Monthly Archives: May 2010

ICMS Session Report X: Session 584 – Discerning the Divine in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Sunday, May 16, 2010
Session 584
Discerning the Divine in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

This session was a rarity – three papers which all discussed the same topic, but with very little overlap. In this case, the discussion centered on how early Christian authors believed Christians could sense God, the Logos and how they communicated this in their writings.

The session opened with a paper by Karl Morrison of Rutgers University, “Origen, Images and the Way to Godhead.”

This is another paper with a massive amount if information in it – I took 2 full pages of notes and there aren’t a lot of spaces so I will summarize this a bit more tightly than I have for some others.

Origen was interested in the concept of self-knowing, of how Christians could come to perceive God, and also how they allowed God to become a part of their own identity and self. He understood that there were problems with the scriptures and decided to justify them.

One of the primary problems is one that exists to this day – the argument of how there could be such imperfection in God’s world. Origen taught that Humans were insufficient to completely comprehend God or his works and even more insufficient to express this. He said, “Who can describe in words the difference in sweetness between a date and a dried fig?” with the implication being that if Human words couldn’t explain such a simple concept, how could they hope to describe God’s plan?

Origen’s core assumption was that “Christians are not in the world but of it.” He also taught that people should, “Believe in order to understand.” The City of God is imperfect on Earth and Christians therefore experience it imperfectly, a concept later used by Augustine in Civitas dei.

Origen believed that the simple minded were often more skilled in divine cognition than the learned. An individual’s Logos could be rejected or cast out with too much knowing, especially of the wrong type.

Morrison then turned to the issue of how Origen viewed sight and seeing. Origen completely ruled out the visual arts. He thought these were superstitious and very dangerous. He discussed a concept called “subject-image confusion” where a tension invariably exists between the image and the subject or viewer. He believed this tension lay at the heart of idolatry. The Human knowing, his or her Logos, was based on God having made man in his own image – but God is invisible.

However Origen did believe that there were legitimate visual representations of God, manifestations. Appearances could be deceiving and images of God are NOT manifestations. However there are legitimate manifestations by which God may be “seen.” These include manifestations in scripture, in the person of Christ, in believers or Christians, in sacraments through transubstantiation and also, according to Origen, in the cosmos.

Origen placed value on the concept of the Eye of the Beholder. The Logos living in a believer would replace visual sight where the “Light of God” would replace eyes. God, as contained within the believer, sees God in another believer. “The eyes that see God are the force of intention” where the seer takes God’s Logos to help him or her see.

This paper contained a lot of information. This was another which was informational rather than to argue a thesis. One of the things I’ve been doing in my reading is working backward from a time standpoint and trying to read as much material on early Christianity as I can. When I reach that point (next on my list are works by John Cassian, Arnobius of Sicca and Irenaeus) I need to order the complete Ante-Nicene library which will include Origen (this is available at CCEL but I like these sitting on my shelves – what can I say, I’m a dinosaur). So information on early Christianity and what the ancient Church writers believed, taught and wrote is very interesting to me – it’s crucial to understanding where the Church was at in the 4th century, when it achieved prominence. From that standpoint I very much enjoyed this paper though I am woefully unqualified to offer any opinion other than an appreciation for the volume and quality of information Dr. Morrison provided.

The second paper in this session was presented by Danuta Schanzer, “Discerning the Divine: The Role of the Senses.”

This was more of an overview of what senses early Christian authors felt were appropriate for and most suited to use for religious understanding. In many ways, this paper should have been the first paper we heard as the other two were more specific. Here Schanzer traces the use of the senses in Christian writings by various authors and how this changed over time.

The five senses are sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Christianity devalued all of the senses but some more than others. The Book of Revelations completely ignores smell, taste and touch while Origen in the Contra Celsum discusses how paganism heavily involves smell and taste. The passio of Perpetua discusses her vision of heaven including the “milk of paradise.”

Later Christians did not need to see paradise to be saved and smell and taste came to be devalued. Ambrose equated the senses with death. Smell was redeemed fairly easily – it could nourish. Taste came to be associated with gluttony and seemed to become the basest of the senses.

Augustine in Confessions favors smell over taste. Food should be taken strictly for sustenance, not for pleasure and in Book VII he has a failed vision where he can’t quite see God and says he can smell what he can’t eat, with the implication that smell is the “higher” sense.

Ascetic communities devalued taste and smell. In the sixth and seventh centuries hearing was referenced with Christians hearing heavenly delights through singing. During the same period furtive eaters began to be portrayed such as in the Vita Columbani where he eats in secret.

This was an interesting paper, though of less value to me than Morrison’s. However Schanzer referenced extensive sources. Part of the problem was that Dr. Morrison ran a little long so her time was cut short and she had to rush through some of it.

Her paper did bring a couple of questions to mind however I didn’t get the chance to ask them. One question I had was whether the devaluing of taste might have something to do with Christianity becoming a religion for the masses in the 4th century. Suddenly many more Christians were poor and likely well acquainted with hunger – perhaps this was a way to say that wealthier people, despite having much to eat, really were imperiling their souls by indulging and this was another advantage of the poor and something they should not covet or desire.

A second question is whether the removal of visions of paradise and the food described there was to discourage (or at least de-emphasize) martyrdom once martyrdom wasn’t as much of an option as it had been.

The final paper of this session – and for Congress, for me anyway – was by Giselle de Nie, “Augustine on Touching the Numinous.”

Augustine believed that the impressions of the physical senses didn’t directly reach the mind but could be sensed spiritually. He believed and and wrote of “contact miracles” such as the touching of the relics of the saints, however this is not related to touch itself but to divine contact. Innate, invisible patterns of truth or faith were accessible through the senses but not through the mind or cognition.

