Here’s a ‘research postcard’ hastily written amidst the turmoils of term – some early reflections on a topic I’m hoping to work on more in future, prompted by the opportunity to present at a department seminar on the theme of intellectual plurality.
Eleventh-century Europe was not short of big issues, but one of the biggest of the lot was simony. That’s the term given to the illicit purchase of ecclesiastical office, i.e. paying to become a priest or a bishop, or conversely selling the roles. The involvement of money in advancement became a hot topic in the church centuries before it was considered controversial in secular contexts, where state offices were openly and unproblematically trafficked into the early modern period. And the eleventh century played a special role in this development. Though simony was an old concept, it wasn’t until the eleventh century that the noun itself, “simony”, named after Simon Magus in the bible, was coined. That makes the eleventh century a pivotal period in the deep history of European corruption.
In the abundant eleventh-century arguments about simony, it can be hard to find traces of intellectual pluralism. There were plenty of debates, but they mostly concerned the consequences of simony rather than its nature: these were debates about just how bad simony was, not debates about whether it was actually bad. We do have some reported defences of simony and simoniac practices, but these defences are almost always embedded within criticism of the practice: critics imagining how wicked simoniacs might defend themselves, for instance by sneakily distinguishing between the office and the revenues that came with the office, before the critics go on to demolish these flimsy arguments with ease and panache.
In a way, this makes the eleventh-century simony crisis hard to explain. If everyone agreed simony was wrong, why was it so commonly practised, and so hard to eradicate? There are lots of answers to this, but one is double-think. Corruption is after all famously subjective in all its forms. My little token of appreciation is your underhand bribe; my hint that you might show some gratitude for my help is your shameless extortion. As we all know from experience, it’s perfectly possible for people to employ double standards – to keep doing something that we would loudly condemn if we saw others doing it.
But was that all there was to it? Another potential explanation is suggested by one text – and only one. It survives in just a single manuscript, kept in the library established by Nicholas of Cusa in the tiny town of Kues in Germany, where it’s shelved as Codex Cusanus 52. The text itself is written on a single fragile parchment leaf which was originally an independent sheet, only later bound into this manuscript. This is a work that is preserved by the skin of its teeth. And it is unique in apparently representing a genuine and sincere argument made in favour of simony: in favour, in other words, of paying for clerical office.
The treatise, perhaps intended as a sermon, was written by an educated cleric, maybe around the 1080s, and the surviving copy is not much later, depending on how one assesses the palaeography (see helpful comments from Twitterstorians here, with a broad consensus on c. 1100 – possibly earlier, maybe Italian). I won’t rehearse all the treatise’s arguments now; it’s enough to say that its basic emphasis is on intention. It’s not bad to pay for office if it’s done for good reasons: for instance, to stop someone really terrible from taking the post instead, or to give something back to the church in return for all the revenues that one receives as a consequence of promotion. As the text says, ‘Perhaps foolishly, we think that it is possible to give money for consecration without blame’ (…pro consecratione interdum pecuniam sine culpa dari posse forsitan stulte putamus). And it illustrates this point with an analogy. To defend a flock of sheep from wolves, one needs a staff or a stick: what does it matter exactly how one acquires the stick, provided one intends to use it well, and to keep the wolves away from Christ’s sheep? A stick that you’ve paid money for hurts the wolf just as much. In short (to quote the treatise), “To give for the sake of good is always good’ (dare causa boni semper bonum sit).
So, what to make of this unique text? Although it was edited in 1905 by Siegmund Hellmann, it’s been little studied (probably because it wasn’t included in the main body of simony materials which had been published a decade earlier); indeed it still doesn’t have a generally acknowledged name or title. Is it an intellectual exercise, an early example of the kinds of scholastic practice arguments designed to improve scholars’ logic and rhetoric – in other words, not to be taken at face value? Or does it rather suggest that serious arguments in defence of simony were sometimes made, even if they have been obscured by archiving pressures, which tended over time to weed out works making uncomfortable arguments? (along similar lines to works by people later judged heretical, which stood fairly little chance of being preserved, at least from this distant period).
I need to do more work on this. But at the moment, I’d incline towards the latter interpretation, because it helps explain the tenacity of simony. As Roman Deutinger suggests, we can understand better why simony was so difficult to eliminate if there were people resisting the wave of condemnation, in reasonably sophisticated ways, even if their line of argument did not in the end carry the day. In other words, perhaps simony’s persistence was not just the product of double-think or double-standards, or of the challenge of shifting economic realities, but of genuine intellectual plurality, even though that diversity of views has now become very hard to hear amidst the din of the polemics that triumphed.
By implication, I’d argue the treatise suggests that the eventual hegemony of now common-place assumptions about corruption and office in the European context was contingent. The acceptance that paying for office is unacceptable, which eventually crept into secular life too, wasn’t inevitable or pre-ordained, but the result of arguments and debate. Perhaps we didn’t need to read an eleventh-century treatise to realise that, but it’s good to be reminded.
 The best analysis of these defences is Roman Deutinger, ‘Simonisten rechtfertigen sich: mittelalterliche Antworten auf den Vorwurf der Simonie’, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 120:2 (2009 ), pp. 145-159. I am grateful to Herr Deutinger for sharing his article.
 Codex Cusanus 52 (Kues). On the manuscript, see Becker, Benediktinerabtei St. Eucharius, who associates the ms with St Eucharius of Trier (though without discussing this particular inserted page).
Looking back from the twenty-first century, we naturally tend to arrange the past into different sections. The historians who work on late ninth-century Carolingian Francia, for instance, find themselves in a different field from those who work on the seventh-century Roman Empire. And understandably so, since the political and cultural set-up of these societies were quite distinct.
Often, however, medieval texts moved across time and space in ways that challenge these subdivisions, layering different histories upon one another. A good example is a work in Greek about the imperial trial in 655 of the firebrand monk Maximus the Confessor. This text, known as the Relatio Motionis, was written by sympathisers of Maximus, and it has some remarkably clear and unequivocal statements about the secular status of the emperor.
For instance, it records that Maximus was challenged with the question ‘Is not every Christian emperor also a priest?’. To this Maximus calmly explained that the answer was: ‘No, he is not. For he does not stand by the altar, nor does he lift up the bread after it has been sanctified, saying Holy of Holies. He does not baptize, nor does he create the chrism, nor does he make bishops or priests or deacons, nor anoint churches, nor does he carry the signs of priesthood, that is the pallium and the Gospels, although he does wear the signs of empire, the crown and the purple.’ So much for Caesaropapism.
