Scattered Not-so-Random Thoughts

16 Oct

I’ve been reading quite a bit on Ostrogothic and Lombard Italy lately. I’ve never focused on the Lombards before so I’m learning quite a bit. I read some of the obvious books years ago such as Chris Wickham’s Early Medieval Italy, Neil Christie’s The Lombards and Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards.

I’ve been waiting for something to stimulate my brain to the point where I’d feel inspired to post. This has happened three times. Each time I started a post and in reviewing it realized that it had huge holes, largely due to my lack of knowledge, and was in an area where, once I look into it more, I should be able to put up something more substantial. 1

So here are my teasers; areas I intend to look at in more depth at some point (I really shouldn’t run out and buy more books right now – I have plenty to read sitting here). While these are Italy-based, they have implications for Western Europe during the period.

The nature of violence. The closest I came to making a complete post was one which would have been titled something like, The Feud and Vendetta in Late Antiquity. What stopped me was realizing that in order to do this topic justice I would have to try to place the feud in context with the role of violence overall, and based on that, how the state tried to regulate legitimate societal violence as one of its aspects of maintaining authority, and how this evolved from a recognition of a legitimate personal grievance to one where these grievances were a matter of concern for the state. 2

This arose from a discussion by Giorgio Ausenda and Sam Barnish on how feud was regulated by Liutprand where a murderer would lose everything, “They [those who developed Liutprand’s legal decrees] condemned the intentional killer to the loss of his entire substance, with the proviso that, if the murderer’s substance was less than the compensation stated in Rothari’s Edict, he was to be delivered to the victim’s relatives; if it was more, half the balance was to go to the king’s court and the rest to the victim’s heirs.” 3

One of the things I enjoy about the Studies in Historical Archaeoethnology series sponsored by the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Social Stress is that the volumes include participant discussions following each paper. One of the exchanges, initiated by Marios Costambeys, discusses how feud and vendetta were extensively mentioned in literature, less frequently in law codes, and are almost nonexistent in charters. Costambeys offers that literary mention of feuds may involve topoi and may not be representative of reality. This raises a host of questions for me, including whether one would expect to find this mentioned in charters, but also provided the motivation for my almost-post. 4

Lombard aristocracy. An area which I am intrigued by, but have never looked into, is why the city-state developed in Medieval Italy. Now every Medieval society is unique however entities such as 13th century Genoa and Venice are more unique than most. I don’t know for sure that these were factors – the temporal distance my be too great to make that connection – however the inability of the Lombards to create the sort of Romano-barbarian kingdom found in Gaul and Hispania may have something to do with it. 5

Related to this is that Lombard aristocrats did not develop the wealth possessed by the Franks and that the aristocrats were much more city-based than in Gaul. 6 Was this a precursor to the development of city-states? I don’t know but it’s an interesting question.

Literacy. Literacy and Education have always interested me, in particular evidence for lay literacy. I have never focused all that much on the development of scripts and what that may indicate. Nicholas Everett discusses the evolution of Lombard scripts from very individualistic, varied cursives to the adoption of more standardized miniscule. He argues that this development is an indication of a lower level of literacy, though possibly a broader audience. 7

This makes some sense. I’m not sure about lower level of literacy. To me, individualistic scripts may represent manuscripts intended for a limited audience – a small circle of “literate elites” – which would recognize and read it easily. It also may indicate political leadership having little influence on what was being written – an absence of the “official” centers where charters are redacted or edicts written such as are found with the Carolingians. It may possibly point to a lower literacy level at the court as well though this would require a lot of investigation before I’d be comfortable with it as a conclusion.

These three areas; the role of feud and vendetta; the structure of Lombard society and; what the development of scripts may indicate about literacy and the uses of writing, were very interesting for me. However, while I’m interested in them, I don’t know enough about any of these topics to offer them up as standalone posts.

1 I apologize for my lack of substantive posts lately. I finished a major responsibility on September 24 and thought I’d have more time. I underestimated how many projects I’d set aside to be worked on as soon as I finished this. I’m still working through “the stack” and hope to return to more regular posting in the not-too-distant future.

2 I use the term “state” very loosely here. Entities in Western Europe in Late Antiquity lacked many of the aspects we would today attribute to a state. Guy Halsall’s use of the term “polity” is more accurate but I don’t want to take the time to discuss that here – for the folks who this blog targets, I think I’ll stick with state, however flawed. There have been some interesting blog posts on this topic recently. I’d suggest one by Guy Halsall and another by Steve Muhlberger referencing Susan Reynolds. This is another area I really need to focus on – what is a state and which medieval societies fit the term?

