Monthly Archives: June 2011

My Sin is Gluttony

If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you may recall that the above fact has been established already. Problem is, at the time I believed I was hogging labels. It took this weekend for me to realize it’s books.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure it out. It’s not like there hasn’t been ample evidence of this before now. Even my moments of control lack, er, control.

What with the K’zoo binge I felt embarrassed to mention this before but it’s time to fess up. Not long after getting back from Kalamazoo I received a 50% off coupon from Borders. I seriously considered ignoring it but since I’m posting this, you know how that worked out. Anyway, I bought Alice Rio’s Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000. Ever since I read her first formulary book I’ve had this targeted and the chance to get it for half price was too good to pass up. 1

So a couple of weeks pass by and another Borders coupon appears, this one for 40% off. I think I may have even waited a day before giving in and buying James T. Palmer’s Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World, 690-900. It wasn’t too long before another coupon, this time for 30% off, appeared. You see where this is going?

Except I drew the line and didn’t bite at 30%. See? I can be strong. Problem is, this weekend another 40% off coupon showed up. This time I bought The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity: Religion and Politics in Byzantium, Europe and the Early Islamic World, edited by Elizabeth Digeser. After this I opened the three catalogs that have come in the mail over the past month. Two were no problem; just a couple more added to the wishlist. Unfortunately, the Oxford University Press one was for their spring sale. This one didn’t quite match my experience with their last sale but I still ended up buying Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities by William Johnson.

So even though I saved a bunch of money, in essence I ended up buying four books (good ones though!) when I don’t think I’m running out of literary material any time soon. And it clinches my need to buy a new bookcase this weekend.

I seriously think publishers who will be at Leeds would make out very nicely if they decided to pay half my way there. Pretty sure I’d make it worth their while.

1 At Kalamazoo in 2009 I picked up Rio’s The Formularies of Angers and Marculf: Two Merovingian Legal Handbooks, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2008). ISBN: 9-781846-311598. Good book and in a different price category than these others. I recommend it.

Digeser, Elizabeth DePalma, ed., The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity: Religion and Politics in Byzantium, Europe and the Early Islamic World, London: Tauris Academic Studies (2011). ISBN: 978-1848854093.

Johnson, William A., Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0195176407

Palmer, James T., Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World, 690-900, Turnhout: Brepols (2009). ISBN: 9-782503-519111.

Rio, Alice, Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2009). ISBN: 9-780521-514996


Posted by on June 28, 2011 in Books


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Empires and Barbarians, Part II

At long last I’m ready to follow up my Empire and Barbarians Part 1 post of well over a year ago in which I discussed a portion of Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe. If that initial post had died a quiet death I would have happily left this alone. However it has consistently been the second most read post on this blog, after my World Lit Only By Fire review. 1

I need to start this post by explaining why I did not follow up in a more timely manner. I’ve previously mentioned that I tend to review one of two types of books; those I really enjoyed and those that really ticked me off. In the case of this book, I really enjoyed the first three chapters. Heather provides a great deal of evidence, he copiously cites sources, and while I disagree with some specifics, I was willing to accept that the Barbarian groups were moving toward greater cohesion during the later Roman Empire and that this had been at least somewhat through their interactions with the Empire itself.

And so I made a mistake. This blog was about three weeks old, I had nothing that was leaping at me to talk about and I didn’t want to begin my blogging existence by waiting several weeks between posts. So, after reading three chapters and enjoying them, I decided I’d post comments in sections. I will not do this again. It’s fine for books which are essay compilations, not for a single book written by one author centered around a dominant theme or themes. After finishing the book, I ended up with the “just OK” feeling about it. I still think the first three chapters were solid. The next four, however, have substantial problems and for the final three chapters he covers Eastern Europe, for which I’ll recommend Florin Curta’s The Making of the Slavs, and Scandinavia. I lost my impetus for finishing the review when this book which started off as very good ended up being what I consider to be mediocre. I’ve started this post several times and I think I’ve finally figured out how I want to finish this off.

I will not be providing a detailed examination of chapters 4-7 in this post. Instead I’ll point out a couple of serious issues I have with Heather’s arguments and how these have impacted my opinion of the book.

There are two pretty substantial problems with chapters 4-7 (I’m ignoring 8-10 – please read something by Curta or someone with more expertise in that area). One is Heather’s use of evidence which often involves conjecture and sheer appeals to logic, without much basis in evidence. I’m not going to cover this here because I hope one day to do a series of posts about how different historians see and use the same evidence to reach (often) very different conclusions.

The second area, which I believe will be much simpler for me to summarize, is where Heather decides to group aspects of migrations where, to me, the evidence for this grouping is thin. I hope this will give people a clear idea why I am fairly lukewarm on this book. It’s OK to read, but read it with some other volumes covering the same period/event. You will find very different uses of evidence and conclusions by different historians. I’ve found this to be very interesting which is why I hope to explore it further one day.