Now, the Relatio Motionis is usually read as evidence for debates in seventh-century Byzantium, which it surely is. Yet the Greek account of Maximus’s trial was also translated into Latin in ninth-century Rome by a well-known cleric named Anastasius the Librarian. Moreover, the only surviving manuscript of this translation – Paris BnF. Lat. 5095 – was made not in Rome, but in ninth-century Francia.
This manuscript has usually been evaluated as useful evidence firstly for reconstructing Maximus’s original statements and secondly for understanding Anastasius’s translation campaign, but as always in medieval history, it’s worth looking at manuscripts and not just through them. In a recent article, I’ve argued that Paris 5095 was copied at the behest of Bishop Hincmar of Laon, who was interested in Maximus’s persecution by rulers, and how he handled it. Hincmar had been deposed as bishop by King Charles the Bald in 871, but did not gracefully accept his new circumstances and settle into retirement. Instead he fought against his deposition, accusing Charles the Bald of having acted tyrannically. I argued that the Paris 5095 manuscript, including the trial of Maximus the Confessor, was part of the bishop’s efforts to stage a come-back, which resulted in qualified success in 878.
In other words, a Latin translation made in Rome of a Greek text was being read with great interest in Francia in the 870s, as part of debates over the nature of Carolingian kingship and its relation to the church. To what extent can and should we therefore read the Latin Maximus as a Carolingian text, as well as a Roman and indeed Byzantine one?
For a fuller version of this argument (with references to further reading), see C. West, ‘”And how, if you are a Christian, can you hate the emperor?” Reading a Seventh-Century Scandal in Carolingian Francia’, in Karina Kellermann, Alheydis Plassmann and Christian Schwermann, eds., Criticising the Ruler in pre-modern societies – possibilities, chances and methods (Bonn, 2019), 411-430: open access version https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:27953/
Back in 2016, I published an English translation of a ninth-century ‘trial by cold water’ liturgy on this blog. That text came from a now lost manuscript of St-Remi of Reims, which was enough for me to suggest a possible connection with Hincmar of Reims, who we know was keen on the trial by ordeal (he discusses it extensively in De Divortio).
However, in 2017 I re-read an article by Rudolf Pokorny which drew my attention to an early modern manuscript now in Paris, shelved as Collection Duchesne 64. Duchesne 64 includes a table of contents and a partial transcription of another lost medieval manuscript, from Liege, which mostly contained Hincmar’s own works. Pokorny noted that Duchesne 64’s transcription included a trial by ordeal liturgy, but he didn’t edit it in his article. In 2019 I finally got round to looking up the ordeal copied in Duchesne 64, which is online thanks to the amazing Gallica, and gave a paper about it in St Andrews at the SAIMS grad conference.
There are some good reasons for supposing that Hincmar might have been involved in putting this liturgy together (though it’s slightly different from the version from the lost St-Remi manuscript). I’m still planning to work more on this text, and to set it in the context of Hincmar’s thinking about the ordeal, but since that probably won’t happen this summer, I thought I’d share my re-transcription of the Latin in the meantime. Thanks to Giorgia Vocino for advice on some of the most testing bits of Andre Duchesne’s seventeenth-century handwriting; there are still a few bits I haven’t quite established, and any errors that remain are of course mine (and please tell me when you spot them!).
Examen aquae frigidae
Quando Romani propter invidiam tulerunt domno Leoni papae oculos et linguam propter thesaurum sancti Petri, tunc venit ad imperatorem Karolum, ut eum adiuvaret de suis inimicis. Tunc imperator reduxit eum Romam, et restituit eum in locum suum, et thesaurum supradictum non potuit invenire aliter nisi per istud iudicium. Quod iudicium fecerunt beatus Eugenius et Leo et imperator, ut episcopi et abbates et comites firmiter teneant et credant, quia probatum habuerunt illi sancti viri, quia illud invenerunt.
Cum volueris hominem mittere ad examem aquae frigidae, apprehende illos quos vis examinere, et duc eos ad ecclesiam, quibus cantet Presbiter missam, faciat eos ad ipsam offerre. Cum autem ad communionem venerint, antequam communicent, interroget eos sacerdos conjurando ita.
Adiuro vos homines, per Patrem et Filium et Spiritum sanctum, per sanctam Trinitatem, et per vestram christianitatem quam suscepistis, et per sanctum euangelium, et per istas reliquias quae in ista ecclesia sunt, ut non praesumatis ullo modo communicare neque ad altare accedere, si vos fecistis quod vobis imputatur, aut consensistis.
Si autem omnes tacuerint et nullus hoc …, accedat sacerdos ad altare et communi -cet illos quos voluerunt in aquam probare. Cum autem … communicaverint, dicat sacerdos ad singulos Hoc corpus et sanguis domini nostri Iesu Christi sit tibi hodie ad probationem. Et expleta missa, faciat ipse sacerdos aquam benedictam, et accipiens eam pergat ad istum locum ubi iudicium facere habent… omnibus illis bibere aquam benedictam. Cum autem dederit, dicat ad unumquemque Hac aqua fiat tibi hodie ad probationem.
Postea vero adjurat aquam in hanc modum, in qua illos probare voluerunt: Adiuro te aqua in nomine Dei patris omnipotentis qui te in principio creavit et iussit ad humanis necessitatibus, [f. 50] qui etiam te iussit segregari ab aquis superioribus. Adiuro te etiam per ineffabile nomen Iesu Christi, filii Dei omnipotentis, sub cuius pedibus mare se calcabile prebuit. Adiuro te etiam per Spiritum sanctum, qui super baptizatum … dominum descendit. Adiuro te per nomen sanctae et individuae Trinitatis, cuius voluntate aquarum elementum discissum est, et populum Israel siccis pedibus per illud transivit. Ad cuius etiam invocationem Heliseus ferrum ferventum quod de manubrio exierat super aquam natare fecit, ut nullomodo, ut nullomodo [sic] suscipias hominem illum, si in aliquo est inde culpabilis quod illi obicitur, scilicet opera, consensus, scientia aut ullo ingenio; sed fac eum natare super te, et nulla posset hic praevalere fantasia aut prestigatio cum quod quaeritur, eo quem occulta cordis non fallunt revelante modo manifestetur. Adjuro te per nomen Christi precipioque tibi fidens in sola virtute Dei ut nobis per nomen eius obedias, cui omnis creatura servit, quem Cherubin et Seraphin ineffabile voce conlaudant, dicentes: ‘Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, dominus deus sabaoth, pleni sunt celi et terra gloria tua, osanna in excelsis’, qui regnat et dominatur per infinita secula seculorum. Amen.