In Confessions Augustine reached out with his mind to touch God’s spiritual essence, resulting in a shock that occurred in a miraculous fashion, undetectable by the senses. He believed that mentally reaching out to a loving Christ could result in touching Christ spiritually. He also gave sermons emphasizing the difference between physical pressing as opposed to the spiritual touch of a believer.

In essence this paper discusses Augustine’s belief that spiritual touching and other senses bypassed the cognitive mind to effect a direct contact with God. To be honest, this one didn’t do much for me – it seemed to be more of a series of anecdotes rather than something tied together into a theme. There was still some information but at the end I was left with a, “So?” The idea that spiritual touching would trump physical touching among ancient authors is not particularly revolutionary. Quite simply – and maybe I missed something – this paper didn’t do it for me.

This was another good session though Nie’s paper was not what I was hoping for. However Dr. Morrison’s was excellent and Shanzer’s was useful, though I do think she would have been better placed as the first paper in the session and I felt that something was lost by her having to rush through because of time constraints.

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Posted by on May 31, 2010 in Conferences


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ICMS Session Report IX: Session 536 – The Court and Courts in the Carolingian World

Sunday, May 16
Session 536
The Court and Courts in the Carolingian World

My final visit to the world of the Carolingians was another very good session though I’m afraid my report won’t do it justice. At least I managed to get all my books picked up Saturday afternoon so I was able to attend both Sunday sessions.

This session opened with Warren Brown of the California Institute of Technology discussing, “Local Conflict and Central Authority in the Carolingian Formula Collections.”

The timing of this paper couldn’t have been better as I’d just started Alice Rio’s The Formularies of Angers and Marculf: Two Merovingian Legal Handbooks (Liverpool, 2008). I was only at about page 10 of the introduction (this is the book I brought with me to read at K’zoo – you can tell how much reading I got done in 4 nights!) so I hadn’t learned much before the paper, but it gave me something to compare and contrast over the next few days as I worked through the book.

This paper is notable for its level and depth of information. Dr. Brown opened with a brief discussion of the limitations of charter evidence. These provide some insights into local issues and conflicts however they are generally limited to disputes over property. In contrast, formula collections provide information on local, lay disputes for various other issues. These included property disputes but also many other items. In looking at which formula were copied into manuscripts we can get an idea of what type of conflicts actually occurred and what was important to people.

Here is where the huge amount of information started flowing. I’m going to abbreviate this section in a substantial way – I can confidently suggest Rio as a source if you would like to get into details. And surely Dr. Brown will be publishing this somewhere? He should.

Formulae which Dr. Brown discussed include; a receipt of wergild for the killing of men “belonging to a bishop”; a charter of agreement where a man provided property to the kin of a woman he had seized for his wife; letters indicating the need for intercessors and the expected role of bishops and counts in conflict resolution; a letter prescribing pilgrimage as penance for killing someone and; a letter telling someone who has killed a person to immediately visit his bishop.

Brown discussed how formulae may be used by kings with an example from Marculf which relates to the killing of a king’s man while on the road – this was later adapted to cover a property dispute.

Brown believes formula collections contain evidence of real life. They, along with charters, are an indication of the spectrum of options available to resolve disputes. The survival of formula collections and their re-use indicates how later scribes believed in their utility, even including letters issued by a king.

This was a truly excellent paper (again note the terminology change). Dr. Brown went a bit over his time but for a paper of this quality, it was worth it. I’m not going to rate a “best paper” like I have for sessions, or for one based on presentation, but if I was to do so, this paper would have to rate serious consideration.

I have an apology to make for the next two papers. During Jonathan Jarrett’s paper I received a call on my cell (I had the ringer off but the phone lit up) so I spent some time wondering if I should get up to answer it and decided if they really needed me they’d call back – everyone knew I was on vacation and sometimes folks figure things out on their own. During Dr. Koziol’s paper the same person called again so I missed probably 10 minutes of his paper to step outside and answer.

So I may have missed something crucial in the next two papers. I know Jonathan has been checking in on these so I request that if I have an error included here, that he please correct me.

The second paper was by Jonathan Jarrett of the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge on “The Carolingian Succession to the Visigothic Fisc on the Spanish March.”

Those of you who follow medieval blogs must know of Jonathan’s excellent blog, A Corner of Tenth Century Europe. If you don’t, you need to get to know it. In this paper Jonathan set out to describe the level of involvement of the Carolingians in those territories conquered by Charlemagne in his later 8th century Spanish campaign (which incidentally provided the inspiration for The Song of Roland).

When the march was initially established the Carolingians guaranteed that this area would continue to be governed through local laws and under local control. However this did not mean that they were not ultimately answerable to the Carolingians. Following the conquest there appeared to be something of a Visigothic-Carolingian merge of laws. Documentary evidence largely appears to be Carolingian and provides evidence of local revolts. Within the charters issued to resolve the conflict there are references to Frankish capitularies, Salic Law and the Frankish missi domini.

From this Jonathan proceeded into a discussion of the Carolingian administration of the fisc (this happens to coincide with my phone interruption – right in the heart of his paper). There is documentary evidence of Carolingian involvement to the time of Charles the Simple (early 10th century) including grants of land and fiscal grants of immunity. Clearly, up to this time, those in the Spanish March could still attain royal charters and benefits from the Franks.