To summarize, in this book Heather’s overall theme is to argue for a fairly robust theory of barbarian migrations occurring toward and immediately following the end of the Roman Empire. These migrations involved large, relatively cohesive groups which include family units; not just small raiding parties or large military forces, but women, children, and a relocation of cultures. Others have argued a variety of alternatives for this, among them that these forces were largely military, did not bring their families with them and, once in the lands of the Empire, developed new family units from the resident population.

So leaving aside the actual evidence itself, I’m going to take two examples for what I consider to be flawed logical arguments.

Goths: This is the group which included Alaric’s force which sacked Rome and set up shop in Southern Gaul in 418 where they remained until 507 when they were defeated by Clovis and driven into Spain. Heather argues that this was a very substantial group involving family units and was a large-scale migration of most of the Goths who had lived in Thrace. He then chooses to equate this group, for which we have a fair amount of evidence, with various other groups, for which evidence is lacking. These groups include the Vandals, Alans and Sueves. In essence his argument is that we can reasonably conclude from the evidence that the Goths comprised family groups so it is reasonable to conclude that the same holds true for these other barbarians.

I disagree. While there are serious and substantive disagreements with Heather’s thesis for the family grouping of Alaric’s Goths after leaving Thrace, let’s set those aside for the moment. A significant problem with how Heather presents his argument is, to me, “Many of these points [regarding the Goths] also apply to those other great practitioners of repeat migration: the Rhine invaders of 406,” and, most damning, “Whatever view you form of Alaric’s Goths, therefore, will tend to spill over into your understanding of the Vandals, Alans and Sueves.” (202)

Why? Why must an argument about the Goths, where a fair amount of evidence exists, be automatically applied to these other groups, where evidence is lacking? Why would you take a single example and extrapolate to include multiple other groups? I can accept having evidence for three or four examples and applying it to one or two others where some similarities exist, but don’t give me an argument that because we know a fair amount about one example, this creates a model which must then be applied to multiple others. That line of reasoning is a big problem for me. It’s an attempt to shoehorn everything to fit a single theory, something which to me is a real issue with some historians. 2

And are these other groups so similar to the Goths as to deserve this type of comparison? I don’t believe so. The Goths were allowed to peacefully enter the Empire under a treaty and settle in their lands. There were serious problems after this settlement, but their entrance was permitted by Rome. These other groups had to invade militarily, by force, though in many cases they met with little resistance. To me there’s a substantial difference between the potential makeup of a group entering the Empire peacefully, under terms, and those entering by military means. I think it would be reasonable to believe that these Goths included family units (I have more problems with whole family units following Alaric around) however why would they have accompanied these other groups on a military invasion? I don’t think this comparison works. Now I want to be careful to say that evidence should always trump logic, however Heather’s argument is based on the logic of comparing the Goths with the 406/07 invasion force which crossed the Rhine. So I’m choosing to use logic as a counter. 3

Anglo-Saxons: OK, so I disagree with Heather’s applying his argument based on a single barbarian group, the Goths, to other groups, for the reasons I stated above. But I can at least see where you might get to that point, though I think the reasoning is flawed and inadequate. However Heather also provides a basis for assessing the Anglo-Saxon invasions which I consider very strange, “It starts by thinking a bit harder about that classic case of elite transfer, the Norman Conquest of England.” (298)

Wha-huh? This was the point at which I became disenchanted with this book. Why bring them into this? I know Heather uses them as a contrast (at least here), not a comparison, but this doesn’t work. There is no basis for using two such disparate events in such a way – one might as well use the American invasion of Iraq. Yes, the Norman invasion was different and resulted in different impacts on England, but the two events are so disconnected that I can’t find a reason for using the two together, beyond making a huge stretch to find a way to fit an argument together. If you want a different sort of invasion to compare and contrast, find something which is at least related to the A-S event and involves peoples, including the lands and culture being “invaded”, with some similarities, beyond that of geography.

Later he equates the Norman invasion with barbarians as a whole, including using “Norman analogy” in his discussion of benefits bestowed on immigrants. (350) Here he decides to equate events of the fourth and fifth centuries with those of the 11th; “Among the immigrant groups of the late fourth and the fifth century direct landed rewards from the king may well not have gone further down the social scale than leading members of the higher-grade (free?) warrior class, though its lesser members and even some or all of the lower-status warriors are likely, on the Norman Conquest model, [my emphasis] to have received something from the higher-status warriors to whom they were attached.” (351) Here his error is even more severe as he turns from using the Norman invasion as a point of contrast to a point of comparison. I’m not particularly fond of using pejoratives but this just seems strange, given the disparity in so many specifics between the groups and events involved. Maybe “sloppy” would be the better term. Is it appropriate to compare and contrast events, strategies, tactics, economic/social/legal/political structures, etc., between two cultures or events? Absolutely – but the cultures/events must have some basis, some commonalities which make these comparisons logical. I don’t see these commonalities here.