Finita … huius… adiurationem aquae, exeat illos vestibus suis, et faciat eos osculare sanctum euangelium et crucem Christi. Postea de aqua benedicta aspergat secundum morem quod super unumquemque eorum. Et conversus ad hominem illum, qui …debet ad iudicium, dicat Adiuro te homo in presento iudicio aquae frigidae, et per invocationem domini nostri Iesu Christi. Adiuro te per Patrem et Filium et spiritum sanctum, et per Trinitatem inseperabilem, per Mariam matrem domini nostri Iesu Christi, et per omnes angelos et per archangelos, virtutes et potestates, principatus domina- -tiones thronos, Cherubin et Seraphim, et .. per omnia caelestia agmina, et per …judicii Dei et per 24 seniores, et per 4 evangelistas Marcus et Mattheum Lucam et Johannem et per 12 apostolos et 12 prophetas, per martyres per confessores et virgines, et per tres pueros qui cum ceteris ante Deum assistunt, Sidrach Misach, et Abdenago, et per 144 milia qui empti sunt de terra, et sequentes agnum quocumque …et per omnem populum Dei sanctum et per baptismum, quo in Christo per sacerdotem regeneratus es, te adiuro, ut, si hoc furtum fecisti vel aut facere alterum vidisti aut bajulasti, aut in domum tuum recepisti, aut in aliquo consentaneus fuisti, aut si habes cor incrassatum, induratum, et culpabilis es, non te praesens suscipiat aqua, neque aliquo maleficio tuo res possit occultari quam credimus dei omnipotentia manifestari. Propterea te deprecor domine Iesu Christe ostende nobis maiestatis signum tale, ut si culpabilis in hoc facto iste homo est nullatenus ab hac aqua recipiatur, et hoc facias ad laudem et gloriam et invocationem nominis tui, ut cognoscant omnes qui tu es dominus noster Iesus Christus qui cum patre et spiritu sancto vivis, et regnas in secula seculorum amen. His dictis ex more colligatus in nomine Domini deponatur in aquam qui deponandum est.
In early June 860, three Frankish kings met at Koblenz, an old Roman fort on the River Rhine. The two brothers Louis and Charles had come to draw a line under the political crisis ignited by Louis’s failed invasion of Charles’s kingdom in 858. This meeting was the culmination of much diplomatic fencing; their nephew Lothar II was also present to help broker the deal.
The meeting produced various written texts (as Jenny Benham has discussed). The peace itself was expressed partly through a Latin text, a jointly written statement. This had been hammered out a couple of days in advance by a joint group of select advisors, made up of bishops and senior aristocrats. The group played it safe, compiling a capitulary that mostly repeated verbatim one that been issued eight years previously in 851 at another royal conference. Emphasising the importance of fraternal love, the need for peace and support for the church, it was the Frankish equivalent of ‘motherhood and apple pie’, a largely symbolic affirmation of shared values with which no one could quibble. The Koblenz group did however throw in a few additions which perhaps tell us something about the key issues at the time, notably about marital abduction and over-hasty excommunication (see the translation below).
But the entente at Koblenz was also expressed through speaking and action: and here language came into play. It is not clear whether the Latin capitulary was publicly read out. But what is clear is that King Louis gave a vernacular summary of it in German, and that King Charles then gave a vernacular summary of it in Romance (i.e., proto-French). Alongside this interesting evidence for how Carolingian capitularies might have been ‘used’ in assemblies, the Koblenz text also notes that Louis spoke to Charles in Romance, and that Charles recapitulated his own speech in German. This was a multi-lingual summit in which the Frankish kings acted as their own translators.
What was the point of all this language-switching? Presumably it was for the benefit of the audience. Kings such as Charles and Louis were bi-lingual, as would have been the top Frankish magnates. But that was not necessarily the case for all of the entourage of these kings present at Koblenz. Those more minor aristocrats with lands only in the west, for instance, might well have been unfamiliar with German. So it was important that the kings showed they were speaking to everyone. This tactical multilingualism had already been used at the Strasbourg oaths of 841, when Louis and Charles had cemented an alliance. It was an established part of the political repertoire of a pluralised political community.
Events would prove, however that no matter how many languages they were read out in, the fine words about family feeling were not very deeply felt. All the recorded participants at the Koblenz meeting were men, but there was one woman who although not present must have been on many people’s minds – Queen Theutberga. By the time of the Koblenz summit, the young Lothar was several months into his fresh campaign to divorce his wife on grounds of incest. (One wonders if he awkwardly bumped into Theutberga’s brother Boso, who seems to have been present at Koblenz as an influential Frankish magnate). At Koblenz, the young Lothar was granted a junior role on the public stage, and his uncle Charles was still warmly referring to him as his ‘dearest nephew’. But not long afterwards, at another royal conference at Savonnières in 862, Charles had scented a political opportunity, and refused even to speak with a man increasingly engulfed by the scandal he had himself rashly orchestrated.
Or: King Lothar’s divorce & 5,000 people in a field
How far was there a public sphere, an arena of public debate and opinion, in early medieval European kingdoms? It’s often been assumed that there wasn’t, whether because of the pervasion of ‘lordship’ which suppressed notions of the public, or because of presumed limitations to communication (for instance, low literacy rates). But recent work, for instance by Mayke de Jong and Irene van Renswoude, has suggested that we shouldn’t prejudge the question. And this blog’s about a somewhat neglected text relating to the turbid politics of Lothar II’s divorce case which points in the same direction.
By the autumn of 862, King Lothar II had been struggling to escape his marriage to Theutberga for several years. But recent events had seemed to be going his way. In April, he had successfully persuaded his bishops to allow him to remarry at a council in Aachen. And at some point over the next few weeks he had Waldrada crowned as his queen. There were however two remaining obstacles. One was to secure the approval of the pope, Nicholas, to Theutberga’s removal; the other was to win over Lothar’s neighbour and uncle, King Charles the Bald of West Francia. Charles was refusing even to meet Lothar, so Lothar’s other uncle, King Louis the German of East Francia, lent his help. In the summer of 862 Louis sent envoys to Charles on Lothar’s behalf, to arrange a meeting where everything could all be ironed out.
