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

30 May

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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6 responses to “ICMS Session Report VII: Session 457 – Early Medieval Europe III

  1. theswain

    May 30, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Another fine post, Curt. Just an FYI: one of the champions and editors of EME is Danuta Shanzer…Mathiesen's girlfriend last I knew.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    May 30, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Dunno about GF but I know she's an EME editor and the organizer for the K'zoo EME sessions plus his faculty colleague. It wasn't her who said this BTW but the session presider.I'll get to work on your stuff pretty quick – these session reports are getting me in the habit of spending 2-4 hours/day on this.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    May 31, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    The session presider, if I remember rightly, was Katy Cubitt, who is one of EME's editors, so I don't think there was more than humour involved in the faint praise plug; she couldn't be expected to let it pass unmentioned, I think. Even that, however, does reveal that they feel they're in competition.I think the argument for the term 'Late Antiquity' started within the field, largely with Peter Brown, so there are good academic reasons for preferring it, largely based around continuity of (late!) Roman attitudes and institutions, as well as the outreach one you mention. But I think that outreach factor is also important, and it's not something I've seen verbalised before.

  4. Medieval History Geek

    May 31, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    You betcha – there are quite a few areas which can be looked at as specifically Late Antique. There are also combinations of Medieval/Ancient systems and attitudes/cultures/literary output that become quite unique. I didn't mean to imply that there aren't sound academic reasons for the period, just that this isn't where I'm coming from.But as, with myself in my field, I don't expect that to be something medievalists would embrace. We're (whatever the field) supposed to be dispassionate, look at various points of evidence, follow correct procedures and not be unduly influenced by public opinion at the expense of objective study. Changing terms for things purely for reasons of public perception displays a concern for opinion that, if not accounted for, could become an external influence on research itself. That can't happen.Fortunately, for Late Antiquity there are plenty of "non public perception" reasons. But there are also some deep-seated opinions out there which seem almost to be on the level of a conditioned response in people when they hear or read the terms "Medieval" or "Middle Ages." For me, as a non-academic (in medieval history) but a person who, whenever I mention I'm interested in Medieval History, gets the response, "Oh – does that mean you dress up in a suit of armor and wave swords around?" if a term change can also help break through some of the misconceptions by getting people away from these ingrained, emotive responses, more power to it. And with its emphasis on being a transition period, I think the use of Late Antiquity can do that – some (it's always pushing against a wall – can you get the wall to move and, if so, how much?).


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