These are two examples showing why I found this book to contain some serious flaws. Examining Heather’s use of the evidence will reveal others. He disagrees with Florin Curta, who has considerable experience with Eastern Europe, over the Slavs. There may certainly be cases where invading groups contained family units and was more of a migration than others have argued, but this tactic of Heather’s in applying this to all such groups doesn’t work for me, and any equation of the Anglo-Saxon “invasion” and Norman Conquest, even as a point of contrast, seems strange.

Does this mean the book is useless? Absolutely not. As I opened with, this book did not become something I felt compelled to post about based on disgust. I continue to believe that the opening chapters were comprehensive and well done, and that it is reasonable to believe that barbarian groups had become larger, more cohesive and more militarized over time, at least partly due to their interaction with the Empire. Throughout the book Heather provides numerous mentions of primary sources which helped me to develop a reading list. He is also willing to discuss arguments which disagree with his, though I’d suggest that, rather than relying on his portrayal of these arguments, you read them for yourself. In any case, I hope these comments have served two purposes; to explain why these follow-up comments are so late and; to describe some of the substantial flaws I found with later sections of the book.

In essence, do not read this book in a vacuum. I strongly suggest adding Burns(2003), Halsall(2007), Goffart(2006), and James(2009) to your reading list if you are deeply interested in the subject of how Western Europe evolved in the wake of the Roman Empire.

1 I keep hoping a post will replace this as consistently being the most read on this blog. Instead my review is now the number one result when you Google either “A World Lit Only by Fire Review” or “A World Lit Only by Fire Summary.” I suppose I should be happy I’ve done the world or at least some portion of it a service but really – IMO I have many much better, more substantial posts.

2 For another example of this shoehorning, see Walter Goffart’s argument for how barbarians were settled in Roman lands, as argued in Barbarian Tides, pp 119-186. I won’t go into his argument in detail however in essence he argues that this settlement involved barbarians receiving tax revenues rather than lands. He based this in large part on a discussion of the various barbarian law codes. I have most of these (in translation) and read through them while reading this section and while I believe his argument holds up for many successor kingdoms; unless Katherine Fischer Drew (1972) completely screwed up the translation, I don’t see how you can get there for the Burgundians. Just because it doesn’t work for them does not invalidate Goffart’s entire hypothesis however it seems very important to him for all barbarian settlements to have followed the same “tax revenue” model.

3 There are some serious problems, based in evidence, with Heather’s believing Alaric’s force included family units. A glaring example is that once the Visigoths settle in Southern Gaul, they disappear. Not in textual sources, where they are frequently mentioned, but archaeologically. There is almost nothing to distinguish them from the native Gallo-Roman population. They appear to have adopted Roman customs and lifestyles wholesale. If this group had included family units, wouldn’t they have retained their own customs and lifestyles? Wouldn’t women have continued to create their, Gothic, handspun pottery for use in homes? Wouldn’t they have continued their traditional patterns of dress? Their level of integration into Roman society, to the point of becoming archaeologically invisible, is a powerful argument against the Visigoths of 418 being comprised of family units. See, for example, p. 306 of Patrick Périn and Michel Kazanski, “Identity and Ethnicity during the Era of Migrations and Barbarian Kingdoms in the Light of Archaeology in Gaul” in Mathisen and Schanzer, eds., Romans, Barbarians, and the Transformation of the Roman World. Surrey, UK: Ashgate (2011). ISBN: 978-0-7546-6814-5.

Burns, Thomas S. Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C. – A.D. 400. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0-8018-7306-5

Curta, Florin. The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c. 500-700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2001). ISBN: 9-780521-036153.

Drew, Katherine Fischer, trans. The Burgundian Code: Book of Constitutions or Law of Gundobad; Additional Enactments. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (1972). ISBN: 0-8122-1035-2.

Goffart, Walter. Barbarian Tides: the Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-8122-3939-3

Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-521-4353-7

Heather, Peter, Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe. London: MacMillan (2009). ISBN: 978-0-333-98975-3

James, Edward, Europe’s Barbarians, AD 200-600. Harlow, UK: Longman (2009). ISBN: 978-0-582-77296-0.


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History vs. Progress

I’m back from DC and woefully behind on reading other blogs, as well as posting. As I forget how to speak Politician, I found an article posted by Paul Halsall to Mediev-L. Many of you will know Paul as the founder of The Medieval Sourcebook. He is now at the University of Manchester.