That meeting took place at Savonnières, a royal estate near Toul in Lothar’s kingdom, in early November 862. However, Charles the Bald arrived with the intention not of letting bygones be bygones, but with the plan of turning the heat up on his nephew’s predicament. For he came armed with a written list of his grievances against Lothar. Specifically, he emphasised his concern that Lothar was sheltering people who had been excommunicated by the pope (a woman named Engeltrude who had fled her husband, and a man named Baldwin who had eloped with Charles’s own daughter); and he emphasised his opposition to Lothar’s attempts at divorce and remarriage given what Charles knew of the pope’s position. He would only meet Lothar, and give him the kiss of peace, if Lothar would publicly commit to remedying, or ‘emending’, these matters. These demands led to ‘quite a battle of words’ (non mediocri querela inde sermonibus est conflictum), according to the Annals of St Bertin.
But Charles did not stop there. Remarkably, he also brought with him to Savonnières pre-drafted speeches (adnuntationes) for delivery by himself, Lothar and Louis. These speeches were all modelled on a common pattern: each king promised to uphold the general commitments they had entered into at a previous royal meeting at Koblenz in 860, and noted that Charles had demanded of Lothar action on certain unspecified issues, to which Lothar had agreed.
But Charles’s plan hit a snag. For in some of the manuscripts in which Charles’s list of grievances and the speeches are preserved, an addendum notes that
After these preceding declarations had been read out in front of all the almost 200 counsellors of the three kings who were present, including bishops and abbots and laymen, Louis and Lothar and their followers entirely rejected them, that they should not be read to the people [populus], so that the case of Lothar should be entirely unmentioned.
In other words, Charles’s carefully pre-prepared speeches were never actually read out.
In the Annals of St-Bertin, Hincmar of Reims, who was present at Savonnières (and who was involved in writing up Charles’s documents) sheds a little more light on the incident. He blamed one of the aristocratic counsellors, Conrad, who was trying ‘to prevent the people from finding out what accusation Charles was making against Lothar’. In fact none of the speeches explicitly mentioned what the accusation was; but they did mention that there was an accusation, and perhaps that would have been enough to provoke further interest.
Who were ‘the people’ whose opinion evidently mattered enough to spike the speeches? It was not the 200 counsellors, who had already heard the draft speeches in the hall. But of course these counsellors would not have travelled to Savonnières alone. Michael McCormick reckoned that each of these aristocrats would have had a group of retainers and followers of their own, and estimated the total numbers at Savonnieres as around 5,000. What Charles had in mind was surely for the kings to deliver their speeches to a crowd of these people (presumably outside, since the hall at Savonnières would have been too small for so many people), much as had taken place at Koblenz in 860.
Louis and Lothar’s position was clearly that the matter of Lothar’s marriage was now resolved, and everyone could move on. Charles, however had no intention of letting Lothar get away with it, and had hoped to use his speeches to ensure that it remained publicly marked as a live issue. Was this in the hope of making gains at Lothar’s expense, or out of concern for not being sucked into the maelstrom? Either way, when his proposed speeches were blocked for fear of their effect on the populus, Charles gave his own short address that very evening, inside the hall to a group of counsellors – and had it written down, too.
In the end, the Savonnières meeting was a mixed success for everyone. Lothar got the kiss of peace from Charles, and avoided having the assembled transalpine Frankish aristocracy publicly reminded of his sins; Charles at least made sure his version of events was written down, which emphasised the conditionality of his friendship. King Charles was a tough negotiator, but thanks to Uncle Louis’s support Lothar II was making some headway. As Lothar would discover, the pope was going to prove a rather harder challenge.
On folio 241r of a manuscript known as the Liber Floridus, now in the care of the University of Gent Library, is a brightly coloured map of Europe. To modern eyes it might seem unremarkable, once one has understood that Italy is at the top and Spain at the bottom. But in closer inspection this map, drawn around 1115 by a Flemish canon named Lambert, is one of the most interesting things in a manuscript full of marvels. For this is not just a map of Europe: it is to my knowledge the first map of Europe.
Of course, maps had been drawn before that showed Europe, sometimes in greater detail than this. But in these maps Europe was always part of a wider context, part of the entire world (take for instance the famous Cotton Tiberius map drawn around a century earlier). In Lambert’s map, Europe is all there is to see, and that makes it rather peculiar.
Not only is Lambert’s map the first map of Europe, it is also often described as the first map to show political boundaries. As the rubric helpfully explains, ‘The kingdoms which are drawn around with red belong to the empire of the Romans and the Franks’. And sure enough, you can easily make out a red line that includes what we would now call France, Germany and Italy.
Drawing a line around an empire on a map might again seem unsurprising. Yet there does not seem to have been a precedent. After all, the ancient Roman empire had been strongly associated with universal rule and jurisdiction. It was written about as if it encompassed the whole earth. In Vergil’s Aeneid, the god Jupiter’s promise to the Romans is ‘For these, I set no limits in space and time; I give them empire without end’. The Roman empire had boundaries in practice, but not in theory.
Lambert’s map presents us with a very different concept of empire, one that is visually clearly bounded. It includes Italy, Aquitaine, Bavaria, Swabia and Saxony, which are all marked on the map; but not Spain, nor Scandinavia, eastern Europe or the Balkans – still less Britain, which is marked as inconsequentially floating in the Ocean. The empire is thus presented as merely a part of Europe’s territory, albeit a major one.
This perspective is echoed in the list of peoples that Lambert provides underneath the map. Lambert’s list seems to be based on one written (probably) in the seventh century, in a text known as Aethicus’ Cosmographia (I will check this once the libraries re-open). In the Cosmographia’s list of peoples, the Romans enjoyed special treatment: they alone are described not just as a people, but as ‘senatum populumque Romanum gentemque togatam’ – the SPQR of imperial grandeur, with togas to match. But Lambert stripped the Romans of this distinction. In his list, the Romani (and the Franci)are just one of the many peoples who inhabited an ethnically fragmented Europe.
Why did Lambert draw this peculiar map which broke so many cartographical conventions? The historian Albert Derolez, who has worked extensively on the Liber Floridus manuscript, thought that Lambert had designed this map to accompany extracts from the Annals of St Bertin which Lambert had copied earlier in the manuscript, extracts which described the divisions of the Frankish empire in 839 and 870. This hypothesis has lots to recommend it: it might help explain why Lambert’s map includes all of the kingdom of France in the Empire, which was not exactly the reality of his own day.
Yet Lambert’s rubric is written in the present tense: he says these kingdoms ‘belong’ (pertinent) to the empire. And he also hints at present-day reality by colouring the Rhine in red, as if to distinguish the lands ruled by the French king from those ruled by the Salian emperor. And Derolez could not explain why, if Lambert intended his map to illustrate the historical extracts, he changed his mind and put it somewhere else instead. So perhaps the map might represent how this Flemish canon pictured the world of his own day, not how he imagined the ninth century.
