopefully they’ll publish the results in a volume or volumes that are reasonably priced and accessible to non-specialists. And for those who are interested in the issues targeted by the study, I recommend you read some of her earlier work. While these are academic books, they are fairly readable and she works hard to provide detailed explanations of where she’s going and how she gets there.

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