The article, by Claire Berlinski, discusses the issue of a badly needed new transit system in Istanbul where construction has run into a historical site of major importance.

This is something I’ve often thought about and discussed with friends (even in our culture, which has existed in place for about two centuries, we run into this). Ultimately, every piece of land in the world has existed for far longer than modern society and has the potential to reveal a site of historical significance. As the world’s population increases and the need for land becomes more urgent, how will we balance this with historical preservation? This is by no means a new issue and there are systems in place in many areas to address this, in some places even approaching the ideal which would be to change the title of this post to History With Progress, but this article is quite good at illustrating it.

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Posted by on June 17, 2011 in Archaeology


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Cool Stuff on Other Blogs II

I had a post I really wanted to get out before I leave tomorrow until realizing that it may generate some discussion and while I’ll have internet access, I should be near my books, depending on what questions or comments come up. It’s mostly written so I should get it out next weekend.

Since I have nothing else to offer, here are a few recent posts by other bloggers which have caught my attention.

Steve Muhlberger put up a post a week or so ago which I found very interesting. In the US at least, and this may be true of other countries in what we’d call Western Civilization, we have a tendency to think of an entire country as being of basically the same culture. I’d argue that while this is more true in the US than many places, it’s not absolute even here. His post is a nice reminder that multiculturalism is the rule, not the exception even today, and was so to an even greater extent in the past. When I started reading about the Crusades one of the things that struck me was how many different Arab groups there were and how this had such an impact on their initial inability to resist the crusaders and crusade states. They were very willing to enter an alliance with Christians if it gained them an advantage against a rival Arab group. The Crusades have often been portrayed as a simple “Christian vs Islam” struggle. It was much more complex than that.

This is a bit of an old song here but once again I’m impressed with the latest post by Jonathan Jarrett detailing his travels in Catalonia. This one, in addition to having a lot of excellent historical information, includes some great pictures.

Magistra et Mater has two very good posts detailing IHR Early Medieval Seminars. Between her and Jonathan I feel like we got the whole set of sessions. I’m particularly interested in the earlier of the two, discussing continuity with some comments on the use of evidence, two topics I’m really interested in. I started to reply to that post three (I think) times and each time I got to over a hundred words with more to say – too long for a post comment, even for an over-writer like me. Her second post, on the, sort of, survival of free speech into the Middle Ages is also interesting and has its own implications for continuity.

Michelle Ziegler has two good blogs, Heavenfield and Contagions. She recently put up a post discussing her thoughts on Cuthbert’s impact on Aldfrith’s succession to the English throne in the late 7th century. Contagions is good if you’re interested in a more scientific discussion of diseases and their evolution, spread, and impacts. She also periodically puts up summaries of what other people are blogging about – and I’m not saying this just because I received a mention in her latest one! It’s a good way to find out what people are talking about.

My final reading suggestion isn’t exactly about history but about how to do academic work. Another Damned Medievalist and Notorious PhD have started an online writing group. I’ve been following this and find it very interesting. I debated signing up but my current major writing project is much more along the lines of “unwriting.” I have been asked to take elements of a two-hour presentation I’ve given probably two dozen times over the past 2 years and break it down into several 1,000-2,000 word publications, along the lines of fact sheets. I decided not to curse the group with this particular task.

However I’ve been following the discussion and I think, even by lurking, I’m going to learn a lot. The folks in this group are so much more disciplined than I. It’s also interesting to see, once again, how very different humanities presentations are from those in my field. I received an e-mail yesterday asking me to give an hour-long presentation on June 30. Now it’s on a topic I’m very familiar with but I’ve never presented on it before. If I had to present it from an academic paper, I don’t think I could get that put together in less than three weeks, however well I know the topic. But I’m going to create an outline, flesh it out, develop a powerpoint (I don’t read from ppt’s – I use them like I used index cards in the pre-digital age) and am very comfortable with being able to do that, though this has changed what I’ll be doing on my flight tomorrow. Anyway, if you are involved with writing, I encourage you to keep an eye on this discussion. Very good stuff.

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Posted by on June 12, 2011 in Other Blogs


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WordPress is Starting to Look Very Attractive

I use an html code called an internal anchor for footnotes – you click on the number and it takes you to the corresponding note, then click your browser’s “back” button to return to the text. I’ve noticed (and fixed) three posts where clicking on this internal anchor takes you to a footnote in a completely different post. If anyone finds some of these, please e-mail me so I can fix them.

Enough to honk me off. You should see what Blogger does to your html if you click on “preview.”


