Simony, the Latin West and Byzantium

It’s long been emphasised by historians of the European Middle Ages that their subjects did not think of themselves as medieval, a periodisation that was only invented and imposed later. Less often discussed, but perhaps just as important, is that they would not usually have thought of themselves as ‘European’ either. There certainly was a medieval concept of Europe (Europa). But as Klaus Oschema and Marie-Céline Isaia have suggested, that itself means that we should be cautious about using the term when the people we are studying did not.

To avoid the risk of anachronism that the language of “medieval Europe” might bring with it, historians have sometimes instead talked of the Latin West to describe their focus of study. In many ways this is both understandable and justifiable. People living in Carolingian Francia, for instance, did think of themselves as western, and the widespread use of Latin in liturgical and learned contexts – no matter what the vernacular – eased cultural transfer across wide areas, from Ireland to Hungary, and from Iceland to Sicily. There is a real cultural network here to be studied.

However, this cultural network was not strictly bounded or contained, and in fact many of its most central ideas developed in and through dialogue with those living elsewhere. As Saba Mahmood has put it when talking of European encounters with the wider world, ‘These encounters did not simply leave Christianity untouched but transformed it from within…’[1]

The text presented here in English translation is a case in point. It is a letter written on the theme of simony, that it is to say the purchase (or, according to this treatise, attempted purchase) of ecclesiastical office: paying to become a priest or bishop. Very likely this letter was written by Humbert of Moyenmoutier, since it seems in some ways a first draft of his much longer (and more celebrated) Three books against the simonists. This letter was therefore an important step in the elaboration of a key concept in medieval history.

Significantly, however, this “early draft” was written to a Byzantine governor in southern Italy – a representative of another socio-political complex, in which Greek, not Latin played the role of lingua franca, and in which ancient ideas of the state (and of office holding) seemed better preserved. In other words, we can see Humbert developing his ideas – ideas that proved central in the history of the Latin West – in dialogue with people located in overlapping but distinct cultural networks.

Encounters such as these were not marginal to the development of the cultural network we might label the Latin West: they were baked in.

‘On the heresy of simony’: translation (opens pdf)

[1] Saba Mahmood, ‘Can secularism be other-wise? (A critique of Charles Taylor’s A secular age)’, available via

What is a History lecture for?

Once upon a time, a typical History degree in the UK would be taught through a combination of lectures and small-group teaching. That small-group teaching would be based on discussion of reading done in advance. To enable that reading, libraries would stock multiple copies of relevant books, next to little cardboard boxes of offprints – authorised photocopies – for reading in the library, not for borrowing.

This all sounds rather quaint in the era of digital reproducibility. When JSTOR first appeared, lecturers publicly lamented that students no longer learned how to use library catalogues, but privately welcomed the way it abolished the old access problems. Every student could read the same chapter or article in preparation for the small-group discussion, and a course could be easily updated if something new and brilliant came out.

Now, though, reproduction technologies are being applied not just to the reading but to the lectures, through lecture capture.

UK students and university administration alike often see lecture capture as progress with no downsides. You can listen to your lecture again and again, at your leisure, whenever and however suits you. Staff concern about dropping attendance is countered by the benefit the technology clearly offers to students who unavoidably miss a lecture through illness, family emergency, or other bona fide commitment, quite apart from university ‘business continuity’ if a lecturer falls ill or is otherwise unavailable.

But these debates, though important, are missing a key point: reproducing something inevitably changes the original in some way.

This year, a number of bright students have politely emailed me, weeks after a lecture, to ask for references to things I referred to in passing in a lecture – and not just book titles (which I of course provided), but page numbers. In essence, they are asking for my lecture’s footnotes. Digital reproduction means the lecture has become a resource, not an event, and that is what these students are treating it as. Now that they can listen to it again, their expectations of the lecture have understandably changed. In due course, we may well see requests for recorded lectures to be subtitled.

Does this matter? As it happens, most of my lectures are texts, since I tend unfashionably to write them out in full. Is there any reason I shouldn’t simply upload them as texts, so all the students can read them for themselves? Why not treat undergraduate lecture series as essentially recited textbooks?

That might be the inevitable outcome. But there are two problems. The first is that if we expect lectures to receive the kind of scrutiny that published texts come under (especially if they end up on the internet, which these days is more likely than not), lecturers will have to spend rather longer on writing them: polishing them up, equipping them with footnotes, and removing those wry quips that might sound awkward taken out of context.

The second is deeper-rooted. I think most History lecturers don’t want their students to ‘learn’ their lectures by dint of repetition: these lectures aren’t e-How videos, teaching a historical technique to be repeated back in an exam. That’s because a History degree, at heart, isn’t primarily about rote learning lots of details about the past – it’s about learning how to construct, for yourself, reasoned and persuasive arguments on the basis of incomplete evidence. Lectures are generally intended to introduce students to a wider body of historical literature, to help guide them through it; they are not supposed to stand in for that literature in itself, or to give the answer for the exam. As lectures change from real-time event to digital resource, though, that is precisely what they may end up having to do.

In other words, as lecture capture becomes ever more prevalent and normal, there is the risk that undergraduate lectures become obstacles to the kind of learning that History degrees are intended to inculcate. It may be historians would be better off replacing them with 20-minute screencasts to be viewed in advance, and ‘flipping the lecture’. Ironically, rather than bringing lectures into the 21st century, could lecture capture end up killing them off?

*Update* 13.11.2018
To my slight surprise, a few people have read this blog as just an(other) attack on lecture capture. But I wasn’t arguing straightforwardly for or against (and I specified the advantages of LC for many students, though I accept I ought to have mentioned disabled students explicitly).

My focus was rather on how LC changes the nature of a lecture – in disciplinary terms, it effectively makes it into a secondary source – and how this has pedagogical (as well as workload) implications. Actually, I suspect many students have long considered lectures to be secondary sources, rather than guides to them, so in that sense LC is just bringing a latent issue to the fore,  but in a way that merits reflection.

Making use of LC technology in an imaginative and properly thought-through way could improve teaching, but perhaps not in a way which leaves the standard lecture-based teaching model intact (whether that’s a good or a bad thing).