One of the interesting questions is that of the survival of Visigothic systems. Between the Muslim and Carolingian conquests Visigothic systems were accountable to Muslims – did they survive all the way to the Carolingian conquests? For this portion of the paper Jonathan primarily discussed the “state of the question.” There are many variables that need to be looked at. How involved were the Muslims in administering their northern Spanish territory? What, exactly, did local control, as defined by the Muslims, mean? There is some evidence that Muslims set up financial districts which may actually have dated from the 4th century Roman period. These appear to have been periodically renewed from that time. NOTE: Please read Jonathan’s explanation in the comment section, below, clarifying (and correcting) this and the statement in the following paragraph.

There is some documentary evidence of fiscal administration by the Carolingians. There are grants of family property to the Church, one of which has 500 signatures on it. Counts held property which they weren’t able to freely grant without judicial intervention.

Jonathan summarized his paper by stating that it is difficult to determine the level of Carolingian involvement and the precise role they played in the administration of the Spanish March, particularly as it relates to the fisc. The documentary evidence is relatively sparse and it’s hard to reach anything approaching a firm conclusion based on this.

I enjoyed this paper. This was another which focused more on providing information and discussing the state of the question than it did in providing hard answers. As I’ve said before, I think these types of papers have a lot of value. There aren’t answers to everything (actually in some ways there are never answers in history – just the best interpretation of the evidence) and a discussion of evidence, what it does and doesn’t tell, and where it is difficult or impossible to reach conclusions based on it, are very useful. Jonathan also provided a map of Catalonia – a real map, with a north arrow and a scale bar!(see my upcoming session wrap-up for a bit more on this) – along with a bibliography which will be useful for future reference.

The final paper for this session was by Geoffrey Koziol of the University of California at Berkeley, “Power in the Palace in the Last Years of Charles the Bald.”

I heard a lot about Charles during Kalamazoo – at least 3 papers (Chandler, McCarthy and here) which discussed aspects of his rule in some detail. Unfortunately, other than one item, I am not going to summarize this paper. As I said, I stepped out during it. I did take notes on some charter evidence which Koziol discussed, however I do not have a summary or conclusion written down for what that evidence tells us. I was in the room for a rather humorous exchange between Brown and Koziol over some points on which they disagree – I was trying to figure out if I could get some Vegas action on that. :)

Koziol related one item which is quite important. Hincmar of Rheims’ De ordine palatii – “On the Order (Governance) of the Palace” – is commonly held up as an example of how the Carolingian palace functioned. Koziol believes this to be an ideal, not a reality. He stated that when Hincmar wrote this his involvement in the court was very marginal. Koziol believes that this may even have been written as a utopian contrast to a court which Hincmar was no longer a part of.

I believe this was another good paper, from what I heard of it. Unfortunately I missed a large chunk in the middle of it (good thing though, in retrospect).

My final Carolingian session was another good one. Brown’s paper was excellent on all levels. Jonathan’s didn’t come up with the conclusions I’m sure he wished he could have given us but he provided a lot of information and certainly made me think. The questions were very good throughout the session. I can say that my “Carolingianization” experienced throughout Congress was very fulfilling, though I doubt I’ll start preferring to read Alcuin over Ruricius or Avitus any time soon. ;)


Posted by on May 31, 2010 in Conferences


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Quick Non-Kalamazoo Note

I’m interrupting my session reports to bring this special announcement.

Vaulting and Vellum are beginning an in-depth examination of William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire. If you’ve been following my blog for some time, you know what a huge fan I am of this book. (If anyone takes this link comment seriously I’ll have to hurt you!)

Anyway, they’ll be providing a detailed examination of the “information” contained in this book. I have a feeling this process will be a very educational one. If you’re interested in it, I suggest you bookmark – or at least periodically check – their blog. I’ve updated my Manchester review to reflect their effort.

This will be a very good thing.

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Posted by on May 31, 2010 in Books


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ICMS Session Report VIII: Session 508 – Early Medieval Europe IV

Saturday, May 15, 2010
Session 508
Early Medieval Europe IV

This was a very enjoyable session for me – possibly my favorite session of Congress. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is different from being the “best” but it was still quite good. I think part of this was that I’m very interested in the subject matter and part is that it’s in my comfort zone – I was familiar with the concepts and could easily follow them. 

The first paper was by Kathleen Self of Saint Lawrence University, “Two Conversions, Three Genders: Religious Transformations of Gender in the Writings of Gregory of Tours.”

Dr. Self discussed how the portrayal of figures in a religious sense (I need to be careful of my wording – this is NOT the portrayal of religious figures as some were lay personages portrayed religiously) involved three genders – male, female and chaste – and part of the literature associated with these figures involved what amounted to a gender change from male or female to chaste.

To open she related a couple of fairly well-known conversion accounts told by Gregory, neither of which involve the chaste gender. The story of Clovis is one of miraculous intervention by God in permitting him to win a battle, accompanied by persuasion from Chlotild, his wife. In the case of Recared of Spain, his miraculous proof was less direct but recounts how Catholics can heal while Arians cannot and is also accompanied by persuasion. In the case of Clovis we have the mass conversion of the Franks to accompany it. In Recared’s case we have the account that he sent envoys out to tell his people so they could convert but it’s not explicitly stated how this came out. The Clovis story introduces one other element, that of men being convinced to convert by women, specifically their wives.

Other accounts followed. She recounted a female conversion story of a woman who withdraws to a convent following the deaths of her daughters. She also told a story from the Lives of the Fathers where Brachio, a huntsman, is converted after seeing a wild boar standing as if tamed before a hermit’s cell.

She then proceeded to the discuss the details by which the “chaste gender” is portrayed by Gregory. He portrays St. Gall as “de-masculated” and possessed of a high, sweet voice. His masculine properties have been minimized to display the gender change. Gregory’s rhetoric identifies chaste women through flower imagery – use of the terms “flower” or “flowering” in discussions of females.