Posted by on June 6, 2011 in Blogology


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Kalamazoo 2011 Summary

Next Sunday I leave to spend a week in DC confabbing with a bunch of government types (though I’m afraid many discussions will involve, “once Congress passes a budget/raises the debt ceiling so we can actually fund _____”). Anyway, in looking at my schedule I’m afraid June 12 will kick in my annual 3-month summer when I go from busy to absolutely swamped which will substantially impact my blogging. I have one more post after this one I need to get out before then. After that you likely won’t hear a lot from me until mid-August at the earliest.

I just deleted a long, sort of whiny section where I complained about my lack of socialization at this year’s Congress. In essence, I had a lot of work I had to do, some of it with a deadline so instead of hanging out with and/or talking to people, I buried myself in my room evenings and in my laptop between sessions. All this is fine as I enjoy my job but my K’zoo experience was less personally rewarding than usual.

But it was still good. I already posted about books, though I’ll bring them up again later in this post. I didn’t do so well with the people so that leaves the sessions.

Every year it seems that the majority of my sessions, or at least a large minority, cover one topic area. In 2009 this was archaeology, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe. Last year it was Carolingian sessions. This year I went to a lot of sessions on dead holy people. I was sure, going in, that I’d end up at a lot of Anglo-Saxon sessions but that didn’t happen.

I enjoyed the sessions and learned a lot from them. Last year I went into Congress knowing I was going to do session reports (without realizing the time this would take) for each session so I took notes on everything. This year I knew I wouldn’t be doing that so if a paper didn’t interest me, I took very few notes. I’m sure the fact that I was somewhat distracted didn’t help. So I probably didn’t learn quite as much as last year but it was still a very good Congress from a session perspective. My two favorites were the papers by Jennifer Davis and Jonathan Jarrett. I think this was because each of these covered limited, distinct and, to me, very interesting topics. They then provided detailed information and presented it in a clear, logical manner. I have a mental list of presenters I want to hear and these two are now on it. I don’t always get to their sessions – this year I didn’t hear Paul Kershaw speak as he was opposite a Late Antiquity session and two I’ve very much enjoyed in the past, Graham Barrett and Angela Kinney, did not attend – but I try. I’ll also heartily recommend Phyllis Jestice. She’s a bit later than my core period so she won’t make “the list” but she gives an excellent presentation and knows her stuff.

I’ve said before that Kalamazoo really defines my Medieval Year. In the past I’ve always come back with some resolutions about things I need to work on/learn about which I’m pretty intense about. For a change, I don’t have anything like this to bring up. I suppose increasing language skills fits in there but I’ve done some of that. I had to re-learn Spanish somewhat for a trip to Mexico a few weeks ago and I’ve kept up on that, trying to read some Spanish every day. I need to re-learn French but I’ve done some of that too, which is a good thing because three of the books I bought are wholly or partially in French (I already fought my way through one essay in French). A couple have the odd essay in German or Italian. For now that will have to remain a point of ignorance. Latin? Maybe – I’ve started working on it a bit but “a bit” likely won’t cut it. We’ll see if I have the time.

I do have to readjust my reading though and figure out what my focus will be. Prior to my book binge I’d planned to continue working backward chronologically from the late 4th century through Christianity. Libanius, Ambrose, Jerome, Rufinus, Symmachus if I could find him, working back to Origen, Tertullian, Porphyry and finally the New Testament. I think that may be put on hold for a bit.

The way I generally do my reading is to focus on a topic/period/geographic region and start by reading secondary, newer books; starting with overviews and then into specific aspects; then grab all the sources I can get my hands on (which I’ll hopefully have identified through reading secondary stuff). My to-read list of books I own now stands at 144. Now some of those are books outside of my period I’ve picked up, usually because I found them cheap at a used bookstore and are in the “I’ll get to them someday” category. Lucrezia Borgia and Ancient India are undoubtedly very interesting subjects but they can wait. So as a way to begin to organize myself, here are categories and numbers of unread books I have on my shelves. Hopefully by now folks understand that one of the purposes of this blog is to force me to organize myself by putting things in writing.

Late Antiquity – generally 4th-7th centuries: 50
Christianity – most are Late Antique: 41
Carolingian: 19
Ancient – anything pre-4th century: 17
Crusades: 12
Islam/Arabs: 9
Law – this is a broad category as it includes heresy(Church law), prisons, law codes, etc.: 10
Byzantine: 9
Vikings: 9
Ottonian: 7
Anglo-Saxon: 7
Women: 7
Spain – post Arab Conquest: 6

Obviously there’s some overlap and a lot of the stuff I have in Late Antiquity, once I get into it, will have a Byzantine (and possibly Persian/Arab) focus. I could break it down even more but that’s enough for now. Should give me something to keep me off the streets in my down time.

