Monthly Archives: December 2010

New Year’s Resolutions

I know it isn’t New Years Day yet but I have no idea what condition I’ll be in on Saturday. To tell the truth, I am going to a party Friday night but I’m not as wild and crazy as I was in my youth and I have to pick up hay Saturday morning; the nag will want to eat this winter. So I expect to be upright and functional on January 1 – and busy.

My “Medieval Year” really revolves around the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. I always have a “to do” list of things to work on when I get home from that but I thought it would be interesting to do something similar for the end of the calendar year. Besides, this is the first New Year where I have had a medieval blog. I’m going to focus my resolutions on two separate areas; this blog and the direction of where I hope to focus my learning, at least a little. This may bore readers to death but I’ve found that I work more efficiently if I have a list and that in posting this publicly I’ll take it as something of a promise and work harder at achieving these things.

This Blog

I’ve not been a total failure at blogging (I don’t think) and occasionally I’ve even put up some decent posts. Somehow I’ve made several best blogs lists. Not sure how that happened though I do appreciate it and hope I can live up to this. When I started I had hoped to reach a rate of 100 posts/year. I’m not going to achieve that but I think I’ll be close to 80 or so. I’m still hoping to get to the hundred for next year but as I’ve said, I don’t want this blog to be focused on me (at least outside of my medieval hobby) so it’s a matter of content. I didn’t have a goal of readership when I started but in analyzing my stats I seem to have settled in at 40-50 views per day with occasional spikes and lapses. I’m greedy and want more but I’m pretty sure if you’d told me last January that I’d be getting 1200-1500 views a month I’d have been somewhere between happy and ecstatic. Anyway, on to the resolutions:

1) Writing skills. One of the areas I’ve been least happy with is the realization that my writing skills are not where they were 20 years ago. This was astonishing to me but in reading my posts I’ve engaged in various practices including poor sentence structure, an over abundance of qualifiers in statements, a lot of passive-voice, using phrases such as, “Actually, so-and-so-says,” or “In reality …” and garbage like that. I had a period where I was flooding this blog with what I call a “faux em-dash.” My em-dash on this blog is already wrong because I use a single spaced hyphen rather than two hyphens. I’m not worried about that because I think people understand what I’m getting at but I was substituting this for comma’s and semicolons at a drastic pace this spring. I started fining myself $10 for each uncalled-for use and for the most part I think I’ve fixed it (my use of this in the opening paragraph is, I think, appropriate). The largest check I wrote to charity was $130 in June. Another issue I have is repetitive phrasing. I thought my post on books which have had a strong influence on me was pretty good until I re-read it and saw how many times I used the phrase “showed me” in describing a book’s impact. I was honestly embarrassed by this and thought of editing it the next day but decided to leave it in as a lesson for myself. This is not the only instance of this happening in my posts. A blog is not a formal piece of writing, though some of my posts, such as book reviews, are more in that direction, however that’s still no excuse for laziness or for being just plain sloppy. I can write much better; it’s simply a matter of focus.

2) Appearance. You’ll notice a change in my blog appearance and may see others over the next few weeks. I like the Earth tones for a background but my original format of gray type on a tan background made this more difficult to read than I cared for and the type was denser on the page than I liked. I think I like the current format better but I intend to experiment with it a bit more in the near future until I come up with a final layout and appearance. There is also the possibility of an accompanying Facebook page but I haven’t decided if that’s something I want to do. To those who have been regular readers, please let me know what you think of this compared with the previous format and I’d welcome any suggestions.

3) Images. I’ve been very sparse in using images to illustrate my meanings in posts. I need to work on this.

4) Content. I’ve not been completely displeased with my content, even when I use a double negative in a sentence such as here. (Is this fineable?) However my original intent was to serve as something of a Medieval halfway house. By and large, I thought I could point out some things I believed as fact when I first started learning about the period but later learned were far from the truth. I also thought I could take some academic information which was important but maybe had not been made available to the general public (that I’m aware of) and make some posts on it. I’ve done some of that and my Amateur Tips page is a step in the right direction but I need to take some medieval history themes and topics and write some essays. In order to avoid boring folks to death I’ll have to set some rules for myself regarding length and style. I do think there’s a stigma where popular history has often been equated with bad history. This is not always the case and I hope it doesn’t happen for my blog. I’ll likely set up a separate page for links to these essays (right now the simplest title appears to be “essays”) and my intention is to use a casual writing style with references noted at the bottom. Just because the writing style is casual doesn’t mean I shouldn’t use a lot of citations.