Whatever Lambert’s motives, to limit the empire spatially, circumscribing it with a red pen and distinguishing it from the rest of Europe, was a remarkable step to take. In the early twelfth-century world of this Flemish canon, empire was a phenomenon that was meaningful, and one that transcended contemporary political borders – but it was not the overall frame of reference. This was empire conceptually and cartographically cut down to size.
Further reading. Lots has been written about the Liber Floridus, and quite a lot about this map. Here’s a selection:
You can see the whole Liber Floridus manuscript online
Amongst the many treasures of Bamberg’s city library, celebrated for its medieval book collection, is a manuscript shelved as Bamberg Msc. Can. 4. Made in the late tenth or early eleventh century in or around Milan, the manuscript is well known for its unique version of the ‘Donation of Constantine’, which has long been associated with King Otto I’s imperial coronation in 962. But in this blog I want to concentrate on an important yet mysterious text which was copied into the manuscript’s final pages around the middle of the eleventh century.
In the Bamberg manuscript, this text is labelled as ‘Letter of Pope Paschasius to the archbishop of Milan’. This is also the label that the text is given in many other manuscripts, and in some early modern editions based upon them. But looking closely, you can see that in the Bamberg manuscript, this title, or at least part of it, has been written over an erasure (see the blog’s cover image).
What was the original title of the letter written here? The question matters, because this is probably the earliest record of what was a very important text. The ‘Paschasius’ letter is generally thought to have been the very first text to argue that simoniacal ordinations were invalid – that in other words, priests and bishops who had paid money for their ordination were not bad priests, they were not priests at all. That was an argument that rocked the eleventh-century church, because it had enormous implications. Say a bishop had greased palms for his promotion – then any priests he subsequently ordained would not really be priests, and the sacraments they distributed would not really be sacraments either.
The ‘Paschasius’ letter’s dating and authorship are therefore crucial for an understanding of the arguments about simony in the 11th century. And whatever this and other manuscripts may say, we can be sure that the ‘Paschasius’ letter was not actually written by Pope Paschasius, because there has not yet been a pope of that name. So, who wrote it, and when?
In his edition of the text for the MGH in 1891, Friedrich Thaner attributed the letter to an Italian monk named Guido of Arezzo. He therefore labelled it the ‘Epistola Widonis’ (ie, Letter of Guido), and dated it to around 1031. But Thaner’s attribution has not gone entirely unchallenged. In 1941 Anton Michel argued that the letter had instead been written by Humbert of Moyenmoutier (or Silva Candida), on the basis of stylistic and content analysis, and also on the grounds that Guido of Arezzo showed no demonstrable interest in simony in any of his other work. In the 1980s, however, John Gilchrist dismissed Michel’s arguments and reasserted Guido’s authorship. Modern historiography has more or less followed Gilchrist’s lead. Yet Gilchrist was apparently unaware of arguments made in favour of Humbert’s authorship by Elaine Robison, arguments that were subsequently amplified by Margot Dischner.
Does it matter whether the ‘Paschasius’ letter was written by Guido of Arezzo, Humbert of Moyenmoutier, or any other author? Yes, very much so, for two reasons. Firstly, because as Michel, Robison and Dischner argued, the text is in some ways a précis of Humbert’s arguments in his ‘Three Books against the Simonists’ – but whereas the latter is known only from a handful of manuscripts, the ‘Paschasius’ letter was widely copied. Identifying Humbert as the author of the letter would change how we think about both texts. The letter would be the vehicle through which ideas elaborated at length in Humbert’s ‘Three Books’ were concisely disseminated.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the authorship has implications for the dating of the entire eleventh-century simony debate. If dated to 1031, the ‘Paschasius’ letter is the early opening salvo in a debate which then picks up speed in the 1040s. If however Humbert (or someone linked to him) was its author, the letter must have been written quite a bit later, most probably in the 1050s. In that scenario, the question of simoniacal ordinations may not even have arisen in Italy until the arrival of Pope Leo IX and his circle from Lotharingia, and the simony debate did not begin gradually in the 1030s, but with a bang in 1049.
The question of the original attribution of the text in its oldest witness, perhaps written not long after the text was first compiled, is therefore of considerable importance, and I hope at some point to visit the library in Bamberg to have a look at the manuscript myself, since sometimes it’s possible to see things in the flesh that can’t be discerned on the screen. If the erasure was thoroughly done, however, the manuscript may be able to hold onto its secret. Medieval history can, just sometimes, be a frustrating business.
changes in male fashion annoyed several clerics in 11th-century
Europe. Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester apparently waxed wrathful against English
male elites for what he considered their effeminate long hair, while the
Benedictine chronicler Raoul Glaber, writing around the 1040s, complained that
French lay elites had begun to wear ‘indecent hose and shoes’.
Perhaps the angriest cleric of all however was Abbot Siegfried of Gorze, as comes across in a letter Siegfried wrote to a fellow abbot, Poppo of Stavelot, in 1043. This letter is extremely interesting, but not quite as well-known to Anglophone audiences, probably because unlike Wulfstan and Glaber’s texts, it has not been translated into English before (a draft translation is provided below).
Siegfried’s monastery of Gorze lay in the western parts of the empire, but though it was therefore close to France, there was no question about Siegfried’s political or cultural allegiances. He linked changes in clothing in the empire to the growing influence of the French, and this he in turn associated with a general moral decline, and damage to the honour of the kingdom (honestas regni). Until the 11th century, emperors Otto and Henry had kept out this pernicious influence; now, Abbot Siegfried lamented, it was growing in strength. He noted changes in beards, and in the cut and tailoring of clothes, and suggested that they were associated with an increase in crimes of various kinds, and with a general abandoning of the empire’s cultural heritage.
Siegfried does not explicitly say why this was a pressing issue in 1043. One factor might have been the empire’s recent takeover of the largely Francophone kingdom of Burgundy which had taken place in 1033. But it’s probably relevant that most of Siegfried’s letter is an attempt to get the influential Abbot Poppo to prevent Emperor Henry III from marrying a French bride, Agnes of Poitou, the daughter of the duke of Aquitaine.
Siegfried was vehemently opposed to this marriage. He was determined to block it, and his chief tactic was to show that it would be incestuous, because Agnes and Henry were too closely related. He demonstrated this kinship with a now sadly lost figura, based on his extensive genealogical enquiries.