So, to end my Kalamazoo stuff, I enjoyed it, though less than in most years. To those I managed to run into or meet, I enjoyed it. To those I didn’t, maybe next year. And again, if you get the chance to go, I encourage it. It is an academic conference but if you’re an interested amateur you’ll find plenty for you too and anyone is welcome.


Posted by on June 6, 2011 in Conferences


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Kalamazoo 2011 – Day Four and Home

The fourth and final day of the 2011 International Congress on Medieval Studies was another cold and wet one. In my Day 3 update I neglected to mention one item; running through the exhibit area on Saturday evening to pick up the display copies I’d bought. This was unremarkable except I missed the Mead-tasting, which was a shame.

So the next day I started off with multiple trips to the car to load luggage and books. It was raining but not hard right then so that was OK. Then I headed up to Schneider for Session 531: The Court and Courts in the Carolingian World.

This has been a good session for two years running. I wonder if they could move it to a different time? Looks like a good Friday PM session to me. In any case, Jonathan Jarrett of Oxford was first up with, “2:1 Against: Cereal Yields in Carolingian Europe and the Brevium Exempla.” This paper addresses the question of what sort of grain yields might be expected in Carolingian Europe. Jonathan began by summarizing the existing argument in Georges Duby’s Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West where he discusses an estate survey from Annapes, contained in the Brevium Exempla and concludes that for the year of the survey, the ratio of harvested yield to grain sown was 1.6:1. This is a pretty big problem – with that sort of yield it’s hard to see how you could even feed the families involved doing the field work, much less the entire estate, much, much less have any kind of surplus available to the Carolingian Empire or to support military operations. Jonathan’s paper focuses on contrasting Duby’s account with an experimental archaeology project taking place in l’Esquerada, Catalonia, which was a Carolingian settlement. Using crops and (mostly) methods which are similar to those grown/used by Carolingians, at l’Esquerada they had yield ratios of at least 15:1 and often well above that. At the field plots they used a drill to plant, which studies have shown results in 45% less seed being eaten by birds than if broadcast however even with this the yield ratios would be in the 8:1 to 10:1 range. 1 He also examined the Brevium Exempla which says some grain was ground before the surveyors took their measurements. Dr. Jarrett concludes that the estate survey was not for the estate’s actual harvest but for the surplus beyond what was needed for local use and that there was sufficient yield both for use by the Empire and to see the settlement through one bad year. Jonathan provided a post on his blog with much of this information a little while back (before I started blogging or I’m sure I’d have recalled it – and if I’d found it before doing a search for “Annapes” for some footnote info this summary might have been much shorter as I’d have referred you there first). Good paper, one of my two favorites of the week.

Lynley Anne Herbert followed with an interesting paper, despite it being in one of my areas of weakness, “A Bishop and an Abbott Walk Into a Scriptorium: Uncovering the Clerical Courtiers Behind the Gospels of Sainte-Croix.” This paper examined the illustrations in several documents, among them the the Gospels mentioned in the paper title and a Feast Days Calendar from Poitiers. Unfortunately, while I have a fair amount of notes, I never wrote down any sort of summary of an overall theme. I have some use of the imagery to counter heresy, particularly Adoptionism, mixed language with some Greek in the manuscript and the use of gold and silver in the pigments. I recall the paper being very good but I may have been thinking of the trip home already. I really need to get a bit more up to speed on art history.

There was no presenter for the final paper which of course precluded its being offered. This gave everyone a chance to chat for a bit before dispersing.

I did not go to a 10:30 session as, while I had marked a couple as possibilities, neither was extremely interesting to me. I headed out to the car, gave Cullen Chandler a ride to his, necessitating some book relocating so he could find a seat, and by 11 or so I had wheels on the road headed south with an uneventful trip home other than to note that the previous evening had been a bad one for deer on southwestern Michigan interstate highways.

1 This was a dangerous paper to give with someone with professional training in Agronomy in the room. I studiously avoided asking questions about soil types, differences in rainfall between Annapes and l’Esquerada, etc. I will comment that in using a drill, a field implement mechanically cuts open a furrow and a combination of coulters and a press wheel closes the furrow behind (and over) the seed. Obviously, seed would then be less exposed to being eaten by pests such as birds and mice. It also provides superior seed-to-soil contact which can be important sometimes, not other times. I haven’t done any kind of detailed examination of this but Annapes was a pretty fertile area. If anything, I would expect the deeper, richer soils there to yield better than a hillside Catalonian estate in all but very wet years. Maybe one day I’ll feel like working my way through characteristics of French soil types but that’s not today and even if I wanted to, I don’t know if detailed online soils information like we have for the US is available for France.


Posted by on June 4, 2011 in Conferences


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The Case of Radegund’s Missing Brother

As I mentioned in my first Radegund post, I originally intended to discuss this issue there. I’m interested enough in this item to give it its own space.