This does not mean I intend to do away with my more formal posts such as my book reviews (I really consider these to be semi-formal; sort of a “jacket, no tie” form) or analysis of journal articles (though I am not joining the Medieval Academy of America this year so I won’t be talking about Speculum articles). This creates a difficulty as I’ll have a somewhat inconsistent posting style, which I have a feeling isn’t recommended, but that’s the way it is.

5) Write a new “most-viewed” Post. Almost from the moment I wrote it (at least from April 10 when I put up a stat counter) my A World Lit Only by Fire review has generated the most hits of any post on my blog. 1 I suppose I should consider that I’ve done the world a service with this post and be satisfied with that but I’m really hoping to post something – anything – which will supplant it. Or at least have new posts “outhit” it for a full week after I put them up. Of course the best way to get readership is to post wild, controversial stuff so if, for example, I decided to post that Attila’s mother was really a gorilla which is why his skull was so deformed, I’d likely increase my readership. Hmmm – April Fools’ Day post maybe? I hope it’s obvious that I’m not going to do anything like that but I have hopes of some brilliantly written and articulated post which everybody will want to read. Part of this will be titling my posts to more efficiently target keyword searches. My essays may be able to help with this as well.

My History Studies

This has been a good year. I managed to get a lot of reading done, with 76 books read in my free time, 72 of those in either Ancient or Medieval History. I’ve read a few books for work too but I’m not worrying about that here; is anyone interested in a tech manual on radiological emergency response? I’ve learned a few things and in particular I’ve learned of some areas where I need to learn more. (I have a feeling using a form of the word “learn” three times in a sentence deserves a fine; it was a deliberate construct) I am very behind in entering my written notes into my spreadsheet. I need to fix that but I’ve found that when I want to look into Medieval History but not read about it, blogging has replaced my note-entering time.

1) Early Christianity. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how important I believe the study of Christianity is to learning about the Middle Ages. Christianity was such a constant, dominant aspect of culture throughout the period that it is, simply, necessary to at least know something about it. NOTE: I do not mean by the use of the word, “dominant” that Christianity or the Church ran everything because this is not the case (this may be an essay topic if I can find some way to do it justice in a thousand words or less). I have a decent handle on some aspects of this such as hagiography, monasticism (though there are some works on the desert fathers I need to read) and religious-lay relationships during certain periods. However I need to learn more about the early Church. Up to about 16 months ago I was focusing on Christianity, working backwards chronologically and focusing on translated sources. I’ve gone in some different directions since then but it’s time to return. Right now I’m in the late 4th century. I’ve read a lot of Augustine and a fair amount of Jerome. Ambrose needs to be in my near future and I have John Cassian, Paulinus of Nola, Arnobius of Sicca, etc., on my shelves. I need to work my way back though folks like Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Irenaeus, and finish with re-reading the Bible (it’ll be strange reading later portions such as Acts and Pauline Books first) along with commentaries. I’m not sure how much I’ll get done this year but I need to work on it to get a better handle on this Late Antiquity thing.

2) Use of Evidence. There are dozens of directions this might take. As a person not in the field I doubt I’ll ever have complete mastery of this simply because I won’t be examining manuscripts or work a dig however I want to be able to determine the validity of an argument in a journal article or book, as well as I possibly can. Medieval history is all about interpretation and analysis of evidence. There are aspects of this where I’m simply unqualified to assess an argument. A good example is in the detailed examination of medieval texts to the level of sentence structure and a subsequent discussion of meaning. Anyone who’s studied a second language knows there are certain words or phrases for which no precise translation exists; you have to glean meanings and approximate. I don’t know Latin so I can not assess someone’s analysis of a Medieval Latin Text other than whether his or her argument seems logically sound (you can apply this to any contemporary language such as Greek, Gothic, Pictish, etc.). The problem is, someone may offer what appears to be a very substantive, reasonable explanation but it may be based on a flawed reading of a text, which I will not catch. One day I anticipate that I will set about re-learning Latin but it’s not today. There’s also the danger, when reading two opposing views, of being “taken in” by the more appealing prose. In the past I’ve fallen for arguments which don’t examine the evidence at all, or very little, but were based almost exclusively on logic. This may have worked well for the ancient Greeks but it won’t do today.

