In Praise of Gobbets

As the teaching year begins, one of the routine tasks historians in many UK institutions face is explaining to puzzled students (and sometimes new colleagues too) what we mean by “gobbets”.

This is a venerable and (I suspect) distinctly British form of examination in which students are provided with a series of text extracts or images, and expected to write something about them in a short period of time: typically, 20 minutes for each extract (or ‘gobbet’). They are sometimes labelled old-fashioned – but in fact they’re ideally suited to the 21st-century classroom.

As an example, here’s one that we’ll be studying in my class:

“The holy Roman Church, as the mother and teacher, nurse and instructress of all churches, is to be consulted about all doubtful and obscure things which concern the continuity of the right faith or the dogmas of piety, and her healthful admonitions are to be kept”.
– Hincmar of Rheims, De Divortio, 860

How might one ‘respond’ to this gobbet? Well, a good response might explain that 9th-century Frankish clerics increasingly claimed their churches had been founded by St Peter’s express request, hence the ‘mother of all churches’ phrase; might further observe that this, the opening line of the treatise, signals Hincmar’s caution in carefully avoiding a definitive conclusion for fear of being proved wrong at this early stage of the controversy over King Lothar’s marriage; might then link this to Hincmar’s often fraught relation with the papacy, noting how in this passage he framed papal authority as primarily pedagogical (and that in fact he advised holding a general council rather than going straight to the pope); might pick up on the ‘doubtful and obscure things’, an issue that lay at the heart of the treatise and the divorce scandal as a whole; and could end by noting that the Roman church indeed did end up being consulted in the case, and that Pope Nicholas made great efforts to ensure that his ‘healthful admonitions’ were kept.

These are just the comments that spring to my mind as I write this blog: quite certainly other interesting things could be said about the content, context and significance of this short passage. The strength of the gobbet examination is that it blends assessing precise historical knowledge of the sources with interpretative creativity. You can’t bluff your way through them; but it’s not a test of how much you know, it’s a test of how you use that knowledge to make a point based on exactly what’s in front of you. Good responses tend to pick on the precise wording of the extract to make observations grounded in a wider knowledge; the best can surprise and enlighten even the person who chose the extracts in the first place.

According to legend, gobbets go back to Victorian period civil service exams: that may be so, but they seem to be coming back into fashion. In some ways that’s not surprising. After all, the contemporary world is all about “discontinuous reading”, it’s all about the fast-paced analysis of screenfuls of text. If the gobbet examination didn’t already exist, we’d have to invent it.

And if gobbets are in this way surprisingly “aligned” with the wider world, they’re also neatly aligned with history as it’s practised today. No wonder they’re a jewel in the crown of final year examinations (alongside of course other examination forms such as dissertations): they’re an excellent means of simultaneously assessing – and promoting – both knowledge of a broad range of historical sources and a methodological sophistication in historical interpretation, all with reference to the particular as well as the general. And isn’t all that still at the heart of what historians actually do?

‘May this water be a test for you’: trial by cold water in 9th-century Francia

One of the distinctively post-Roman things about post-Roman Europe was the emergence of a new kind of legal procedure, the trial by ordeal. In its various different forms – the main ones were hot iron, boiling water, cold water, and trial by battle – the ordeal comes particularly into view in the ninth century, when there was something of a debate about its ethics and efficacy. One of its staunchest defenders was Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, who in his De Divortio (available in all good bookshops etc) justified it at some length.

Practical instructions on how to carry out an ordeal are quite common in ninth- and tenth-century manuscripts, often inserted as aide-memoires. Below is an English translation of one of these texts, associated with ninth-century Rheims – so, the kind of text that priests in Hincmar’s diocese might have come across. It gives instructions on how to carry out the ordeal by water on a group of men suspected of theft.

There are several interesting things about this text. First, although the role of the priest is essential, the text doesn’t seem to be addressed to the priest himself. Perhaps it was meant for a count or other judicial officer. Secondly, it’s a very elaborate procedure: throwing the suspects into the water is merely the last stage in a whole string of actions, designed to pile the pressure on the guilty/guarantee God’s intervention (depending on your point of view). These include public communion, blessing with holy water, holy incantations, and the fasting of the immediate participants.

Finally, the text has a notably defensive tone. The possibility that witchcraft could distort the outcome is acknowledged (this was something that bothered Hincmar too). And the text ends with the assertion that the ordeal was devised by God, had been confirmed by papal sanction, and was to be used instead of alternative procedures, such as swearing an oath on the high altar. Clearly whoever wrote down this text was aware of contemporary criticisms – and that attack is the best form of defence!

Translation: Instructions for the ordeal of cold water*
*Please don’t try this at home

Update 17.1.17: I still haven’t located the manuscript from which this text comes (the edition isn’t clear). But a very similar ordeal text was present in a manuscript that was almost certainly made by Hincmar c. 874. This manuscript is now lost BUT the ordeal text happily survives in an early modern transcription in Duchesne 64, at f.49v (or so it seems: I’ll check the next time I’m in Paris,  since it doesn’t seem to be online). For all the details, see R. Pokorny, ‘Sirmonds verlorener Luetticher Codex der Hinkmar-Schriften’, Deutsches Archiv 66 (2010), esp. p. 532.

Image: Lambach, Stiftsbibliothek Codex 73: a 12th-century liturgical manuscript (Wikipedia)

How (not) to edit a medieval chronicle

The medieval chronicler Hugh of Flavigny has recently been in the UK news, after Marc Morris suggested that some biographers of William the Conqueror have been misreading his chronicle. A passage which has been taken as describing King William as ‘jovial’ in fact refers to someone else entirely.

How important this is for our knowledge of William the Conqueror I shall leave to others to decide – you can read Marc Morris’s new popular biography of the king for yourselves. But the issue brings back into focus a rather neglected chronicler – and also raises interesting questions about how we re-present texts that were written centuries ago.

It’s true that Hugh of Flavigny isn’t much read outside a fairly narrow circle today. But he ought to be! He observed at close quarters the struggles between pope and emperor in the late eleventh century, for which he’s a very important source. And while he didn’t describe King William as ‘jovial’, Hugh did visit England in the 1090s as part of a diplomatic mission

In fact he recounts some lurid stories about the country. For instance, he recalls how the archbishop of York Gerard was caught in secret conversation with the devil, planning to feed his guests with bewitched pork as part of a satanical ritual; and how Gerard’s brother, a cleric at the king’s chapel named Peter, confessed to becoming pregnant after intercourse with a man, and died from the resulting growth (no, I’m not making it up! Here’s the Latin).

With this sort of content, you might think the time is ripe for a translation of Hugh (to my knowledge, there isn’t one, in any language). And you’d be right. But first of all, what we actually need is a new edition of the original Latin. We currently rely on the edition of Georg Pertz, produced in 1848. For its time, this was an excellent piece of work. But as has recently been pointed out by Mathias Lawo, it doesn’t really do justice to Hugh’s chronicle, which survives in just one copy – in fact what seems to be Hugh’s own personal manuscript (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Phillipps 1870).

Here’s a picture of a page from Pertz’s 19th-century edition:

HF p. 354

Now, compare that with a picture of the original 11th-century manuscript, courtesy of the Berlin State Library,  on which that same page was based:


As is clear just by looking at the original with all its marginal insertions, Hugh added to his chronicle as he wrote it – as he found new sources, or as his personal priorities changed over his eventful career. It seems that his purpose in writing changed as time went on: his chronicle went from being mostly about his own monastery in Verdun, to being about wider questions of church reform – and then to being about his new monastery, Flavigny. But this is obscured by the 1848 edition, which squeezes Hugh’s messy text into the neat format of a printed book.

In some cases, it’s not even clear where in his text Hugh meant to insert his additions. But the edition had to put the text somewhere in the linear flow, so Georg Pertz had to make decisions. Those decisions weren’t necessarily bad ones, but they’re invisible to the reader encountering the text in this way. As a result, Pertz’s edition in a way creates a text that never existed. It’s hardly going too far to say that when we read Pertz’s edition, what we’re reading is a 19th-century interpretation of Hugh’s chronicle.

A stop-gap revised edition has been made available by the MGH (thanks to Ed Roberts for pointing this out to me), which ‘highlights’ all of Hugh’s later additions. But what’s really required is a new edition as a type-face facsimile of the original – not technically possible in Pertz’s day, but perfectly practical nowadays.  Then we could read not only the words that Hugh wrote: but read them in the right order, too. Any volunteers?

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