As I’ve read accounts of Radegund, one item has begun to trouble me. Radegund left Clothar because he murdered her brother. 1 I’ve read a theory that he was a threat because he was last of a royal Thuringian line and that he may have been active in a revolt against Clothar.

Here’s my problem with the brother. He has no name. Gregory and Fortunatus both mention him, but he’s an anonymous figure. A substantial poem, “The Thuringian War,” was written either by Radegund or by Fortunatus with Radegund’s input. A large portion of this poem, written from Radegund’s point of view, laments her dead brother, yet he remains nameless. 2 As I’ve read more books on the Merovingians, Radegund is consistently mentioned and each time I’ve read, “Radegund left Chlothar after he murdered her brother,” I asked myself, “And who was this brother, exactly?” For some time I’ve been wondering; Did he really exist?

I have two reasons for questioning this. First and what really stands out for me is the simple fact of his namelessness. Gregory and Fortunatus wrote after Radegund’s death, roughly 40 years after she left Clothar. They were both well acquainted with Radegund. Gregory was bishop of Tours, just down the road from The Convent of the Holy Cross and conducted her funeral, even though he wasn’t her bishop. Fortunatus corresponded with her regularly and wrote poems for her. In the decades the two of them knew her, with this being the trigger; the single key, life-altering incident by which she entered into a religious life, she never mentioned him by name to either of them? If her brother’s murder bothered her enough to drive her from her husband, you’d think he would be important enough to be named.

Second, leaving one’s husband was a big friggin’ deal. It was highly frowned upon. There are plenty of cases of women seeking to leave their husbands for a religious life and being forced to return. 3 For whatever reason, Clothar didn’t seem to try to get her back very hard and in fact helped her establish The Convent of the Holy Cross. All I can do is conjecture but he’d been married to her for 10-15 years, she’d had no children, he had either other wives or a houseful of concubines, depending on the account you read, and she didn’t seem to be very interested in sex or even very affectionate toward him. When given a choice she’d rather lie stretch out on an unheated stone floor in a hair shirt next to the privy than lie in bed with him. Beyond this, he never knew when she might chuck money at poor people or stir up his entire household whenever he decided to execute a criminal. 4 Maybe he decided that her being gone was OK by him.

But 40 years later, there had to be a reason. Gregory and Fortunatus, in promoting her as a Saint, had to come up with a darn good explanation for why a woman could legitimately leave her husband for the Church. They would also have scrupulously tried to avoid any implication that it was OK to just leave one’s husband without a very good reason. An anonymous Thuringian brother would do just fine for these purposes. Thuringia was a new addition to the Frankish holdings and people wouldn’t be very familiar with it. But if you mentioned a name, there was a chance someone might say, “Huh? Who was that? I fought in Thuringia and I don’t remember him. You say he was heir to the Thuringian throne?” But a nameless brother from an obscure region? That stood a much better chance of passing muster. 5

A bigger issue is the poem, The Thuringian War, generally attributed to Radegund but sometimes to Fortunatus. This gives me the same problem. Writing decades later, this reads very much as an ode to Radegund’s brother, a lament that she had not honored him more – and she doesn’t mention him by name? This namelessness of a loved relative is huge for me. Names are how people were remembered. People were entered into prayer rolls by name – not as, “the brother of Radegund” (for this, I won’t say this never happened but I’m unaware of it). Panegyrics, which Radegund and Fortunatus would have been familiar with, are remembrances of a person with a name. Yet in 34 lines about her brother he is not named one time. This of course brings Radegund inventing her brother rather than Gregory or Fortunatus into the picture, if she was indeed the author. She would have had sound reasons for doing so, including explaining to Constantinople why a fragment of The One True Cross should be entrusted to someone who had deserted her husband. 6

An additional but relatively minor argument is that Baudonivia makes no mention of a brother in her account of Radegund’s taking the veil. She would have read it in Fortunatus’ account but chose not to include it in hers. This seems somewhat odd as the reasons for Radegund’s entrance into religious life is a pretty vital aspect of her story. However I consider it minor because a counter argument is that Baudonivia would have considered Radegund to be acting from a purer motivation if she left for the love of Christ, not from bitterness over the loss of a loved one – altruistic vs. selfish reasons. 7

As always, this is not completely one-sided. Chlothar killing a Thuringian noble who may have been a threat to him is hardly shocking and may even be considered legitimate if Thuringians were involved in a Saxon revolt. Of course if we take that to the next logical step, Radegund’s leaving loses legitimacy if her husband was acting against her brother in a justifiable manner to secure his control over the kingdom. 8

The simple fact that the brother exists and was written about by at least two and perhaps three separate authors also must be taken into account. However I believe that, as close as these three were with one another based on the source evidence, it is reasonable to posit one of the three as the initial source with the other two not questioning the account but adding it to their writings. And when we come to the possibility of this being an invention, I’ve previously said that I do not believe Gregory was a liar. I’ve not studied Fortunatus as closely but I have no reason to consider him as anything other than basically truthful. However I doubt that either of them would consider embellishing a story in promotion of a Saint’s cult to be lying. This seems to be a well accepted hagiographical convention.