To escape from the above ramble, in the coming year I’d like to focus on archaeology and how archaeological evidence is analyzed when compared and contrasted with textual evidence. There are two aspects of this which, at the moment, I’d like to work on. One I’ve discussed previously is that of cemetery/mortuary remains. The other is archaeological finds related to the use of space. Kim Bowes’ book, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity pointed out the importance of analyzing the use of space for religious ritual and how this shows that the evolution of Christianity in Late Antiquity was likely not so much of a “top-down” process, dominated by bishops and clerics, as I had believed from a reading of the textual evidence. These texts were, of course, written by bishops and clerics. 2

3) Whatever else catches my interest. This isn’t a true resolution but as this is my hobby, not my profession, I can decide to learn about whatever I want. Something will come up in the next 12 months. I don’t know what it will be but I’m sure it will be fun.

To each person who’s read my blog; Thank You very, very much. A double thank-you to those who have commented or e-mailed me. And for the professional historians who’ve taken the time to comment, or link to something I’ve written, I sincerely appreciate it. All of you have made my entry into the world of blogging a lot of fun and very rewarding.

1 William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. New York: Little, Brown and Company (1992). ISBN: 978-0316545563.

2 Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0-521-88593-5.


Posted by on December 30, 2010 in Blogology


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Book Review: Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity

Bowes, Kim, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). Pp. 363, xvi. ISBN: 978-0-521-88593-5.

The study of the evolution of Christianity during Late Antiquity has traditionally focused on members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy; bishops, clerics and even emperors. In this book Kim Bowes chooses to explore a lesser-known phenomenon; that of religious practice in private spaces with an emphasis on its impacts on the development of the institutional Catholic Church from 300-450. By utilizing an impressive collection of textual sources and integrating these with archaeological evidence in a case-study approach, Bowes casts light on a world which was fully as seminal in shaping Christianity as were public building projects, prominent bishops and doctrinal authorities, public practice, and enabling legislation from Emperors.

The book is arranged into four chapters with a brief introduction. In the introduction Bowes discusses prior scholarship on this issue, or the lack thereof, with particular emphasis on the fact that, “… private devotion is hard to see.” (9) She challenges Christianization models which emphasized consensus-building by stating that, “Typically, ‘dissenting’ elements in these [consensual Christianization] stories were placed under the headings of paganism and heresy, their marginalization reinforcing the primacy of consensus as social-historical paradigm.” (10-11) She sets out a definition of private for the purposes of this study as, “… the practice of ritual outside the space and/or supervision of the institutional church and/or its bishop.” (14) This definition and the discussion immediately following regarding how this impacts her identification of religious space as public or private are essential to the remainder of the book and one the reader will want to return to as he or she progresses through this book.

Chapter one, “An Empire of Family and Friends: Public and Private in Roman Religions,” examines pre-Constantinian Roman religious practice with an emphasis on its impact on the development of later Christian practice. Roman household cults were a substantial aspect of religious practice with many households containing spaces devoted to a deity and engaged in ritual designed to honor their chosen God or Gods. This resulted in the development of considerable private religious space ranging from a room set aside in an urban home to rural villa temples. While occasionally private ritual might be exposed to accusations of magia; ritual practice designed not just to promote a deity but also to harm others; private ritual and space were an important and generally accepted aspect of Roman life.

Interestingly, during this pre-Constantinian period Christianity was moving away from the private toward the public. Certainly this was not in the sense of spaces constructed using public funds or state-supported ritual however considerable evidence exists of the development of Christian communities. These communities generally were sponsored by the wealthier members of society and used what came to be viewed as communal space for religious ritual and activities. The evolution of these communal spaces into household churches where religious ritual, particularly the Eucharist grew increasingly complex promoted, “… the gradual emergence of a monoepiscopate, a single leader for all Christians in a given city.” (50) Bowes contrasts this with private ritual in the home conducted by families. Although authors such as Cyprian and Origen promoted public space for prayer, private and familial ritual were prominent, including communion before meals and prayer. She notes that it is important to recognize that even as private ritual helped bind a Christian community together as members engaged in common practices when they were not together; fears that private ritual was subject to pollution, either through flawed practice or when practiced in the presence of non-Christians, were prominent.

In the next chapter, “Two Christian Capitals: Private Worship in Rome and Constantinople,” Bowes examines how these two cities developed in the wake of Christianity’s legalization. The contrast between these two cities is profound, however they also possess considerable similarities. Rome possessed an extremely diverse pre-Constantinian structure, one which Bowes describes as very heterogeneous and fractured. (64) There were wide differences between groups in ritual and practice. Some were followers of one scholarly tradition, others of another and even Easter was celebrated on different dates throughout the city.