The chaste can be identified by acts exhibiting their gender. Dress for both men and women and the tonsure for men and cutting of hair for women are chaste gender indicators.

I found this paper very interesting. The conversion stories of Gregory’s that she recounted were familiar but I hadn’t really looked at them in this way before, not as a systematic “de-gendering” in literature. It gives me something to look for in other similar works – certainly a suppression or “gift” of removal of sexual desire is a very common theme, as is the removal of other baser impulses, but these don’t go as far as gender change

During the question period something was raised which ended up being the last question of the session – I was going to answer but time ran out though I did speak with both the questioner and Dr. Self following the session (I’d already had “my question” in response to another paper). If someone who was at this session happens to read this I think these are important points and I want to cover them. The question was raised by someone familiar with conversion stories from the later Middle Ages – I believe he specifically said 13th century England. The question was that in the conversion tales he was familiar with men are pretty much emasculated but Clovis was converted as a war leader and he wondered why there was such a difference. Of course nobody can give a definitive answer but I think two points can be made. First, and most obvious, the Clovis conversion story is very similar to that of Constantine – pretty much a parallel account with Gregory fulfilling the role of Eusebius. This is a battle conversion and would resonate powerfully with the Franks. The second point relates to the portrayal of God to the Franks in the late 5th/early 6th century. Dennis Green in Language and History in the Early Germanic World (Cambridge, 1998) describes how language used by 5th and 6th century missionaries indicates that God was portrayed as a warrior deity, one who would lead his followers to success in battle. This is very different from the terminology used when Ulfilus was sent to convert the Goths in the 4th century. When he developed a written Gothic language God was portrayed in pacifist terms and Ulfilus wouldn’t even translate Kings because it was too violent for an already violent people. The story of Clovis as a converted war leader following a strong warrior God would resonate with the Franks and a warrior God would have made their mass conversion much easier for them to accept. The portrayal of God changed substantially over time and place to best connect with the people who missionaries were trying to convert.

The second paper discussed an aspect of history which I am unfamiliar with. Genevra Kornbluth of Kornbluth Photography gave an interesting paper on “Solid Geometry in Francia and Alemannia: Some Physical Evidence.”

This was a discussion of gemstones and ornamental metalwork found in the fifth through seventh centuries. Kornbluth discussed – assisted by some very good visuals – the use of geometric shapes in objects made of rock crystal, glass and metal. This will be tough to explain without the visuals but I’ll do my best.

Rock crystal and glass frequently functioned as spindle whorls. Octagon is the simplest shape and is frequently found but there were also quite a few hexagons.

Rock crystal is naturally shaped as a hexagon but were usually ground into spheres – Kornbluth found that only 4 or 5 of the 139 finds were set as hexagons in pendants.

Many pentagon whorls have been found. A pentagon whorl has 5 facets on each face. This makes it an irregular dodecahedron. Kornbluth doesn’t know what the significance would have been of this but believes there must have been something beyond aesthetics – some spiritual/superstitious meaning.

Pierced metal dodecahedra are found all over Roman Gaul – and nowhere else in the world. Kornbluth believes these may have served some type of divination function.

Another frequent find are icosahedra. In ancient sources they represent water. They are generally not pierced and the tops and bottoms could be ground down into spindle whorls.

This was not a thesis type paper or even one that gave a lot of answers. Instead it helped clarify some questions that researchers may want to ask and it helped illustrate an area of study which I am unfamiliar with. I enjoyed it and I apologize for not finding a better way to represent what was really an interesting and informative paper and presentation.

The final paper in this session was, “The Elusive ‘Happy Marriage’ in Hagiography” by Angela Kinney, a University of Illinois PhD student.

I’ve previously mentioned that I enjoy hagiography very much. I was looking forward to this paper and was not disappointed.

With the aid of a useful handout Kinney began with a discussion of how marriage, particularly in accounts of female married saints, is addressed in hagiography and has changed over time.

The first issue she mentioned is that there are few female married saints mentioned in hagiography. Initially, their accounts included what amounted to a “marriage apology.” In the 8th century case of Eustadiola, she marries as an expression of the scriptural guidance to obey her parents, while they remind her that if a virgin marries she doesn’t commit a sin. Her vita emphasizes the honorable status of her marriage and her match with a lawful husband. On her husband’s death, rather than take another husband, she chooses to wed God.

In a story dating to the 7th century, Waldetrud is portrayed similarly, though with different results. Again, she marries out of obedience to her parents. After a time her husband, still loving her (according to her vita) dissolves their conjugal bonds and enters a monastery. Waldetrud is portrayed as a “religious servant” despite wearing “a secular habit” and remains in the world to manage her household – the vita fails to mention that she has four children.

In the 10th century Rictrudis is portrayed very differently. She became wife to a husband who married not out of lust but due to a desire to have children. She marries him freely and there is substantial language which to me appears to discuss what was known as the conjugal debt – the debt of each partner in a marriage to share their bodies with each other (though this seems a bit early for that – Gratian is who I’ve seen this mainly attributed to though there were earlier mentions of the idea). Her body as a temple of God is also discussed as is the honor and sanctity of marriage.

Kinney admitted that the selection of these types of accounts is sparse but they seem to be moving toward a stylization of marriage as good and honorable, a state of being within which sanctity may be found.

This was another very good paper and presentation. I found it extremely interesting and Kinney provided substantial information and evidence. I believe there may be additional information to be gained by looking into canon law and see if the changes in the way marriage is portrayed in hagiography may parallel the way the Church came to view marriage. While marriage may arguably have been a sacrament from the earliest time of Christianity it certainly didn’t rank very high on the scale with no official ceremony to mark it until the 11th century – just the need for words of the present and future and consummation. However as time went on the Church increasingly regulated marriage and the concept of the conjugal debt evolved. I think there is much waiting to be discovered – or at least learned from – in hagiography.