Finally, there’s the potential fallout from Fortunatus and Gregory, and possibly even Radegund, making up a story that would portray Chlothar in a negative way. They would not bring this up if they thought doing so would seriously threaten their own safety and welfare. (I don’t believe so anyway, though Gregory had shown a fair degree of bravery in his conflicts with Chilperic and Leudast.)

This last is the most difficult aspect for me to evaluate. Chlothar had a bunch of kids and some of them were pretty powerful. However all were dead by the time the Radegund accounts were written, though not the The Thuringian War, if we accept its inclusion in the Byzantine mission. There were plenty of grandchildren living, some of them also powerful but it’s difficult to say how they would perceive the killing of a Thuringian, last of a royal line that their grandfather had gone to war with. And it’s very possible they wouldn’t have known enough about events from forty years past to even raise a protest against the account of the murder. I don’t see a lot in the family line which would have prevented Gregory or Fortunatus from making up this part of the story. Maybe Fredegund would have been concerned with the reputation of Chilperic’s father, Chlothar, but Gregory’s writings already reveal that he didn’t much care what she thought of his writings. Another option is that Radegund herself started the story with her poem, The Thuringian War. By around 570 (when the poem is believed to have been written) she was largely immune from threats. And keep in mind, the poem went to Constantinople. No one in Francia needed to have known about it, if the poem actually went there and wasn’t something written by Fortunatus and not disseminated until his poems were published.

In the end, I think the existence of Radegund’s brother is in question, with the balance of the evidence against it. He is unnamed even in a poem where he is a major character, there is a real need, in the eyes of the biographers (and Radegund herself), to come up with an explanation for Radegund’s leaving her husband, and I can’t find a compelling reason why Gregory, Fortunatus, or Radegund would be threatened by coming up with this story – in fact the grandchildren may not have known enough to call it into question. I think Radegund’s brother was a literary invention to provide justification for her leaving her husband for the Church in order to aid in the promotion of her cult. (I could go on – I have more – but this is a blog post, not a paper.)

It puzzles me that I’ve not run across this argument before. If someone knows of anyone discussing this, please let me know. 9 The historicity of Radegund’s brother seems to be unquestioned by modern historians.

Abbreviations used in notes:

VR I – Vita Radegundii by Venantius Fortunatus
VR II – Vita Radegundii by Baudonivia (These are usually referred to as books I and II of her Vita) Both found in McNamara, et al. (1992).

1 VR I.12, “Thus her innocent brother was killed so that she might come to live in religion.”

2 For Gregory, Historiae III.7

3 Rather than listing names, let me quote James Brundage (1987), discussing the 6th-11th centuries, “Discussions of this possibility [leaving one’s spouse for religious life] emphasized that the decision must be mutual; no one could unilaterally terminate a marriage in order to enter a monastery or convent. Anyone who attempted to do so should be refused admission to the religious life and required to resume co-habitation with his or her spouse.” p. 202.

4 For Radegund’s sleeping habits see VR I.5. For condemned criminals see VR I.10.

5 I’ve seen secondary accounts that say Radegund’s brother was also captured and held as a hostage. If true, this would be much harder to hide but I haven’t seen this in any of the source material.

6 McNamara, et al.,(1992) contains a translation of the poem on pp 65-70. They indicate that the poem is commonly believed to have accompanied the mission to Constantinople to recover a fragment of The One True Cross to be delivered to a relative of Radegund’s, but it was found in an appendix of Fortunatus’ verses. p 65, n 22

7 VR II.3

8 The theory about Radegund’s brother being involved in a revolt or other treacherous activities is only mentioned in secondary analyses of the incident. I am unaware of any source material calling this anything but a murder. For Gregory, Historiae III.7, he was murdered by assassins. For Fortunatus, see note 1, above. In The Thuringian War he is referred to as murdered.

9 I went six pages deep with a Google search using the term, “Did Radegund’s brother exist?” without finding any discussion of the question.

Brundage, James A., Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1987). ISBN: 9-780226-077840

George, Judith, trans., Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1995). ISBN: 9-780853-231790

McNamara, Jo Ann, Halborg, John E. and Whatley, Gordon, ed. and trans., Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Durham and London: Duke University Press (1992). ISBN: 978-0822312000

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953


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