Bowes emphasizes that fourth-century Christianity in Rome very closely resembled that of the third. She notes that large-scale religious building construction in Rome really didn’t gain momentum until the fifth century and, “Given the slow pace of church building, it seems most likely that Christians of the fourth century continued to worship in the same places as did their ancestors of the third, namely in homes or other private spaces.” (73) In fact, Bowes argues against a rapid unification of Christian groups and believes that, “Indeed, rather than erasing Rome’s particulate qualities, Constantine’s conversion may have deepened them, as Rome’s aristocrats and their desperately needed wealth were added to this contentious mix.” (65) In light of this, it is unsurprising that Bowes believes that private spaces and ritual were still a prominent, if not dominant, aspect of religious life in Rome. Arguing against previous scholarship, she believes that the origin of relic cults was through the aristocracy rather than the episcopacy and that private relic shrines were, if not exactly common, far from exceptional.

This prevalence of the private sowed the seeds of hostility among Rome’s bishops as they may have viewed this both as dangerous doctrinally as well as a threat to their authority. Titular churches, built through donations of the aristocracy, private ritual and asceticism and even theological debates taking place in homes all served to diminish episcopal authority. While the conflict between public and private was not extreme, it was a developing undercurrent which would grow in later years.

Constantinople’s story was obviously different, however Bowes demonstrates that it was notable for the many similarities with Rome. While a vibrant yet diverse and fractured Christian community was not extant before Constantine established his new city, much of the worship and ritual took place in private spaces and within homes. “Already in the mid fourth century, private neighborhood churches, private martyr shrines, and eventually, private ascetic and charitable foundations formed the backbone of Constantinopolitan Christian life.” (103) Contrary to what Bowes terms “the Constantinian myth-machine,” (107) little imperial church-building is evident before the Theodosian dynasty. Until that time, virtually all church building was through private efforts. While the lack of an existing Christian community on the scale of Rome might indicate a more unified, structured system, this did not, in fact, take place as various groups and members of the elite resisted this, notably expelling John Chrysostom from the city and the bishopric, at least in part due to his inability to navigate the complexity of the local Christian landscape. While numerous efforts were made to unify the city under a single hierarchy, it was not until Justinian that this was substantially achieved. In Constantinople, monks and elites were at least as influential as ecclesiastical authorities and, “… in the new Rome, short-lived bishops mostly worked hand-in-glove with the bureaucrat-church builders who constituted the principal element of religious continuity.” (124)

In chapter three, “‘Christianizing’ the Countryside: Rural Estates and Private Cult,” Bowes moves to the rural West. Through an analysis of estate and villa construction in combination with textual evidence she discusses private churches, often used as places for religious ritual for all members of an estate. She is careful to note that there is little evidence that these spaces were used as part of an active conversion effort in rural Western Europe. She discusses how frequently pagan spaces were converted for Christian ritual and how often it is difficult to distinguish between pagan and Christian uses in some rural structures, particularly mausolea. She examines several geographic regions and discusses their differences such as, for example, North Africa which had a relatively large number of rural bishops, even estate-bishops, when compared with areas such as Gaul and Britain.

There are significant differences between these regions however a common thread is that of rural Christianity being primarily practiced in private spaces. Except for in North Africa, rural bishops were few and far between and the parish system of organizing rural churches did not become established until the sixth century. It was in these rural areas that significant bishop-elite conflict first arose. Bowes believes that, contrary to most scholarship which she believes has been overly reliant on clerical textual sources which emphasize unity and religious primacy, bishops and aristocratic elites were less allies than competitors. “Estate-based communities were simply different from those envisioned by the episcopate . . . tensions accumulated: inward-looking estates versus distant episcopal cities, genuine local power versus theoretical diocesan authority, wealthy rural elites versus impoverished urban bishops.” (188)

The closing chapter, “Ideologies of the Private: Private Cult and the Construction of Heresy and Sanctity,” discusses how private worship often was criticized by religious authorities, even as it was promoted by ecclesiastical authors, particularly as a sign of ascetic practice. As heresy became an increasing concern, private worship was often labeled as secretive and a sign of heretical practice and belief. While private ritual was never labeled as equivalent to heresy, it was symptomatic and often discouraged. Edicts against Arians, Manichees and Priscillianism all name the home as a site where heretical worship and ritual were practiced. At the same time, authors such as Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose and Jerome promoted the home as highly desirable for asceticism and even as a means of defense against the corruption of the world. In particular, the home was promoted as an extremely desirable location for female ascetic practice with women even discouraged from participating in public worship. (207)

Bowes concludes this book with a summary of her previous arguments and by touching on sixth and seventh century developments. As Christianity became more established and the episcopal hierarchy more secure, accusations of the private as a heretical refuge diminished. Bishops increasingly asserted their rights of supervision over estate-based churches and prohibited ritual such as the eucharist and baptism from being conducted in private spaces. She considers the Council of Chalcedon to be, “… a watershed in the growth of episcopal hegemony; monasteries and domestic churches alike were emphatically located inside an episcopally governed community, their actions monitored by an ever-keener episcopal gaze.” (223) Despite this assertion of episcopal authority, private ritual and space continued to be an important part of Christian life; indeed, few palaces were built without an accompanying chapel. While the public-private balance had shifted, it continued to be a balance and a continuing point of contention, one which Bowes believes impacts Christianity to this day.

This is a very useful book. It is copiously referenced and rigorously researched, though the author-date citation method used is a hindrance. It is very well illustrated with 54 maps, plans and images. Bowes utilizes a great deal of archaeological evidence, particularly in chapters two and three, to form her case-study approach in analyzing private spaces and their uses. She has done an admirable job of integrating these with textual references and demonstrates a great deal of knowledge of the source material. This has been an under-represented area of study and this work shows the importance of integrating archaeology and not relying only on textual sources authored by ecclesiastical authorities for information on the early church and Christianity.

If there is a true criticism, it is with chapter one. The structure of Bowes’ argument is somewhat disorganized for this chapter as she uses authors such as Cicero for evidence of first and second century practice and integrates various geographic regions in a somewhat haphazard manner. Much of this information is useful, however relying on first-century CE authors such as Philo and Seneca rather than those from the Roman Republic and providing more structure during discussions of different geographic regions, as she did in her third chapter, would have made this section easier to follow.

Bowes has authored an impressive book which provides something of a roadmap for future study. The impact of private ritual on the development of Christianity in different geographic regions, such as she broadly covers in chapter three, is a fertile area for future research. The same analysis she provides for the years 300-450 will be useful for other periods, particularly to the beginning of the seventh century. In this work she has shown the necessity of a more critical analysis of textual sources in light of archaeological evidence where writers such as Gregory of Tours, portraying a fourth and fifth century church-building movement initiated by religious figures, must be analyzed against the evidence of estate and villa churches built by secular elites. This book is informative, interesting, and useful. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in the development of Christianity in Late Antiquity.


Posted by on December 25, 2010 in Books


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A Note on Notes

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a footnote-chaser. While I’m reading a book I tend to have a sheet of paper handy to jot down references an author refers to as something I should either buy, or at least try to find in a library. So I have a deep interest in the form of notes. 1

First, before I really get going on what bugs me (IOW, before this becomes a rant), let me say that far and away the best system of footnoting is full notes, complete with comments, on the bottom of a page. I have no problems reading a book which is literally half footnotes. Those books (if well-written of course) are like brain-candy.

In full footnotes, the following format (with some minor variation) is used for citations: Author, Work title (Publisher info, date of publication), page number. The second time a work is cited the title and publisher information may be shortened. For example, a first citation may read; Claudia Rapp, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition (Berkely, 2005), 25. The second citation of the same work may be; Rapp, Holy Bishops, 41. In some cases the name of the publisher, in this case University of California Press, is substituted for the location of the publishing house. I actually prefer this second method but it’s a minor quibble.

In any case, with full footnotes I never have to turn a page. I can immediately write down everything I need to find the cited work. 2

A system which I don’t much care for but have come to reluctantly accept is that of endnotes. Endnotes may either be listed at the end of each chapter, or at the end of the book (before the Index and Bibliography), in the latter case usually with the pages the notes refer to at the top of the page. I have a strategy for dealing with these which I have grown comfortable with; I keep two bookmarks, one for the main narrative/text, and a second to track the endnotes. As I’m reading, if a piece of information is noted which I’m interested in, I flip to my back-bookmark, read the note and jot down the reference, all while keeping a finger at the point in the narrative I found it. This is a bit tedious but by using both hands I can deal with it and I won’t lose my place in the book.

An alternate system is the author-date citation method or what I call abbreviated notes. Under this system, the citation would be given as follows; Rapp 2005, 25. If this is given as a footnote, I can still deal with it. I don’t have all of the information I need but I can keep a bookmark tucked in the bibliography, keep my finger on the point in the narrative, flip back to the referenced work and write down what I need. A bit of a pain, but workable. I still have two hands and can manage this.