To hammer home the point, Siegfried drew on the Bible to argue that if they did marry, God would punish Henry’s incest, even suggesting that the king’s kingroup might die out. As such, the letter casts a fascinating light on 11th-century ideas about kinship.
With this in mind, it’s likely that Siegfried’s apparent tangent on pernicious French customs towards the end of the letter was not so subtly opening up another angle to persuade Emperor Henry not to marry a French woman, by drawing attention to the risks of introducing foreign customs into the empire. If incest wouldn’t put Henry off, maybe a bit of xenophobia might do the trick?
It was all in vain: Siegfried’s scaremongering didn’t work, and the marriage went through in November 1043. Agnes went on to become a truly remarkable empress – but that is a subject for another blog.
Notes: Thanks to Julia Hillner for suggesting a diagram would be useful. Image: Genealogical table from a Beatus manuscript (Morgan 429)
Abbot Siegfried of Gorze’s Letter to Abbot Poppo of Stavelot, 1043 – translation
Translation based on the edition and French translation by Michel Parisse, ‘Sigefroid, abbé de Gorze et le mariage du roi Henri III avec Agnès de Poitou (1043). Un aspect de la réforme Lotharingienne’, Revue du Nord 356 (2004), 543-566, available online here . The text is preserved in a single early modern copy, now in Austria (https://manuscripta.at/hs_detail.php?ID=13681). This was translated in some haste, so please do let me know if you spot any errors.
lord Abbot Poppo, who should be embraced with sincere love and perfect
reverence, brother Siegfried, unworthy servant of the community of Gorze,
wishes abundant happiness in this life and eternal beatitude in the next.
I have no
doubt that your Paternity remembers that recently, when we met at Thionville,
we greatly lamented the dangers of our age that the Apostle predicted – in
people’s customs and behaviour, the incest and perjury of many, the decline of
religion [religio] and the increase in perversity, and, to briefly sum
up, the various dangers of the Church. Amongst these things, daring in your
Kindness, I asked you why you had not told the king [Henry III] that the girl
[Agnes] he has decided to marry is so closely related to him that she cannot be
joined to him without grave offence to the Lord. You replied that you had not
been silent, and that he did not wish to act against the Lord, but rather had
many times asked you to look into the truth of the matter and give him certainty
before he did anything against divine right.
greatly reassured by his good intention, I told you everything which I had long
known about their kinship. But I could not tell you the names of two women who
at that time escaped my memory. So you asked that I should carefully look into
the certainty about these and other names of this kinship (cognatio),
and should take care to inform you in writing. To this request I obey readily
as I am concerned that such a great harm should not come about.
having left you, I learned from many people what I had not heard before, that
his first wife and she whom he now wants to marry are separated from each other
by no more than three or four generations. I omit to write out the kinship now,
because of the barbarity of the Danish or Northman names, and for precaution in
case things that have not been proven are taken as certain, and thereby false
things are taken as true.
Leaving these things aside, let us come to those things that are very well known to many. King Henry had three sons with Matilda: Emperor Otto, Archbishop Bruno, Duke Henry. And he had two daughters: Gerberga and Hadewida. Of these, one, Hadewida, married Hugh; the other, that is Gerberga, married Duke Gilbert, and bore him a daughter named Alberada. After Gilbert’s death Gerberga was joined in marriage to King Louis of the Franks, and had with him two sons, King Lothar and Duke Charles, and a daughter Matilda, later the wife of Conrad king of the Burgundians.
Later, from these sisters, born not from the same father but from the same mother, that is Gerberga, were born Ermentrude, daughter of Alberada, and Gepa known as Gerberga, daughter of Matilda. This was the first generation. Ermentrude bore Agnes, Gepa bore the august Gisela and her sister Matilda. This was the second generation. The son of Gisela, the lord King Henry, and the daughter of Agnes of the same name, that is the Agnes who this is all about, are in the third degree of the genealogy.
that it was told to the king that his grandmother Gepa was born not from
Matilda but from the first wife of King Conrad. This is not the case, as both
the account of truthful men and the naming of these women shows. For the
genealogical line passes from Matilda, the wife of the great King Henry, to
Matilda the aunt of this our king, through Matildas and Gerbergas, so that
Matilda, daughter of Gerberga and namesake of her grandmother, gave the name of
her mother to her daughter, and her own name to her granddaughter, as an
another line of kinship (consanguinitas) which no one of sound mind will
contradict, in this way: the great emperor Otto and his sister the
oft-mentioned Gerberga both had daughters, one Dudica, the other Alberada.
Alberada’s daughter Ermentrude bore Agnes, mother of the young Agnes. Duke
Otto, the son of Dudica, name-sake of his grandfather, had Henry, the father of
Emperor Conrad, who was the father of our Emperor Henry. And thus he is in the
fifth degree, and the girl Agnes is in the fourth degree of the genealogy.
these things may be clearer, I have provided a diagram, in which we have
written the above mentioned name and some other names of both sexes belonging
to this kinship. Please show this to the king, and advise him humbly that when
he finds the names of his kin written there and realises their danger, that he
should not harden his heart, but should be moved not to wrath, but rather to
regret and lament, lest the wrongdoings of his kindred should become his own –
may it not happen. For their fault and the blame for that fault will redound
upon him if he imitates them in wickedness. For God very terribly and
truthfully threatens those who follow the vices of their kindred, that he will
return the injustice of the fathers to
the sons and grandsons, to the third and fourth generation. Ask the king again
and again, and warn him patiently and impatiently, so that he has this very
fearsome declaration constantly in mind, and takes vigilant care to avoid such
peril. For this vengeance should be feared as not just on the soul but on the
body, since it is known for certain that the generation born from such an
illicit union will not be able to successfully thrive (succrescere). The
king can easily see that this is true, if he wishes to carefully consider how
few now remain from his most noble and once most ample kindred.
moreover hear and carefully understand from you that though infamy is to be
feared by all, it must be as attentively avoided by the royal majesty as that
majesty appears highly exalted over everyone. For like a city on the hill
cannot be hidden, as the Lord said, and just as the candle lifted up on the
candelabra gives light to everyone in the household, so the good reputation or
infamy of the king cannot be hidden from many people living both within and
outwith his kingdom. And, what is more serious, the customs of people are such
that such a shameful reputation very quickly grows and spreads day by day more
widely, and with growing wings, flies from mouth to mouth, ever increasing. A
good reputation runs more slowly and more narrowly, and finding many detractors
and few imitators, it quickly diminishes and fades away. If therefore the king
puts his will ahead of the canonical sanctions (may it not happen) and does not
fear to bring to completion what has begun, how many people who might have been
coerced by fear of him not to do what they wish, will rejoice in his example
and be emboldened, and will do similar and ever worse things – and if they
begin to be warned or called out by someone, then they will immediately point
to this deed of the royal highness in defence of their wickedness! We believe
to be certain that the fault and blame of those whom he could have helped to
salvation but instead made to sin and thus to perish by his example will
rebound upon him.