Overall, another very good session. I found all of the papers quite interesting and the first and third happened to cover issues which I am particularly interested in. Each of the presenters gave interesting presentations and provided a great deal of information.


Posted by on May 31, 2010 in Conferences


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ICMS Session Report VII: Session 457 – Early Medieval Europe III

Saturday, May 15, 2010
Session 457
Early Medieval Europe III

This session opened with an exchange that was half humorous and may indicate a bit of tension. As I’ve mentioned before, Ralph Mathison is the editor of the Journal of Late Antiquity (JLA). He apparently had requested that they plug JLA. The plug he got was pretty tepid – “You should think about submitting to this but make sure you submit to Early Medieval Europe (EME) first.” The sense I had was that EME may not be completely enthralled with the appearance of a new publication that covers much of the same period. I have no idea if that’s justified or not – I know when I subscribed to JLA I hoped that it wouldn’t negatively impact EME which I also enjoy very much.

I’m reminded of a forward I once read to a very good (fiction) book where the author (of the forward) said (paraphrase), “XXX isn’t in competition with writers such as so-and-so (I’ve ditched much of my fiction so I couldn’t find the quote if I wanted to but several prominent authors were named) but with the bumbling yahoos who don’t know what they’re doing and write cheap, trashy stuff.” I hope that the JLA-EME dynamic can be viewed the same way – additional quality publications are rarely bad – people don’t complain about a new, quality book on something even though work’s previously been done on the same topic do they? This should enhance the field, not detract from it. I know this isn’t always the reality – there is a pool of readers – but I hope it is.

This relates to a recent post by Magistra. I don’t have her perspective as a potential author, just my own as a reader. It raises an interesting question about my own reading/subscription habits. I subscribe to JLA and not EME because of the price – $30 vs $100 and I don’t feel I should apologize for that. However I also pay a hundred bucks for an Academy membership so I can get Speculum – there’s a 5-year wait for it to appear on JSTOR and I don’t want to wait that long. So in essence I’m rewarding Speculum for failing to be as accessible as other journals I read such as EME, Medieval Archaeology, American Historical Review, and English Historical Review. Rewarding someone for poorer service? That does seem a bit off for some reason – though the 20% off books published by Cambridge may pay off.

Enough of that – time to move on to the session.

The first paper was by Ralph Mathison of the University of Illinois, “Desiderius of Cahors and the End of the Ancient World.” There must be some reason for the change of the end of this from “Antiquity” as listed in the Congress program to “the Ancient World” but the subtlety of that escapes me.

If my memory isn’t completely faulty, I believe Dr. Mathison is currently working on a translation of some (or all – I don’t actually know) of Desiderius’ surviving material. I’m hoping it’s published through an accessible (for me) press such as Liverpool’s Translated Texts for Historians series. But in any case, Dr. Mathison is well qualified to discuss Desiderius.

Dr. Mathison is a proponent for recognition of Late Antiquity as a unique, discrete period with its own set of characteristics. For myself, I have not become highly involved in or even closely followed these discussions. My reasons for believing that Late Antiquity as its own field of study has value is not a particularly academic one, or even related to the various unique features (and there are several) which set it apart from the antique/classical/ancient and medieval periods. I believe it has value because of the need to educate people – generally non-academics – that there was a transition period in Western Europe (and in the East as well though it seems there’s less resistance to that) which makes the term “fall” inappropriate to use when discussing the end of the Roman Empire. There’s a mindset out there among the public which is “Romans-Good, Medievals-Bad.” It’s unfortunate that things are so bad that it may take turning to completely new terminology to counter this but this attitude is so ingrained and so widely held that it may take that. 1

In this paper Dr. Mathison proposes that with Desiderius’ death a critical stage was reached which can be used as the ending of antiquity. He bases this on an analysis of his life, writing style and circle of associates. I’ll apologize in advance for the summary of this paper being a bit light on specifics. I got caught up in what he was saying and have relatively few notes, but I think I have the main points covered.

Dr. Mathison relates how Desiderius was titled “Last of the Romans” (one of my failings was not writing where – possibly in his vita?) and how he lived a very Roman lifestyle including engaging in public building projects and restoring much of Cahors’ failing infrastructure as its Bishop. He had a circle of friends, a group of aristocrats with whom he frequently exchanged letters. His writing style was excellent; correct, classical Latin. He received training in grammar and rhetoric and Dr. Mathison believes this points toward a secular school.

Dr. Mathison focused on his aristocratic circle and letter writing. Desiderius’ circle was small by ancient standards – about 10 individuals. And after his death, this tradition of exchanging letters ended, for a time (there was certainly a medieval epistolary tradition). He described Desiderius as providing the last link to a literary epistolary tradition that dates back to classical Greece.

Based on the end of this tradition, and as one of the last individuals to use Latin in a classical manner, Mathison believes that the death of Desiderius marks the end of antiquity.

This was an interesting paper. As I said, I ended up doing more listening than taking notes. I recall having a question for myself on whether this literary tradition may have moved from Gaul to Visigothic Spain – Isidore was who came to mind as well as writers such as Sisebut and Julian of Toledo. However on returning home I looked into this and Sisebut’s death pre-dated Desiderius and Isidore wrote in a much more “medieval” style (whatever that means – my non-Latinity is showing here) so that question of mine was answered with a simple “no.”

There are a variety of characteristics by which we might try to establish the end of Late Antiquity, be they political, cultural, an exploration of mindset, etc. Literary tradition ranks right up there with any of them and this paper showed me that it’s something I need to look into much more carefully than I have so far.

The second paper was “Literacy, Law and Libido in Early Medieval Spain” by Graham Barrett, a PhD student at Balliol College, University of Oxford. This paper discussed how adultery was viewed in 9th through early 11th century Spain, both as it was referred to in the legal texts and how it was prosecuted and punished.

Barrett found 30 charters between 711 and 1031 which concerned adultery and its prosecution. Among the general concepts was that the penalty for adultery usually involved the forfeiture of property and that adulterous clerics were the responsibility of bishops who would proscribe a penalty and penance.

Barrett discussed some incidents chronologically to describe how the handling of adultery changed over time. Earlier in the period adultery was a crime against a person. In one example he cited, a woman was carried off but the act was unconsummated. The man gave the woman half his property, was sentenced to be publicly lashed and was forbidden to marry her. In a second example concerning a willing abductee the couple were permitted to marry but were placed in servitude to her guardian/parent in exchange for this sentence.

Later this changed. He cited a case from May 7, 979 where a married man committed adultery and was sentenced to forfeit his lands to the local authority. Adultery had now become a public crime, one which royal agents might charge someone with if the offended party did not.

Barrett believes that by the late 10th or early 11th century adultery had become a purely public crime. He also related some interesting cases. One was where parents initiated the prosecution against their son – apparently adultery was perceived as a stain against their honor. Another case resulted in the woman being sentenced to whipping but the man involved donated property in lieu of this.

The public prosecution of adultery was not pursued equally as 4 counts, related to each other, were responsible for half of the prosecutions. The prosecution of adultery had apparently become a tool of power used by this family.

This was another very good paper. He presented a paper at last year’s Congress – I believe on slate finds in the Spanish Meseta. I was impressed with him then and I was this time too. His paper was well organized and structured, he provided detailed evidence in his discussion of how adultery and its prosecution changed over time, and he was in complete command of his topic, which became even more evident during the question period. He also provided a handout which was helpful, though likely less so for me than others due to my lack of Latin (though I could work my way through a good portion of this – I took Latin over 25 years ago – just haven’t used it since).

This session’s final paper was presented by David Dry, a Master’s student from the University of Florida, titled, “Episcopal Inheritance: Replicating Power in the Merovingian Era.”

Dry’s paper involved a discussion of the power struggle between clerics and secular authorities during the Merovingian period, in particular how bishops attempted to maintain control of episcopal appointments.

He opened with a discussion of Clermont-Ferrand. In this case the local clerics appointed Cato as bishop, without royal approval, as required by Merovingian law. Cautinus, another cleric, went directly to the King and was appointed by Theudebald. The resulting power struggle ended with Cautinus installed as bishop. An amusing sequel to this is that Cato was later offered the office of Bishop of Tours but declined, thinking he might still have a shot at Clermont-Ferrard by directly requesting it of the king. When this failed he decided he was willing to take the Tours job but Lothar basically told him he screwed up by not accepting it in the first place and took back the offer.

Using this case as an example, Dry moved to a discussion of characteristics of episcopal succession. This often became a local power struggle and could be violent. Royal control was a significant aspect of this and generally the appointees were Gallo-Romans. Clerical appointees often were selected based on their political utility, loyalty to the throne, and personal wealth.

The episcopal office frequently involved the performance of duties that paralleled those of a governor. Bishops were often responsible for building programs, judicial decisions and even defending their cities.

Merovingian law was at odds with canon law which stated that selection of clerical officeholders was the responsibility of local clerics. Merovingian law required that these appointments be approved by the King. Gregory the Great was pretty disgusted with some of the things that went on including royal and lay appointments rather than clerical selection and the sale of offices through simony.

Dry recounted a few more instances of clerical-secular power struggles which I won’t repeat. However his message was clear – there was a tug-of-war in Merovingian Gaul over who had the power to appoint bishops, the lay aristocracy had frequent conflicts with clerics, and things were anything but peaceful.

This was a good paper. I think it’s important to recognize Masters level work – one reason why I’ve tried to state the level of those giving papers through these summaries. If he was a PhD and certainly a professor I would have looked for a bit more insight into this. The Merovingian lay-clerical conflicts went well beyond this, for example with Chilperic tearing up wills granting property to the Church, the use of churches as sanctuaries against royal justice, etc. And it wasn’t always a matter of conflict. As Barbara Rosenwein discusses in Negotiating Space (Cornell, 1999), charters of immunities were frequently issued by Merovingians to churches and monasteries. And the growth in the number of monasteries and churches during the period indicates that things weren’t all bad – I think Dry could have at least mentioned some of this to set the stage – and then discuss his specific topic. An over-reliance on Gregory of Tours (hard not to rely on him a lot for this) might be something else I’d warn him against. However he covered his topic well and certainly illustrated the sense of lay-clerical conflict in Merovingian Gaul – one of the fascinating aspects of the period, particularly considering how completely different the relationship dynamic between lay and clerical authority was during the Carolingian period.

I enjoyed this session. Good papers, topics I enjoyed and speakers who were engaging and interesting.

1 I have a feeling many people working in the field will be less than enthralled with my “public perception” reason for naming a new period. I can understand this – in my field we are, right now, changing the terminology we use for certain issues, purely on the basis of public perception. I’m less than thrilled with this – to me the language we use now is fine and accepted by those working in the field – but it’s where we’re going. I imagine to someone not working as a professional these terminology changes seem very appropriate and even desirable due to the perception issue.


Posted by on May 30, 2010 in Conferences


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ICMS Session Report VI: Session 409 – Early Medieval Europe II

Saturday, May 15
Session 409
Early Medieval Europe II

This session was another with a Carolingian focus – and later Carolingian where, again, my knowledge level isn’t quite what it is up to about 800. However this session was excellent – note the change in terminology from good or very good I used for other sessions. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I believe, based on the quality of the papers, that this was the best session I attended for the entire Congress, even though it was on the edge of (or just outside of) my main period of interest. Keep in mind too – while I believe this session was the “best” one I attended, it wasn’t my favorite – my favorites were in areas/periods I am somewhat better acquainted with.

The first paper was by Margaret McCarthy, a PhD student at St. John’s College, Cambridge, titled, “Louis the Stammerer and the Development of a Kingly Identity.”

Her intention was to show how Louis the Stammerer created an identity as king or regis on taking the throne.

Louis the Stammerer was something of the Black Sheep of his family in his youth. He angered his father, Charles the Bald, repeatedly, including by marrying without permission. Hincmar of Rheims didn’t care for him. Though Louis was King of Acquitaine, Charles kept a pretty tight rein on him. In the Capitulary of Quierzy Charles basically indicated that Louis was to become king on his death, if a better alternative hadn’t come along by then.

It didn’t. Charles died in the fall of 877 and Hincmar crowned Louis as King in December. He started under difficult circumstances. While Charles had allowed him to sign a charter as King of Acquitaine to establish himself as a royal personage, the Quierzy Capitulary stated that Louis should always have a bishop’s advice and was expected to work with a circle of advisors. This is pretty restrictive language. And many of the nobility had recently provided a conspicuous show of non-support for Louis’ father.

McCarthy details how Louis set about establishing himself as King after he was crowned. She focused on the ways he did this through grants of land, charter issuance, gifts, and recognition by the Carolingian aristocracy.

According to the Annals of St-Bertin, immediately following Charles’ death Louis met with many of the nobility and issued various grants of land and property. This had an immediate impact of establishing his legitimacy as well as giving him a core group with a vested interest in seeing him become successful.

During the 18 months of his rule Louis gave out 38 charters, half of which were confirmation charters, establishing relationships and confirming the loyalty of the aristocracy. McCarthy provided a handout with several charters on it and proceeded to explain how these helped to establish Louis’ legitimacy.

I won’t go through these in detail however these charters included; gifts and grants to churches, establishing his legitimacy with the religious community; charters handed out at the request of nobles, including Boso of Vienne, which established that the aristocracy recognized Louis as possessing legitimate authority to grant such requests; a grant of papal privilege to a monastery indicating that the papacy recognized his right to rule and; even a confirmation of grants to a monastery located outside his lands, but with lands within, again establishing that it was his right to take such actions.

McCarthy provides a very good description of how Louis began his reign from a fairly weak standpoint – not only did his father not like him but, not mentioned by McCarthy that I recall, the Capitulary of Quierzy would have been witnessed by numerous members of the nobility AND it was proclaimed before a large Carolingian assembly. As soon as he realized he was King, Louis took actions to legitimize his rule by using gifts, grants and charters to acquire tangible evidence that various important groups and individuals recognized his authority – and was able to accomplish quite a bit in the 18 months before he died.

This paper stood out for me out of all the papers I heard at Congress, not for its content – which was good but on a par with several other good ones, including the others in this session – but for the way McCarthy organized and presented it. There’s a difference between a paper prepared to just read and one prepared for public presentation and McCarthy’s paper excelled in its presentation. It was clear, concise, and to the point. She did an extremely good job of making certain that issues she wanted to stress were clear and that she provided precise, very understandable information in support of these issues. There was no confusion over what she wanted to say or the points she wanted to get across. Her handout was relevant and useful. I consider this to be the most well presented paper I heard during the entire Congress – and the information contained in it wasn’t bad either. I regret that I didn’t get the chance to talk to her after the session and give her a quick “well done” for this.

The second paper in this session was from Karl Heidecker of Rijksuniv, Groningen, titled, “Carolingian Government and Social Practice: Imperial and Christian Reform.” I believe this is the correct title – I’m usually pretty careful about those types of things. It is a change from what’s in the Congress Program but not one that should change the focus much so I hope I didn’t get sloppy and shorthand it in my notes.

Heidecker also did a nice job of framing what he would be discussing. He believes we can view Carolingian government as a dynamic process and he chose to use a generational model to represent three phases in its evolution. Those phases were as follows:

  • Phase 1 – Pepin through Charlemagne
  • Phase 2 – Louis the Pious
  • Phase 3 – Louis the Pious’ sons

He proceeded to examine several aspects of Carolingian government and how these evolved over time.

The first aspect he examined was regarding marital legislation. In phase 1, most of the laws generally were concerned with forbidding illicit marriage. In phase 2, under Louis the Pious, the laws became explicit and detailed. And during phase 3 legislation showed a heightened self-confidence of the clerical elite – they became quite active in regulating marriage. The impact of this is that during the first two phases enforcement was somewhat haphazard and marital laws were more often used as a threat to encourage proper behavior. In phase three marital legislation became used as a weapon where clerics in particular began to actively use Church law.

From there he moved to land litigation with a focus on Northern Alamannia. When Pepin and Carloman established control over the area they used a flexible, adaptive technique. In the alpine regions they were more forceful including deposing the Abbott of St. Gaul and dividing it into three regions, west, central and east. In the western region the Carolingians displaced the majority of the existing nobles. In the central region Charlemagne installed his in-laws as counts while in the east the local nobility, the Alamans, largely retained control.

Once Louis the Pious took over this all changed, He systematized the means of control, disbanded the existing fiscal districts and drew up new administrative districts.

I’ve always been very interested in peasants so my attention was immediately piqued when he started discussing how land and other disputes were resolved in this region. Heidecker found that this was a very grass roots type of conflict resolution, almost never being resolved above the comital level and very frequently below. Most conflicts were resolved by compromise and were achieved through the involvement of local officeholders. In essence, when it came to conflicts, the locals governed themselves.

This was another very good paper. I don’t think there was really a thesis involved here – at times the paper moved a bit in that direction but for the most part, as with McCarthy, the focus seemed to be on providing information. He also provided a very structured paper, he had some good visuals to indicate geographic regions he was discussing and he did a nice job of clearly supporting his ideas. I found it very informative and look forward to, hopefully, reading some published work by him on this. I may even have to have a look at his newest book, The Divorce of Lothar II (Cornell, 2010). I enjoyed the way he approached this issue.

The final paper for this session was by Justin Lake of Texas A&M University, “Pompatica Scientia in the Tenth Century.” Again, this is a title change from that in the program.

In this paper, Lake examines the concept of learning and knowledge, particularly classical knowledge of grammar and the liberal arts, and how that was viewed by contemporaries in the 10th century (though several of his sources were later). Was a high level of knowledge a help or a hindrance to people of this era, particularly when it came to advancement?

He opened with a discussion of Hervé of Tours, as portrayed by Rodulf Glaber. Hervé was sent by his parents to learn the liberal arts at a cathedral school. Hervé, wanting to become a monk, rejected this learning as “showy and vain” and tried to enter a monastery, only to be dragged back by his father (don’t worry about poor Hervé – he eventually got his wish). In the same history, Vilgard, a learned man, became “puffed up with pride” – so much so that he was eventually corrupted by demons who disguised themselves as poets and fell into heresy. Glaber didn’t think much of the liberal arts.

Thietmar of Merseberg, in his Chronicle, discusses Brun of Cologne and characterizes him as being guilty of a “useless devotion to philosophy.” Clearly, there were folks during this period who didn’t think highly of secular learning.

Lake moved from this to a discussion of the cathedral schools of Germany. He believes they secularized learning and separated the arts from religion. The intellectual climate promoted by these schools resulted in learning being esteemed and becoming a means of achieving high office during this period.

Richer of Saint-Rémi, in his history, discusses Gerbert of Aurillac as a man of great learning, talent and intellect. He never mentions his sanctity, instead stressing Gerbert’s learning and secular knowledge. Lake described this type of biogrophy as “secular hagiography.” In Richer, overt displays of erudition seem to influence patronage. Gerbert’s knowledge certainly didn’t hold him back as he became Pope Sylvester II. Richer also discusses medicine and siege weapons in detail, providing evidence of his own knowledge.

In the early 11th century Dudo of Saint-Quentin wrote a history of the Normans. I haven’t read this but Lake related how Dudo utilizes obscure prose and knowledge and gives an impression of pomposity out of a desire for patronage. He dedicated this work to Bishop Adalbero of Laon.

Lake believes that in moving learning from having a religious focus to the liberal arts, the cathedral schools paved the way for the use of ostentatious displays of knowledge as a means by which people promoted themselves for patronage.

I have one very gentle criticism of this paper – the title. This is not my period – I’ve read Thietmar and Adam of Bremen and have the Swabian Chronicles and a couple of other 11th century sources on my shelves (lot of good that does, I know). However it seems to me that Lake relied more on 11th century sources than those of the 10th. Graber, Dudo and Thietmar all wrote in the 11th century. This may be a bit picky but I think perhaps the title of the paper could have been adjusted to reflect this.

This was another very good paper to cap off an excellent session. As with the first two speakers, Lake was clear about what he wanted to discuss, the points he wanted to get across and he supported his position with substantial, detailed evidence. He also provided a very helpful handout.

All of the speakers in this session did a very nice job of defining their respective topic, framing it, and then providing a great deal of information. There were some very good questions asked. As I said in my opening, I was very impressed with the quality of these papers, the presentations provided by the speakers, and the session overall. Danuta Shanzer deserves a lot of credit for organizing all of the EME sessions, but this one in particular.

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Posted by on May 28, 2010 in Conferences


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Cool Stuff on Other Blogs

This is a quick “Kalamazoo Session Report Break.” I’ve written reports on exactly half the sessions I’ve attended and yes, I will finish – have started a draft of the 6th session I attended already. Session Reports won’t suffer the fate of my promised but unfulfilled Peter Heather Book Report.

But for whatever reason, I’ve recently had a major uptick in my site traffic and on the off chance that people have been to my blog but missed some others, I want to post links to three extremely interesting topics from three of my favorite blogs.

Working chronologically, oldest to newest, check out Jonathan Jarrett’s post on the Pictish language. I’m a detail person (translation – sometimes an anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive personality) and Jonathan always includes a lot of that in his posts – detail, not personality neuroses. This is one I need to really study – LOTS of info.

Steve Muhlberger has the start of what looks to be a very interesting discussion of Medieval Maritime military transport – complete with what looks like the precursor to amphibious assault ships? Stay tuned on this one. I have several sources sitting here and plan on checking them out just in case I have something to contribute. Looked at William of Malmesbury and William of Tyre last night and struck out but I’m not done yet. 1

Last but not least, Magistra, who runs a blog I really enjoy, has a report on some of the first papers discussing the Staffordshire Hoard. I won’t have the chance to look into this one in any depth until tonight but she always puts up high quality posts and this sure looks like it meets that standard.

Thanks to everyone who’s checked out my blog – if you haven’t already I strongly suggest you take a look at this information from people who actually know what they’re talking about.

1 Someone more familiar with these two should still look them over – I based my search on the indexes and when you’re looking at 19th century editions, well, maybe indexing hadn’t reached its height yet.


Posted by on May 27, 2010 in Other Blogs


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