Then we come to the crime against humanity, literary hari-kari (more properly harikiri or harakiri) or the abattoir of literary pursuit. (Did I mention this is a rant?) This is the abbreviated(author-date citation system) endnote. In this system I’m reading along and an interesting passage is noted. I then flip back to the note, find for example, Rapp 2005, 41 and then have to flip back AGAIN to the bibliography to write down the reference. I have a very hard time keeping track of what I’m reading in this system. I have two hands. I do not have three. Abbreviated endnotes, while technically telling the world where the author got his or her information, isn’t useful for me in any practical sense.

Unfortunately, this seems to be where the world is headed.

“The system of documentation most economical in space, in time (for author, editor, and typesetter), and in cost (to publisher and public) — in short, the most practical — is the author-date system. The University of Chicago Press strongly recommends this system of documentation for all its publications in the natural sciences and most of those in the social sciences. Authors in other fields who are willing to adapt their documentation to this system, and whose documentation is amenable to such adaptation, are encouraged to do so.” 3

Aaaaaargh! 4

There are two criteria which should be met by a citation method; clarity (can you identify the source) and usefulness. The abbreviated endnote system meets the first criterion and fails the second. Completely.

To sum this up; full footnotes are a wondrous thing, to be loved and embraced, beneficial in all ways and one of the great achievements of mankind; full endnotes and abbreviated footnotes are less wholesome but workable by Human beings who are born with two hands; abbreviated endnotes are an abomination, the use of which should be stricken from all forms of written communication (with the exception of journal articles where these may be the best that we can do, though I prefer author-date citations within the text which I can then flip to the bibliography for) and excised from the memory of mankind. (I did say this was a rant, didn’t I?) 5

I know this is useless (well, it makes me feel better) but I wish publishers would consider how their citation system impacts the usefulness of a book. I always end up with far more references to look for after reading a book with full notes, particularly full footnotes, compared to those with abbreviated endnotes. It really does make a big difference.

1 I first mentioned this issue a couple of years ago at the end of a book review I posted on Every time I open a book – particularly once I realize it’s a good one – which uses abbreviated endnotes I get fired up about it again. This happened with a book I’m reading now. The final credit (or blame) for this post goes to a comment by Cecelia on Jonathan Jarrett’s blog.

2 Some books using full footnotes do away with having a bibliography at the end of the book. I completely disagree with this; that system may technically tell the reader where the information came from but I don’t consider it useful or desirable.

3 Chicago Editorial Staff, ed., The Chicago Manual of Style, Fourteenth Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 16.1.

4 This translates from Rantish as, “I disagree and hate the above statement with the burning fury of a million blazing suns, particularly when coupled with using this system as endnotes.” This source does somewhat redeem itself by saying, “The humanities system [documentary notes] is not so succinct as the author-date style, but it does offer its own forms of condensation and it is probably more accommodating to a book with many esoteric sources.” Chicago Editorial Staff, Chicago Manual of Style, 15.2.

5 I want to be clear in recognizing that this appears to be the choice of publishers, not authors. Most authors seem to prefer footnotes (I’ve spoken with a few and read comments from many more).


Posted by on December 23, 2010 in Books


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Influential Medieval Books and a Milestone

I have to get over feeling guilty about not posting much. This has happened, and will continue to happen periodically. The last month was unexpected though. I thought I’d have some free time; instead I’ve been extremely busy.

Just finished spending three days shut in a room in Tennessee with four colleagues. This isn’t quite as severe as it sounds. It’s not like the door’s locked or anything. However it always amazes me just how much you can get done when a few people who know what they’re talking about and have a defined task get together. I like open meetings with lots of folks, but this is just so much more efficient.

Passed a milestone – 10,000 views since April 10! I seem to be at the 40-50 views/day with occasional spikes and lulls. Of course if I’d post more regularly . . . I had a goal of 100 posts by the end of January – about 8 posts/month wouldn’t be bad. I don’t think that’s happening.

Now the reason for this post: I thought it would be interesting to list the most influential medieval history books I’ve read over the past 15 years. My interest in the period has been impacted by various people, places and things. Paul Gans from New York University deserves particular notice. He has been an extraordinarily open, gracious and helpful individual over the years and has helped share his passion for the period with me. The Usenet group soc.history.medieval was probably the initial spur to expanding my interest as it gave me the opportunity to share and exchange ideas and information. Kalamazoo has been very influential dating back to my first conference in 2001. I’ve also started reading several academic journals which has been very interesting. And of course there is this blog and those I’ve “met” through it.

But books remain the core of how I learn about Medieval History. When I reflect, I look at my Medieval hobby very much as a journey. There have been various points along the way where I took one branch of the road rather than another and almost always this has been because of a book I read. Listed below are the books I feel have been most influential on my Medieval “journey.” This is not a recommended reading list by any means though I think all have value. It’s not a list of my favorites or those I feel were the “best” books I’ve read. In fact, at least one was an eye-opener for me because of what I feel are some problems with it. However each of these planted an idea, concept or inspired me to learn more.

I look at these books and my descriptions and think any Historian will probably laugh at me. Many of these concepts are likely taught in a first-year history survey. In my case, I learned about them in a different way. I’ve listed these books, as best I can recall, in the order I read them with an approximate reading date. For the past few years I’ve recorded the date I read something but this isn’t true before about 2005.

Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1994). ISBN: 978-0226482316. Date Read: Approximately 1997. – For me, this book was the one which helped me develop an appreciation for the difference in how Medievals (and Ancients) viewed the world when compared with us today. The difference in taking a philosophical approach to understanding how the world works compared with our modern approach using the Scientific Method is pretty significant. I was smart enough to know that folks a thousand or more years ago viewed the world differently from us however this book was the opening into helping me begin to understand this at least a little. It has also resulted in my library containing a ton of Greek and Roman philosophy sources (in translation of course).

Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1969). ISBN: 9-780520-014114. Date Read: Approximately 1997. – This was the first book I read which showed me that I would have to learn about Christianity to even begin to understand the Medieval period. Later, when I decided to focus on the 4th-9th centuries I think it was at least in part through reading this that I realized I would also have to become much more informed about the Roman Empire.

Prestwich, Michael, Edward I. New Haven, Connecticut USA: Yale University Press (1997). ISBN: 9-780300-071573. Date Read: Approximately 1997. – This book showed me two things. First, that a well-written biography does much more than tell about an individual; it also can be an excellent source of information for the region and period in which that individual lived. I think this may have also been the first, or at least one of the first, book(s) I read which contained a great deal of detail and showed me that I really enjoyed this type of book. A side effect was my becoming a fan of the Yale English Monarchs Series. To date I have nine of them.

Reynolds, Susan, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996). ISBN:9-780198-206484. Date Read: Approximately 1997. – This book was pretty influential in a lot of ways, including the content which is extremely important, but the reason I included it here is that it helped me understand that historical revision is not “naughty” but is necessary and desirable (most of the time anyway).

Maalouf, Amin, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. New York: Shocken Books (1984). ISBN: 9-78085-208986. Date Read: Approximately 1997-8. – This was not a book I expected to choose when I started this exercise. As I was scanning my book list I realized that in examining modern attitudes in the Arab World to the Crusades, Maalouf was instrumental in showing me how important it is to examine medieval and ancient sources in context; by taking into consideration the viewpoints, prejudices, motivations, etc., of the authors.

White, Carolinne, ed., Early Christian Lives. London: Penguin Books (1998). ISBN: 9-780140-435269. Date Read: Approximately 1998. – This is the first collection of Vitae I read and launched my interest in hagiography which continues to this day.

Pernoud, Régine, Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses. Lanham, Maryland USA: Scarborough House (1982). ISBN: 9-780812-812602. Date Read: Approximately 1998. – This book showed me several things which I later explored in more depth. It was my first introduction to heresy which I find fascinating. It also showed me some of the ways in which lay authorities would corrupt Church Institutions and practices for their ends (Malcolm Barber’s Trial of the Templars is another excellent case study as is anything on the Albigensian Crusade). Interestingly, this was also one of the first books I ordered through Amazon. My first ever order was January 11, 1998 (The Battle of Hastings by Stephen Morillo) and I ordered this on January 25.

Brundage, James A., Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1987). ISBN: 9-780226-077840. Date Read: Approximately 1999. – This is one among several books I read which helped show me that the Church was not some sort of monolithic, authoritarian, autocratic institution which controlled everything during the Medieval period but that there was debate and dissension even within the Church as well as between religious and lay leaders. I can’t say for sure if this was even the first book showing me this but it continues to be one I refer to whenever someone gives me the “Church ran everything during the Middle Ages” argument.