read if he wishes, or let him have read to him what holy Scripture says about
King Jeroboam, and he will find that the sins which Jeroboam made others commit
are more often mentioned than those he committed himself. About all the kings
who acted like him, it is read that the sons of Nabat did not step back from
the sins of Jeroboam – and it does not add ‘who sinned’, but rather it notes
explicitly ‘who made Israel sin’, so that we can clearly understand how
seriously we shall incur the wrath of God whenever we provoke others to sin by
our bad example.
the Generosity of our king pay attention to this, and carefully reflect on how
a manifold danger looms over him if he carries out the wickedness against the
canons that he is thinking about. And if for the fear and love of God he
renounces his desire and chooses not to follow his predecessors in their
illicit deeds, if he continues as a lover of justice and piety, if he maintains
his humility amidst his royal excellence and happy successes, if he seeks the
glory of God rather than his own, and if finally he energetically represses the
sins of not just himself but of others, and stimulates them to virtue – if, I
say, he perseveres with vigilance in such actions through to the end, then he
will not be bound by sin of his kindred and other people, but the grace of God
will precede and follow him, and he will be worthy to reign with Christ in this
life and in the future life. As it is fearsomely written about wicked sons that
the sins of their fathers will rebound upon them, so it is mercifully written
about good sons that ‘the son does not bear the iniquity of his father’.
King Josiah, born from very wicked parents, discovered and recognised their sin
from the book of divine law, and learned how great a vengeance loomed over him
and his people, he grieved and wept bitterly, and tore his clothing as was then
the custom to show his inner grief, and left behind his father’s wickedness and
sought the Lord with all his heart, and made sure to serve Him carefully and to
warn others in order to placate divine anger. Because of this, not only did the
fault of his predecessors not count against him, but he was worthy to hear
divine consolation in this way: ‘Because, said the Lord God Israel, ‘you heard
the words of the Book and your heart was terrified and you were humble before
the Lord, after you heard the sermons against this place and its inhabitants,
that they would become the object of amazement and cursing, and because you
tore your clothing and wept before, I heard you, says the Lord. Therefore I
will gather you along with your fathers and you will be placed in your tomb
peacefully, so that your eyes will not see the harm which I shall bring upon this
place’. I wanted to put these words about King Josiah here so that the lord
king, warned by you, will take care to imitate him; and when Henry holds in his
hands the diagram I have made and sees the names of his kindred (parentes
sui) there, he will be afraid for himself and for them, and to avoid
provoking the anger of God upon himself and the people subjected to him, he
will not act against the canonical decrees, but will decide to place the will
of God before his own in all matters, so that he will be worthy to rejoice with
Him now and always.
remember one other thing. When his father [Conrad II] wished to marry the
daughter of the king of the Franks, and decided to do this against divine
right, as can be seen in the diagram, there were many who wished to be pleasing
to the majesty of the emperor, and they competed to tell him that the marriage
could be well and usefully carried through, because they hoped that thanks to
it the two kingdoms could be joined in a single peace or brought into unity. And
I think that now too there are such people who similarly flatter and claim to
work for royal praise, and since they want to be pleasing to the earthly ruler,
they speak falsehoods and so do not care about displeasing the Lord, not
noticing or caring little about what is written, ‘He will dissolve the bones of
whose are pleasing to men’.
pleases me therefore to denounce the poisonous statement of those who promise
peace to him and others through a transgression of divine law, and to show how
much they are opposed to the truth. It is obvious and undoubtedly true that
canonical authority is the law of God. Whoever acts against the canons, acts
against the law of God. Who acts against the law of God, commits an impiety,
and is made impious. And it is written ‘There is no peace for the impious’,
says the Lord. From these things it can be gathered that the peace of those
prevaricators of the canons is not a true peace. We say true peace, since we
are not unaware that there is a false peace. For the reprobate and the
transgressors have peace, that is adulterers with adulterers, murderers with
murderers, and perjurers with perjurers. Sometimes these and others like them
have a peace between themselves, but it is a simulated peace, a deceiving
peace, a peace that is damaging to them and others. The Lord Jesus came to
destroy this peace, and said about it to those listening to him, ‘Do not think
that I came to bring peace upon earth. I came to bring not peace but the
sword’. And the Lord said to his disciples about the peace that the world
cannot give, ‘I leave my peace to you, I give my peace to you’, and the angels
announced it singing ‘Glory in excelsis to God and peace on earth to people of
goodwill’. As the Psalmist said, only the good and those who observe divine
precepts can have this peace, ‘Much peace is given to those who love your law,
O Lord, an it is not an impediment for them’.
is carefully to be noted that when the Psalmist says ‘peace’, he adds first
‘Much’, so that it is given to understand how those who do not obey the law of
God, even if they seem to have peace, do not have much peace, but only a short
and swiftly changeable peace. And whenever they seem outwardly to prosper and
relax, they are always inwardly agitated by all kinds of wickedness, and
whenever they devote themselves individually each to their own vices, together
they incur many occasions for sinning amongst themselves. But for those who
love the law of God there is much peace, and there is no occasion for sinning,
since even if they are outwardly disturbed by various storms of disorder, they
are inwardly fixed in the solidity of true faith, firmly rooted in love, and
they meet whatever adversities there are with tranquil mind in the hope of
eternal reward. They desire to have peace with everyone if possible. They do
not wish to risk falling into sin for any reason, nor do they wish to make
anyone else risk falling int sin, but rather they always hurry towards better
things, and reconcile themselves with the Lord and His angels, so that with
their help they may reach eternal peace. We wanted to offer this digression to
show that those who encourage their lords to do illicit things and promise them
a firm future peace deceive themselves and others. It is just as if they say,
‘Let us do harm so that good may come’. If you meet someone like this, manfully
resist them to their face, and beg our glorious king not to give his assent to
since the day fixed for the marriage is now approaching, I beg you, blessed
father, to go to the king and not to delay in showing him all this, since you
yourself asked for this investigation and a great peril looms over you if you a
great harm is carried out through your delay. Hurry then to show him this
letter with the diagram, and we steadfastly beseech him that his Highness will
not be angered by our Smallness because I have dared to say and write such
things, nor let him pay attention to the rusticity of our speech, but let him
consider the intention of my heart and recognise how much sollicitude I have
for him and the safety of his kingdom. From that day when first at Aachen and
then at Metz he humbly asked me to pray for him, he has never been absent from
the little prayers of myself and my brothers. We will regret that this will
have achieved nothing or little if we hear that he has fallen into this
wickedness. But if – and may it not happen – he grows angry that we have
written this, let him know that even if we honour him as is right, we must fear
and love God more, and therefore we cannot be silent about the truth. We think
it more appropriate to warn him humbly before the deed than to criticise him
more fiercely and thus more dangerously afterwards.
venerable father, press these and similar things without delay, as much as God
permits, since whatever you give in addition, the good Samaritan when He comes
to judgement will restore to you many times over. And if you can bring the king
back from what he has begun, you will receive a reward from the Lord. If not,
you will free yourself from the blame of keeping silent.