3 Giorgio Ausenda and Sam Barnish, “A Comparative Discussion of Langobardic Feud and Blood-Money Compensation with Parallels from Contemporary Anthropology and from Medieval History,” p. 314 in Ausenda, Delogu and Wickham, eds. (2009). This seems to indicate a situation where under Liutprand, violence in the form of feuds and vendettas were no longer a crime against an individual and/or family, but a public crime, requiring that the state also be compensated. Graham Barrett gave a paper titled, “Literacy, Law and Libido in Early Medieval Spain” at Kalamazoo in 2010 which pointed out a similar evolution in 10th century Hispania.

4 Ausenda and Barnish (2009), p. 338. This is something I really want to explore. I’m for anything which further debunks the portrayal of Medieval Society, particularly immediately post-Roman, as the anarchic, people running around killing each other randomly, way it’s frequently been illustrated in older history, popular modern literature, and credit card commercials. But I need to know more before I start posting on it. Another shout-out to Guy Halsall. His Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West is extensively referenced. One more book I haven’t read which I clearly need to get to.

5 Paolo Delogu, “Kingship and the Shaping of the Lombard Body Politic,” p. 255 in Ausenda, Delogu and Wickham, eds. (2009). Delogu believes that Authari and Agiluf attempted to create this sort of entity however Roman society was too fragmented in the wake of the Gothic Wars to take this sort of role in kingdom formation.

6 Chris Wickham, “Social Structures in Lombard Italy,” p. 123 and discussion on pp. 140-2 in Ausenda, Delogu and Wickham, eds. (2009).

7 Everett, Nicholas, Literacy in Lombard Italy, c. 568-774, (2003) pp. 315-6. I am not, overall, very fond of this book. I felt he was overly given to conjecture and did not provide sufficient evidence for many of his conclusions, however this argument was pretty good. Many of his arguments are interesting but he failed to provide a discussion of the evidence in the sort of detail to convince me. Jonathan Jarrett once asked me about reviewing books I didn’t find useful. This book became a candidate (and this may still happen). A lot of good ideas, insufficient evidentiary support for many of them.


Ausenda, Giorgio, Delogu, Paolo and Wickham, Chris, eds., The Langobards before the Frankish Conquest: An Ethnographic Perspective. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press (2009). ISBN: 9-781843-834906.

Christie, Neil, The Lombards. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers (1995). ISBN: 9-780631-211976.

Everett, Nicholas, Literacy in Lombard Italy, c. 568-774. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0-521-17410-7.

Halsall, Guy, Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press (1998).

Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, Edward Peters, ed., William Dudley Foulke, trans. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2003). ISBN: 9-780812-210798.

Wickham, Chris, Early Medieval Italy: Central Power and Local Society 400-1000. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: Ann Arbor Paperbacks (1989). ISBN: 9-780472-08099-7.


Posted by on October 16, 2011 in Blogology


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6 responses to “Scattered Not-so-Random Thoughts

  1. Historian on the Edge

    October 16, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    If you get in touch and send me your e-mail address I could probably send you files of the stuff I've written on feud, though it is all quite old now and there have been many responses since. At some point I need to write up a piece I gave in Denmark some years back and take the opportunity to respond to the responses.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    October 16, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    I appreciate that very much. I sent it to your work e-mail. If you ever want, er, information on corn fertility or economic impacts of wind energy development, let me know and I'll return the favor. :)If anyone at Purdue ever took a look at what I use our library system for they'd be very confused.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    October 16, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    I was going to recommend Guy's book, but you know; in addition, then, I would add that the city question is tackled with bracing irreverence for the Italian sacred cow of the ancestry of the Commune by Chris Wickham in his Framing the Early Middle Ages, in, of course, massive comparative perspective. I actually found this chapter the hardest going of the book–it's not a topic that really interests me–and it may duplicate what he says in the volume you cite him from here, but at least it may add perspective. Also, and again you may know this, there was a review of the literature on Frankish feud (not Lombard, sadly) in EME 14 (2006) by Ian Wood. I don't recall it being very helpful, to me, but that's not to deny its erudition!

  4. Curt Emanuel

    October 16, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    I'll have to review that section of Framing. Part of why I haven't explored this, beyond a good chunk of city-state development being later than what I usually look at, is the sheer volume of stuff I'd have to read (I think) to get a handle on it. Appreciate the Wood reference – interesting but I hadn't read Wallace-Hadrill so I think I hadn't been exposed to that. I'm one of the few people I know interested in this period who hasn't read The Long Haired Kings.I need to put the feud post up eventually. It has some juicy stuff in it – skull-cups, boffing the help, drinking, murder, a liberal dose of Gregory of Tours, etc. But it needs some work first. Part of the difficulty is figuring out which events are feuds and which are simply people being pissed off.

  5. Historian on the Edge

    October 16, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    What most early medieval people did, and what they called feud, wasn't what we think of as feud. There you are – now you don't need to read my stuff.

  6. Curt Emanuel

    October 17, 2011 at 2:04 am

    Doesn't seem to have been a whole lot of spanning generations was there? Simple revenge/vengeance gets called feud a lot. I still want to read your stuff – don't mind buying the book though.


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