Boswell, John, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1998). ISBN: 9-780226-067124. Date Read: Approximately 2000. – I had never bought into the concept that religion was evil or that the Church was a massively negative influence on Human advancement or life in general during the Middle Ages but this book really helped me refine my thoughts on this.

Dhuoda, Handbook for William: A Carolingian Woman’s Counsel for Her Son, trans. Carol Neel. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press (1999). ISBN: 9-780813-209388. Date Read: Approximately 2001. – This book was something of a slap in the face, helping me to realize just how under-represented women are in contemporary Medieval sources, and helped inspire an interest in the role of women during the period.

McCormick, Michael, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2005). Date Read: 2005. – This was, I believe, the first book I read which showed me how statistical analysis of events could be used as a methodological approach to Medieval Studies. Plus the sheer level of detail was astonishing. It continues to be one of my very favorite books. Also, I believe this was the first book where I decided I couldn’t wait for the paperback to come out and had to buy it as a newly published hardcover for a pretty decent chunk of change (for me anyway).

Ward-Perkins, Bryan, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2005). ISBN: 9-780192-805645. Date Read: December, 2005. – This book showed me just how much a respected modern historian’s prejudices could influence his work. While reading it I kept thinking, Who is this guy? and kept checking his bio to make sure this really was a professional historian. I was pretty fired up by this book at the time and still use it as an object lesson.

Wickham, Chris, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 9-780199-212965. Date Read: November, 2008. – My other “favorite” along with McCormick. For me, this book really drove home the need for regionalism in studying history and how geographic areas should first be studied independent of other areas before grouping different regions into a broader synthesis (if the synthesis is valid).

Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 9-780521-435437. Date Read: November, 2009. – It’s difficult for me to assess just how influential this book has been because I’m not sure where this will lead me but Halsall has shown me the importance of first assessing archaeological and textual sources independently of one another and free of external influences before deciding if these sources support one another. In particular this has influenced my desire to learn more about Early Medieval cemetery finds but it holds true for all evidence.

There it is – my “most influential books” list. Putting it together was interesting. There were several books I started to include and decided I only wanted them for sheer quality; while they taught me a great deal, they had not caused a sea change in what I was studying or how I viewed an important issue.

There are substantial aspects of my Medieval hobby where I can’t point to a single book as influential. One is my interest in peasants. Peasants fit in the same “hugely important but rarely mentioned” category as women but I can’t recall a single book where the light bulb went on and I thought, gosh, I need to learn more about them. And at some point I decided I needed every contemporary/near-contemporary source I could get my hands on (in translation, of course). I don’t recall exactly where that may have happened. It may have been Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire which I nearly included here for that reason, but I’d read quite a few sources before that such as Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Augustine’s City of God and Einhard, Gregory of Tours, Froissart, etc. I often think what would truly spur me to re-learn Latin would be running out of sources in translation. Fortunately, this does not seem likely to happen soon. I have also read quite a bit on the Eastern Empire. At some point I decided I had to read about the East to better understand the West (and then found the East just plain interesting) but I can’t recall exactly when or how this happened. Finally, I decided that the Early Medieval Period was what I was most interested in. I am reasonably certain this didn’t happen because of a single book but rather a gradual realization that this was really cool.


Posted by on December 19, 2010 in Books



Busy – and Maybe Not a Geek After All

I apologize for not posting in 3 weeks. I’m swamped at work (that will continue through this week) and home’s been pretty busy too. In short, I unexpectedly received a new piece of furniture. Somehow this has resulted in a chain of events where I’ve cleared 15 years worth of accumulated stuff from the house and have started doing some painting.

In the meantime, I offer you the results of this quiz. Maybe I should change the name of this blog? I was in the 25th percentile for geekery, 88th for scholar.

Your result for The Medieval Geek test…

The Balanced Geek

74% Scholar and 53% Geek!

You’re fascinated by medieval geekery, but not so much that you’re unwilling to use modern inventions like, say, the printing press and electricity. You’ve probably been to medieval-themed events for fun, and maybe held your own, too. And that medieval t-shirt… it’s a secret favourite, isn’t it?

Added to this, you have a healthy scholarly interest in medievalism. It probably isn’t what you do for a living (or if it is, you need to brush up a little before you face your students again!) But you know enough to be annoyed or at least amused when you come across factual inaccuracies in movies or amongst other medieval geeks.

You’re doing well… And you still have a normal life, too. Congratulations!

Take The Medieval Geek test at HelloQuizzy

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Posted by on December 13, 2010 in Blogology


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