Moreover, I see may things which are displeasing and in need of emendation, but I keep quiet about them for the moment, so we do not annoy the king’s ears. But there is one thing which upsets me very greatly and which I cannot allow to pass over in silence, that is about the honour of the kingdom (honestas regni). In the times of previous emperors, this honour flourished very properly in clothing and comportment, in arms and horseriding. But in our days this has been put in second place, and the ignominious custom of French ineptitudes has been introduced, in the shaving of beards, in the shameful shortening and deforming of garments, and in many other novelties which it would take too long to list, and whose introduction was forbidden in the times of the Ottos and Henrys.
But today many people despise the honest customs of our fathers, and seek the clothing, and at the same time and very quickly, the perversities of foreigners. Through all this, they wish to be similar to those whom they know to be enemies and traitors. And what is be lamented even more, such people are not only not chastised, but are even treated as close companions by kings and other princes, and everyone received a greater reward the more promptly they copy these stupidities. The others see this and do not blush to copy them, and because they see the that they are tolerated and rewarded, they rush to think up even greater novel insanities. For these and other things, O father, I grieve very greatly, since with these foreign changes so too customs change, and we see in a kingdom hitherto more honourable than others that murders, rapine, perjury, betrayal and various deceptions are gradually increasing, and we fear that these are signs of greater ills. This is why we suppliantly beseech you, and in the name of God’s love, we ask you to take care to counter and cure these harms, through the king and through whomever you can. Farewell.
I’ve just finished teaching my module on Wikipedia and medieval history. It’s a short course for MA students, taught through five two-hour seminars. I started this module in early 2018, as I think the first of its kind in the UK; it’s now run three times, with the support and advice of the brilliant Wikimedia UK team.
It’s evolved quite a lot from where it started: from what was basically a ‘normal’ medieval MA course with a Wikipedia dimension, to a course that’s more squarely focused on Wikipedia itself, and its implications for those concerned with the (medieval) past.
There’s quite a lot of interest these days in teaching with Wikipedia, so in case it’s useful for anyone thinking of running such a module, I’ve attached my course guide. Comments and suggestions for improvement would be very welcome!
It’s with some hesitation that I write this blog. It’s not really my field, and the topic is angrily contested; many historians have chosen to keep their heads down and concentrate on their teaching and research at a busy time of year. But the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ debate raises important questions for those who study the medieval past, and for historians more broadly.
At its simplest, the debate concerns the value of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as a label for the culture, society and politics of southern and eastern Britain before the Norman Conquest. It has been argued by scholars such as Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm (for instance, here) that the label is irredeemably racist and must therefore be abandoned, not just because of its modern appropriation by far-right groups, but because of its history since the Reformation. Proponents of this view add that its continued use actively discourages BAME scholars from entering and remaining in the field; some hold moreover that its abandonment should be merely the beginning of reforms required to dismantle a structurally racist system of knowledge production in the modern university.
Those making these arguments have met with awful racist abuse online, and I applaud the courage of Dr Rambaran-Olm and others in facing it.
Others in the debate have pointed out that the label ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was abundantly attested in sources from the time (especially those written on the continent) and so cannot easily be dismissed or ignored, have called for more thorough assessment of the term’s early modern and nineteenth-century use by specialists of these periods, and have raised concerns about abandoning commonly-used labels to extremists. (There’s a useful summary by Michael Wood here.)
One of the issues is a significant UK/US dissonance. In America and other English-speaking countries, the term ‘Anglo’ or even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is often used as an ethnic label – indeed, that is apparently its normal usage outside the academy. In the UK, this usage can certainly be found; but it is a marginal one, and for the most part the label today is used with reference to the historical period, whose traces remain evident in place-names and even standing buildings. In standard UK usage, Hadrian the African, for instance, who came from North Africa and became abbot in Canterbury (d. 709), is just as much part of Anglo-Saxon history as the Venerable Bede.
To be clear, this does not mean that the UK is less racist than America, just that different countries with different histories are differently racist. Where the far right in America uses a language of ‘Anglo-Saxon’, the far right in the UK, and especially in England (the largest of the four nations of the UK), primarily employs a language of exclusionary Englishness (e.g. the English Defence League). It’s maybe partly for that reason that BAME people living in England are much less likely to consider themselves English than white people living in England, often preferring instead the label British. To talk about the ‘early English’ or the ‘Old English’ instead of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, as has been mooted, might help combat racism in the US, but might inadvertently feed it in England.
There is a wider issue here, which is about the best way for historians to combat fascism in all its forms: an acute question in 2019. For me, the key is to write good, accurate and engaging history that does not oversimplify past complexities, that respects the integrity of the historical sources in the search to understand the past as best as possible for its own sake – and that challenges both the distant past’s direct relevance to contemporary politics, and anyone’s claim exclusively to own it.
When extremist groups appeal to the early Middle Ages in their efforts to reshape the contemporary world, historians should point out where they are wilfully and grotesquely misreading the evidence: after all, the appropriate and sensitive use of evidence is what historical training and historical ethics are all about.
But historians should also, and I would argue above all, point out that the past is not an instruction manual or a model for the present. Whatever your reading of it, early medieval history was a very long time ago: it is or ought to be largely irrelevant for contemporary political issues, whether in England or America or anywhere else. The main problem with 21st-century fascists pretending to be medieval Anglo-Saxons or Vikings is not that they have misread Bede or Gildas: it is that they are fascists.
Notes: Edited 11.11.19 to remove ‘if one looks hard enough’ after ‘this usage can certainly be found’, to avoid any unintended implication that racists need to be sought out.
A research project blog by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield)